300,000-Year-Old ‘Giant Handaxes’ Unearthed in England

July 7, 2023

Archaeologists have found several handaxes — two of which can be classed as ‘giant handaxes’ — at the Maritime Academy site in Frindsbury, Kent, England. These stone tools may have had a specialized function in early human society, or relate to specific human groups, or even human species, expressing distinctive cultural identities during a defined period of the Pleistocene.

The 300,000-year-old ‘giant handaxe’ from the Maritime Academy site in Frindsbury, Kent, England. Image credit: Ingrey et al., doi: 10.11141/ia.61.6.

The 300,000-year-old ‘giant handaxe’ from the Maritime Academy site in Frindsbury, Kent, England. Image credit: Ingrey et al., doi: 10.11141/ia.61.6.

Letty Ingrey and her colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, the University of Wales and Wessex Archaeology unearthed an assemblage of 800 Acheulean stone tools.

The artifacts, which are at least 300,000 years old, were preserved in sediments that filled a sinkhole and ancient river channel.

Amongst the unearthed objects were two extremely large flint knives described as giant handaxes.

“Handaxes are stone artifacts which have been chipped, or knapped, on both sides to produce a symmetrical shape with a long cutting edge,” the archaeologists said.

“We believe this type of tool was usually held in the hand and may have been used for butchering animals and cutting meat.”

The two largest handaxes found at the Maritime Academy site have a distinctive shape with a long and finely worked pointed tip, and a much thicker base.

“We describe these tools as ‘giants’ when they are over 22 cm long and we have two in this size range,” Ingrey said.

“The biggest, a colossal 29.5-cm in length, is one of the longest ever found in Britain.”

“Giant handaxes like this are usually found in the Thames and Medway regions and date from over 300,000 years ago.”

“These handaxes are so big it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been easily held and used.”

“Perhaps they fulfilled a less practical or more symbolic function than other tools, a clear demonstration of strength and skill.”

“While right now, we aren’t sure why such large tools were being made, or which species of early human were making them, this site offers a chance to answer these exciting questions.”

The Maritime Academy site is thought to date to a period when Neanderthal people and their cultures were beginning to emerge and may even have shared the landscape with other early human species.

The region at this time would have been a wild landscape of wooded hills and river valleys, inhabited by red deer and horses, as well as less familiar mammals such as the now-extinct straight-tusked elephant and lion.

“The excavations at the Maritime Academy have given us an incredibly valuable opportunity to study how an entire Ice Age landscape developed over a quarter of a million years ago,” said Dr. Matt Pope, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.

“A program of scientific analysis will now help us to understand why the site was important to ancient people and how the stone artifacts, including the ‘giant handaxes’ helped them adapt to the challenges of Ice Age environments.”

The team’s paper was published today in the journal Internet Archaeology.