Luke Dale

Early Neanderthal social and behavioural complexity during the Purfleet Interglacial: the evidence from the stone tool record.

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

I aim to investigate the British Museum’s collection of handaxes to assess social and behavioural changes in the latest Lower Palaeolithic.

Start Date: October 2017
End Date: October 2020
Themes: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding. What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors.
Research discipline: Archaeology, Anthropology, Scientific research
Location: Europe, UK
Staff member: Nick Ashton
Departments: Britain, Europe & Prehistory
University and department: The Courtauld Institute of Art
University supervisor: Mark White

How do the different industries correlate with environmental and landscape evolution?

I will approach this question by conducting a thorough investigation of the British Museum’s unparalleled collection of Lower Palaeolithic handaxes. I intend to perform precise metrical analysis, combined with qualitative descriptions, to characterise MIS 9 handaxes from securely dated but poorly studied sites. I will then compare these data to geographical and chronological distribution, in order to identify patterns of behaviour in response to the changing natural environment of the stage 9 interglacial in Britain.

Can the initial signature of groups without handaxe be better defined and extended beyond its current distribution in the Lower Thames?

The ‘Clactonian’ industry of simple cores, flakes and flake tools appears early in the MIS 9 archaeological record, after which it is succeeded by handaxe using (Acheulean) cultures, and finally by Levallois-tool producing cultures. The initial transition from Clactonian to Acheulean is poorly understood and controversial. My work will complement the ongoing research of other academics at the University of Durham and elsewhere by helping to characterise the first appearance of handaxes in MIS 9.

Can ficrons and cleavers be recognised in other assemblages and can substance be given to the claim that they reflect cultural norms and individual identity?

Although using handaxe typology as a dating tool has fallen out of fashion, it is cautiously been reintroduced in certain situations where a morphology is typical of one interglacial but rare in others. Such a typology has not yet been established in handaxes from MIS 9, but I will be investigating the possibility of culturally distinctive MIS 9 handaxes – potentially ‘ficron’ and ‘cleaver’ forms – being used to assist in the dating of sites, as well as considering the possible social and behavioural implications in producing these forms.

About my research

The Purfleet Interglacial, 350-290,000 years ago, saw major transformations in archaic human technology, behaviour and social life that ultimately led to the ‘classic’ Neanderthal way of life. Other than a few ‘flagship’ sites, the archaeology of this period is poorly understood, despite a very rich archive, with over 300 sites and find-spots that have not been recently studied

Aims of my research

This project will examine the key collections, mostly held in the BM, to gain a better understanding of human groups and their use of material culture, to develop a fuller picture of the transformations that took place, in both space and time.