The Great Court of the British Museum, £9.99
Length: 16.500 cm
P&EE Sl. 246
Pointed flint handaxe
Lower Palaeolithic, about 350,000 years old
From Gray's Inn Road, London, England
This flint handaxe was found in gravel near the bones of an elephant by John Conyers in 1679. At this time, educated Europeans thought that humans had appeared on earth relatively recently, though they had realised that stone tools were made by people who did not know how to use metals.
After Conyers' death, his discovery was published by John Bagford (1650-1715). Rejecting the idea that the gravel, handaxe and the bones had been laid down by Noah's flood, he thought it more likely that the tool was used by an Ancient Briton at the time of the Roman conquest in AD 43, the elephant having been brought to England by the Roman army and subsequently killed in battle.
Now there is evidence to show that fully modern people like ourselves have been around for over 100,000 years. Our earliest ancestors were making stone tools by about 2.4 million years ago. Within this much longer prehistory, Conyers' handaxe is now understood to be about 350,000 years old. At this time, elephants were among the animals which lived in Britain, in a period during the Ice Ages when the climate was similar to that of today.
The Gray's Inn Road handaxe was acquired by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) and was among the first Palaeolithic stone tools in the collections of the British Museum.
K. Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment. Discovering the (London, The British Museum Press, 2003)
A. MacGregor (ed.), Sir Hans Sloane, collector, sc (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)