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A re-examination of variability in handaxe form in the British Palaeolithic

By K. Emery


The antiquity of handaxes was first noted over 200 years ago (Frere, 1800) and since then archaeologists have attempted to categorise and explain them. We are now much closer to elucidating the answers to why and how they were made, what they were used for and what they signify about past hominin behaviour. In a British context, several authors have contributed significant leaps forward in the comprehension of these processes, most notably, Roe (1968), Wymer (1968) and more recently McPherron (1995), White (1998a) and Ashton (2003). The work pioneered by Roe (1968) emphasised the variability present within handaxe-dominated assemblages from the British Palaeolithic and attempted to place this variation within an objective typological framework. Subsequent authors have utilised Roe’s methodology to attempt to ascertain the basis for this metrical variability both within and between handaxe-dominated assemblages, positing causal factors such as raw material (Ashton and McNabb, 1994; White, 1998a), resharpening (McPherron, 1995) and cultural design (Wenban-Smith, 2004). This study examines the basis and methodology of these hypotheses through the technological analysis of twenty two British Palaeolithic localities. The focus of this examination is Roe’s decision to divide assemblages into Point, Ovate and Cleaver Traditions, groupings which have become the standard through which to understand and classify handaxe variability within Britain. The results of this analysis indicate that resharpening is a key factor in determining handaxe shape and that metrical classification alone can never deliver us the types of tool-specific information necessary to make sense of observed patterning in the archaeological record. This suggests that it is perhaps time to move towards a new analytical framework for handaxes, one in which the fluidity of form during handaxe use-life (Shott, 1989) is taken into account. Moving beyond Roe’s (1968) paradigm will allow us to engage with the processes and rhythms of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic chaîne opératoire in a way simply unavailable through metrical classification

Publisher: UCL (University College London)
Year: 2010
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Provided by: UCL Discovery

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