Salisbury Museum: Researching Hand Axes

on Thursday, 21 January 2016. Posted in Museums

Back in the summer of 2015 Louise Tunnard from Salisbury Museum interviewed Ella Egberts, a researcher from Bournemouth University:

One of the joys of Museum life is to welcome researchers to Salisbury Museum and allow them access to our collections. Recently Ella Egberts from Bournemouth University came to spend many hours studying our collection of handaxes. I decided to find out more.

1.    Can you tell me a little bit about your studies and how you came to be looking at our collections at the Museum?  

For my doctoral research I am studying the Palaeolithic record of the Hampshire Avon Valley. This area is of interest because during the Pleistocene it was a large river plain that formed a corridor through the landscape for animals and early humans (hominins). The presence of hominins in the Avon Valley is evidenced by its rich Palaeolithic record that includes some of the largest concentrations of Palaeolithic finds in southern England. These large concentrations of Palaeolithic artefacts are sometimes referred to as ‘super sites’. Two of 19 known ‘super sites’ in Britain are located in the Avon Valley, found at Woodgreen and Milford Hill. Opposite of Milford Hill is an additional site, Bemerton. Although smaller, its position on the other side of the valley from Milford Hill makes it an interesting case for comparison. With my research I hope to better understand the formation of such ‘super sites’ and through analysing the artefacts found at Woodgreen, Milford Hill and Bemerton, I hope to reconstruct hominin behaviour through answering questions such as what tools did they make? What raw material did they use? And why? Together with geomorphological research and the development of a dating framework for the Palaeolithic artefacts I will also be able to situate the three sites in time and relate the timing of hominin presence in the Avon Valley to evidence of hominin presence elsewhere in Britain.

The majority of the Palaeolithic artefacts from Woodgreen, Milford Hill and Bemerton are stored at Salisbury Museum, offering me the possibility to look at each individual artefact and discover clues about the lives of their makers.

2.    What have you enjoyed about looking through our collections?

It was a great pleasure to study over 1000 Palaeolithic artefacts, to be able to handle them and take a very close look. Every single artefact is different. The flake scars show the decisions its maker made in producing the tool. But you also see recurring shapes and modes of production. Maybe because they just liked it or because that was how it was learnt. So with every tool you see new things. What made it particularly interesting are the notes left on the tools themselves by collectors like Blackmore when the tools were first discovered. Those notes sometimes provide clues to where the artefact was found, for example in ‘Miss Saunders garden’. The notes on the tools and in Blackmore’s notebook offer a glimpse into a different period of time: the end of the 19th century when the evolutionary theory was consolidating and antiquarians were collecting the evidence of human evolution in the form of stone tools made by early humans.

3.    Can you tell me about your recording methods?

Because I am interested in the depositional history of the ‘super sites’ and in the hominins who made them, I look at the tools in two ways. Firstly I assess its physical appearance such as rolling, staining, breakage and any other traces of its depositional history. After that I look at the tool itself: its shape, size, weight. There are different ways to record shape and size, type and technology. Two widely used methods are that developed by John Wymer, dividing artefacts in types, and that developed by Derek Roe, describing tools based on measurements.  I used both recording methods so that I can critically compare the two and relate the assemblages from Woodgreen, Milford Hill and Bemerton with other sites in Britain that are recorded in a similar way. In addition I made photographs of all the artefacts to aid my memory and to try a new geometric morphometric analysis based on photographs.

4.    How do you think having access to the Museum’s collection has helped your project?

Having access to the Salisbury Museum’s collection has been very important for my research project. The Pleistocene landscape features and deposits from where Palaeolithic artefacts are found will be dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating improving the chronological understanding of hominin presence in the Avon Valley. But without studying the archaeological record you will miss the hominin side of the story. The Palaeolithic record from the Avon Valley remains little studied but the area has an interesting position in the dispersal routes of hominins into Britain. I think by being able to look at the material in the Salisbury Museum I will be able to integrate the information from the Avon Valley into the wider context of hominin presence and occupation patterns in northwest Europe.    

Louise Tunnard, Marketing and Administration Officer, Salisbury Museum

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