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Treasures from Worcestershire’s Past: ~50~ Hand to hand with ancient Worcestershire

  • 26th November 2014

This week’s Worcestershire Treasure has been chosen by the Archive & Archaeology Service Manager, Victoria Bryant. The artefact Victoria has chosen is a lower Palaeolithic ‘handaxe’, discovered in a field near Madresfield. It was produced by a species of human ancestor named Homo Heidelbergensis during one of the warm ‘interglacial’ periods within the last Ice Age. It’s likely to date from either 427-374,000 years ago (Hoxnian stage: Marine Isotope Stage 11) or 337-300,000 years ago (Purfleet Interglacial: Marine Isotope Stage 9), periods during which the climate was warm and conditions were ideal for groups of hunter-gatherer hominins. Victoria describes her reaction to holding a Palaeolithic artefact for the first time:

“I have been a professional archaeologist for 31 years and have handled many objects.  I loved history as a little girl and rather romantically imagined that if I could ever get to touch the cooking pots, the arrowheads, the hairpins or the shoes I would feel a physical connection to the past which would be almost like time travel.

Over the years I have been delighted, intrigued and puzzled by objects but never really felt a direct connection to the remote past. All this changed earlier this year when I was able, for the first time, to hold a Palaeolithic hand axe which my colleagues were studying as part of a reassessment of the Palaeolithic evidence for Worcestershire funded by English Heritage.

Handaxe from Madresfield, photographed and illustrated by our Digitisation and Illustration teams

Handaxes are rare finds, and during my career I have focused on artefacts from the Roman period onwards. As a result I had only seen these early tools as images in books or objects behind glass. I always thought they looked crude and primitive, not like the tools of the later prehistoric periods, and frankly rather dull. I felt that the human species who made them, whilst of intellectual interest to my colleagues, were probably equally primitive and dull.

These preconceptions were shattered when I held a hand axe for the first time. As soon as it touched my skin I understood its sophistication and complexity. It fitted the human hand perfectly and was clearly a tool of carefully considered weight and balance. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the person who produced this design classic had the complexity of thought, spatial awareness  and forward planning which I had, in my ignorance,  always attributed to modern humans. It was a light bulb moment and also a powerful emotional one – time travel at last!”

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