A prehistoric hand axe, considered to be the oldest item found in Shaftesbury, is even older than first thought. The ancient flint, displayed in Gold Hill Museum, was uncovered in the Castle Hill area of the town.
The tool would have been crafted by the inhabitants of a landscape we wouldn’t recognise today. “It is the oldest possible, in terms of human activity,” said Ciorstaidh Trevarthen, Finds Liaison Officer for Dorset and Somerset.
She says the axe would have been made by a pre-modern human species. “They are not homo sapiens. This is the species before that. It’s a really difficult thing to get your head around, just how long ago that is and the fact that these are not the same species as us. That’s quite a leap we’re asking people to make,” she said.
Earlier this month, Ciorstaidh visited Gold Hill Museum to help identify items uncovered by the public. The visitors didn’t bring any really unusual finds to her session, but during her visit Ciorstaidh inspected the pear-shaped piece of rock, which is displayed in a glass cabinet on the museum’s ground floor. This flint implement was initially thought to be around 200,000 years old.
But Ciorstaidh now believes the tool, possibly made to cut meat, could be up to 600,000 years older. “The museum had placed it in the Middle Palaeolithic date range. It’s actually in the Lower Palaeolithic, the phase before. The Lower Palaeolithic has been put back to 800,000 years ago because of some footprints which turned up off the coast of Norfolk. That’s a very wide date range but it’s difficult to be ‘hard and fast’, especially when what you’re picking up has come out of gravel,” Ciorstaidh said.
It’s incredible that the hand axe survived at all. “You had glacial activity acting on the landscape. It has been moved around by mighty forces. Palaeolithic material is not our most common type of flint find because of that. A lot has gone on in our landscape over the last 800,000 years,” Ciorstaidh said.
The piece is obviously very simple but Ciorstaidh thinks it’s a great example. “I think it’s lovely, but then again I’m a pre-historian by training and inclination. It’s rather nicely worked. If you’re not used to seeing worked flint, it’s not immediately obvious what it is.”
Ciorstaidh hopes to return to Gold Hill Museum in the future, to help the public work out what they have found, although she says she sometimes has to let people down gently. “I sometimes have to explain to somebody that their artefact is a stone. I’m quite skilled at that now,” she laughed.
“People come in with pottery from their back garden and it’s often a bit of Willow pattern and some of the East Dorset internally-glazed wares that came from Verwood. I have to say that I know it looks old but it is from the 18th and 19th century. That’s still pretty old but for my purposes and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the scheme I work for, I don’t put things on my database after about 1700.”
You’d think that people would accept Ciorstaidh’s identification but that’s not always the case. “I’ve had people disagree with me and that’s fine. It’s my opinion and it’s drawn on my experience, which might not be their experience. Sometimes people do not want to accept what I tell them and that is fine. I have a general experience of archaeological material, so there’s always areas where I would go to a specialist,” she says.
You can contact Ciorstaidh at Dorset County Council’s Dorchester headquarters.