Site: Boxgrove, West Sussex
Date: 524–478,000 years ago
What it represents: Homo heidelbergensis, one of the most sophisticated early human species ever seen, some 350,000 years before full Neanderthals evolved
The plinth stone: A handaxe
Provenance: Excavated in Quarry 1B in 1990, at the waterhole where the hominin fossils were found
Maximum dimension: 15–20cm
Loaned by: Mark Roberts, UCL Institute of Archaeology Boxgrove Project, to be accessioned by the British Museum. Number 205
This handaxe, excavated during the English Heritage-sponsored project at the Boxgrove sand and gravel quarry in the 1990s, was selected for the plinth by project director Mark Roberts.
Before the Boxgrove excavations, the first accepted evidence for humans in Britain dated from 400,000 years ago. Boxgrove pushed that back 100 millennia to half a million years ago. There were suggestions of earlier hominin activity at other sites, but this was not definitively proven until the Pakefield finds in 2000–2002.
Beyond its age, however, Boxgrove is particularly significant both for the quality of preservation – with almost mint condition flint artefacts and even bird and fish bones almost perfectly preserved – and for the quality of the excavation and recording.
At one site in the quarry, the fragmentary bones of a large horse were surrounded by small heaps of flint debris left where a group of hominins had knapped handaxes before butchering the meat. A hole in a shoulder blade has been controversially interpreted as a sign that the horse had been killed with a wooden spear. Such spears have been found at Schöningen, Germany, dating from 400,000 years ago, but some archaeologists are reluctant to accept this suggestion of deliberate and controlled hunting so early.
The best remains had been buried in fine silt near the bottom of a high chalk cliff, forming in still water around a water hole and a lagoon, close to the high tide mark. It was here, in Quarry 1B, that a tibia and two teeth ascribed to Homo heidelbergensis were found, along with large numbers of very fine handaxes and the butchered remains of animals like rhino and elephant
Acheulean handaxes (or biface to Americans) are found across Africa, Europe and into western Asia. They seem to be associated with Homo erectus or variant species, being made for well over a million years with little obvious systematic change (though the oldest are more crudely made). The finest handaxes, such as those from Boxgrove, require great knapping skill to make, and imply a certain level of intellectual ability. Some modern knappers compare the experience of making a handaxe such as the one on the plinth to playing a game of chess. They are very efficient butchery tools for large game. Many archaeologists, however, find this insufficient explanation for their fine finish and symmetric design, and seek complex behavioural explanations that are much debated.
The Boxgrove quarry was bought from Hanson Aggregates by English Heritage in 2003, for preservation and future research.
Mike Pitts & Mark Roberts, 1997. Fairweather Eden. Life in Britain Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove. Century
Mark Roberts & Simon Parfitt (eds), 1999. Boxgrove: A Middle Pleistocene Hominid Site at Eartham Quarry, Boxgrove, West Sussex. English Heritage
Chris Stringer, 2006. Homo Britannicus. Penguin