Giant stone artefacts discovered on rare Ice Age site in Kent

A handaxe measuring 29.5cm in length, is one of the longest ever found in Britain (Archaeology South-East/ UCL)
A handaxe measuring 29.5cm in length, is one of the longest ever found in Britain (Archaeology South-East/ UCL)

Researchers have discovered some of the largest early prehistoric stone tools in Britain, including a footlong handaxe almost too big to be handled.

The excavations, which took place in Kent, revealed prehistoric artefacts in deep Ice Age sediments preserved on a hillside above the Medway Valley.

The researchers, from UCL Archaeology South-East, discovered 800 stone artefacts thought to be more than 300,000 years old, buried in material which filled a sinkhole and ancient river channel.

Two extremely large flint knives described as giant handaxes were among the unearthed artefacts.

Handaxes are stone artefacts which have been chipped, or knapped, on both sides to produce a symmetrical shape with a long cutting edge.

It is believed that this type of tool was usually held in the hand and may have been used for butchering animals and cutting meat.

The two largest handaxes found at the Maritime site have a distinctive shape with a long and finely worked pointed tip, and a much thicker base.

Senior archaeologist Letty Ingrey, UCL Institute of Archaeology, said: “We describe these tools as ‘giants’ when they are over 22cm long and we have two in this size range.

“The biggest, a colossal 29.5cm in length, is one of the longest ever found in Britain.

“Giant handaxes like this are usually found in the Thames and Medway regions and date from over 300,000 years ago.

“These handaxes are so big it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been easily held and used.

“Perhaps they fulfilled a less practical or more symbolic function than other tools, a clear demonstration of strength and skill.

“While right now, we aren’t sure why such large tools were being made, or which species of early human were making them, this site offers a chance to answer these exciting questions.”

The site is thought to date to a period in the early prehistory of Britain when Neanderthal people and their cultures were beginning to emerge and may even have shared the landscape with other early human species.

At this time the Medway Valley would have been a wild landscape of wooded hills and river valleys.

It would have been inhabited by red deer and horses, as well as less familiar mammals such as the now-extinct straight-tusked elephant and lion.

Although archaeological finds of this age have been found in the Medway Valley before, this is the first time they have been found as part of large-scale excavation, offering the opportunity to glean more insights into the lives of their makers.

Dr Matt Pope, UCL Institute of Archaeology, said: “The excavations at the Maritime Academy have given us an incredibly valuable opportunity to study how an entire Ice Age landscape developed over a quarter of a million years ago.

“A programme of scientific analysis, involving specialists from UCL and other UK institutions, will now help us to understand why the site was important to ancient people and how the stone artefacts, including the giant handaxes helped them adapt to the challenges of Ice Age environments.”

The researchers are now working to better understand who created the artefacts and what they were used for.

The team also made a second significant find from the site – a Roman cemetery, dating to at least a quarter of a million years later than the Ice Age activity.

Researchers suggest the people buried here between the first and fourth centuries AD could have been the inhabitants of a suspected nearby villa that may have lain around 850 metres to the south.

The remains of 25 individuals, 13 of which were cremated, were found.

Nine of the buried bodies were found with goods or personal items including bracelets, and four were interred in wooden coffins.

Collections of pottery and animal bones found nearby likely relate to feasting rituals at the time of burial.

The excavations were commissioned in advance of development of the Maritime Academy School in Frindsbury.

The findings are published in the Internet Archaeology journal.