- Museum number
- Object: The Grays Inn Lane handaxe
Pointed flint handaxe reduced from a nodule and bifacially modified. The edges are straight above the butt, converging to a slightly rounded tip.Small scalar ancient edge damage occurs on both edges but is heavier on the right side.The convex edges of the butt retain cortex. Plano-convex cross section. Patinated and stained orange-brown from its deposition in gravel.
- Production date
Height: 16.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- The Gray's Inn Lane handaxe is important in the history of British archaeology as it the first known record with a published illustration of such an implement. It was also important in the discovery of the length of human antiquity.
By the time it was found in 1673, a number of shaped stone objects had been recognised as tools and weapons of ancient peoples replacing an older idea that such stones were natural 'ceraunia' formed by lightening striking the ground (Cook in Sloan 2003, pp.181-184) so Conyers statement that he had found a weapon of the Ancient Britons was not new but it is the first handaxe to be recorded and subsequently published with an illustration in Bagford's letter prefacing Leland's 'Collectanea' in 1715. This was the first ever published illustration of a handaxe. In this note Bagford offered the explanation that this weapon had been used by natives fighting off invading Romans in AD 43 when Emperor Claudius was known to have brought elephants to Britain with his army. Conyers had already rejected this explanation of his finds because they were recovered much deeper in the gravels than any other Roman finds he had found in London. He also noted that the gravels were deposited by a fast flowing river making boats necessary but fails to prove to himself that the Fleet had been navigable even in Roman times. The alternative proposition was that the elephant had drowned at the time of Noah's flood explaining the waterlain gravels but not the stone tools that, if dated so far back, would challenge biblical authority that after the Flood the earth had been peopled by the sons of Noah. Conyers may have left his notes unpublished because of the dilemma caused by the observed geological evidence of context and stratigraphy being contradictory to the written historcal authority of the Bible.
Sir Hans Sloane acquired the handaxe and the elephant remains. His interest in the later became a subject of much research (Cook 2012) and his paper to the Royal Society on becoming its president in 1726 relates similar discoveries across Europe and Siberia and attributes them to a period of different climate before a flood and of much greater antiquity than the Roman period. His collecting of fossil and modern elephant remains, as well as the dissection of an Asian elephant in the garden of his home in Great Russell Street, built up comparable material essential for identifying such remains and developing taxonomy. Sloane did not discuss the age of the handaxe perhaps wary of the controversy it might cause. However, by 1797, geological evidence that the age of the earth must be greater than the 6000 years allowed by biblical history, enabled John Frere to suggest that the Hoxne handaxe found in Suffolk, might indicate a much greater length for human antiquity than understood from written history.
In 1858, the vindication of Boucher de Perthes discoveries of handaxes with remains of animals now extinct or no longer living in Europe, in gravels of the river Somme in northern France, led British Museum curator Augustus Wollaston Franks to point out that the Gray's Inn Lane handaxe and elephant remains had been known since the 17th century and part of the museum collection since 1753. It was re-drawn and engraved as a full page illustrationat natural size in John Evans' important 1861 paper 'On the Occurrence of Flint Fmplements in Undisturbed Beds of Gravels, Sand and Clay' published in Archaeologia 38, 280-307, and subsequently reported in most late 19th commentaries on the length of human antiquity, establishing the historic significance of Conyers' find.
The elephant remains have not survived except in Sloane's illustration of them in his Royal Society papers (Cook 2012). They included a 'tooth' (tusk) that Conyers used whale bone stays to support it as he lifted it from the gravels indicating that the ivory must have been badly decayed at the time of discovery. It is possible that it was discarded because of its poor condition either early in the 19th century when the natural history collections were extensively re-curated, or when that material was moved to South Kensington in 1884, but there is no documentation to confirm this.
- On display (G1/fc6)
- Exhibition history
2007 15 Sep-2 Dec, London, Royal Academy of Arts, 'Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007'
1977 8-25 Aug, Birmingham, University of Birmingham, INQUA Conference
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Found 11 December 1673 by John Conyers, the handaxe passed from his collection to Dr Charlett, Master of Merton College, Oxford and then to the London antiquary John Kemp, better known for his interest in coins and classical artefacts. The handaxe is marked and recorded with a K indicating that it came from Kemp to Sloane but it is not listed in the catalogue of the posthumous sale of Kemp's collection in 1721 suggesting that Sloane acquired it prior to this, perhaps when Kemp died in 1717, and possibly through the agency of dealer John Bagford who had published the handaxe and associated elephant remains in 1715 when it was already in Kemp's collection. John Woodward acquired most of the fossils from Kemp's collection which perhaps suggests that Sloane, knowing the object and the elephant remains, may have made a particular effort to acquire them but no record of the transaction has been found.
Described in A W Franks 19th century transcription of the catalogue of Sloane's antiquities as:
'No.246. A British Weapon found with elephant's tooth, opposite to Black Mary's, near Grayes (sic) Inn Lane - Conyers. It is a large black flint, shaped into the figure of a spear's point. K'
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Previous owner/ex-collection number: K (Letter K in Sloane catalogue indicates that it came from John Kemp's collection)