An Axe to Find

Many people naturally associate Brighton with its rich Regency history, but what sometimes gets less attention is the area’s substantial prehistory.

After all, we have several important archeological sites on our doorstep, including Whitehawk and the Black Rock Beach, with Boxgrove just down the road in West Sussex.

If you follow the Undercliff Walk from Brighton Marina to Rottingdean you can still see evidence of the shingle raised beach now suspended in the cliffs, which points to the great changes in climate witnessed during and after the Ice Age.

This beach would have provided rich hunting grounds for Neanderthal man some 250,0000 years ago, including horse, red deer, bison and mammoths. We can’t promise it but there’s even a chance you may see the odd mammoth tusk poking out from the cliffs!

With the help of Curator Andy Maxted, I took a mini ‘virtual dig’ myself and was given a quick tour of the archeology collections down in the storerooms beneath the museum, where hundreds of fascinating items await discovery in sets of pristine white drawers.

Curator Andy Maxted and his axehead
Curator Andy Maxted and his axehead

Firstly I was shown a pretty rare hand axe which has recently been unearthed, as it were. The axe was a pretty exciting discovery, since it was only the third one from the lower Paleolithic era found in Brighton and Hove.

As the name suggests, the axe would be gripped ergonomically in the palm and used mainly to butcher animals such as straight tusked elephant, giant elk, rhino, auroch (an extinct species of cattle) and even lions found roaming the plains of ‘Britain’, at a time when we were still connected to the land mass of what’s now continental Europe.

(Forgive me but I couldn’t quite resist the above caption opp. I wonder which other curators we can match with rhyming items from the collections? Consider the gauntlet well and truly thrown down!)

Knap in Hand

It would have been worked into shape – or ‘knapped’ – against a larger piece of flint. Seeing the axe, alongside dozens of similar pieces of flint in a range of shapes and sizes, made me wonder just how they’re correctly identified as tools and not just random pieces of flint, so Andy showed me the delicate scars and lesions that show where the item’s been worked, though in all honesty my untrained eyes still struggled to see these telltale signs, so I will probably have to take his word for it!

If it Ain’t Broke…

Handaxes like these were the main tool used by various stages of man for 1.8 million years. Just think about that for a second. If you consider the speed of development of tools and devices we use today – and just how rapidly they’re deemed to be obsolete – it’s rather mindblowing to think that one tool would have lasted, largely unchanged, for such a vast stretch of time.

The find came about when Andy was organising the Stone Age collection for use by school groups, as the period now features prominently in Key Stage 2 lessons on the National Curriculum (for children aged 7 – 11).

You can check out some of the fantastic and developing learning resources here.

Partnership Plans

Assorted handaxes

Of course museums rely on academic experts to help identify and verify items of this nature, so Dr James Cole of Brighton University recently popped in to confirm that the handaxe is lower Palaeolithic, making it possibly as old as 400,000 years. The University has recently started a Geography with Archaeology degree, which the Museum hopes to complement by working with their new Archaeology Department on a number of local archaeological projects.

A formal partnership agreement was recently announced between the Museum, the Dome and the University of Brighton, so this is a nice example of the sort of projects that are already arising and will no doubt continue to flourish.

Other Prehistoric Finds

Another item I was shown on this whistle stop tour of several million years of local prehistory included an impressive ceremonial bronze dagger, which may have been made in Europe and brought back as a trade. The dagger was part of the Black Rock hoard, along with some elegantly crafted bracelets, which are thought to be unique to the area and may well have been some sort of tribal badge.

I was also shown some early examples of handicrafts, such as this charming piece of Ice Age art, a carved reindeer bone.

Reindeer carving

Of course this is just the tip of the Ice Age iceberg, as it were. No doubt I’ll be back for another subterranean foray into the museum stores soon.  As for the title of this post, well I know, I know, but it could have been worse. I could have gone with ‘a hard axe to follow.’

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

3 Responses

  1. Brett Martin

    Thanks for the post, I was unaware that Brighton Museum had such a collection in the basement. Is viewing by appointment? If so can you pull some strings for me pls.

    Neanderthal was not alone in the UK 250kbp btw….

  2. Peter Freeland,BSc,M.Phil.

    From time to time I write articles for ” Ashdown Forest News”. I’m currently researching information for an article on artefacts found on the Forest, among which, I understand, was a flint axe believed to be more than 50,000 years old.
    The only information I have is that it is believed to have been passed to Brighton Municipal Museum for safe keeping. If that is the case, any information you could provide, including a photograph, would be greatly appreciated. If not I apologise for taking up your time.

    • kevinbacon

      Hello Peter,

      I’ll pass this on to the relevant curator, although do bear in mind that we have limited capacity to access information while under lockdown.



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