Curator's Choice: The Happisburgh Hand Axe - the oldest hand axe in north-west Europe

Colly Mudie interviewed by Richard Moss | 16 September 2014

Curator's Choice: Colly Mudie, of Norwich Museums talks about the Happisburgh hand axe, which features in the British Museum's Teaching History with 100 Objects project

a photo of a large worked flint hand axe
The Happisburgh Hand Axe© Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service
"The British Museum has a new initiative called Teaching History with 100 Objects. They are producing a new set of online resources to help teach history to children in the classroom through objects.

They have selected objects with stories of national significance from all over the country and we are really pleased to have three objects selected from Norfolk including the Happisburgh hand axe, which is the oldest hand axe found in northwest Europe.

It was found relatively recently, in 2000, and its discovery meant that we actually found evidence for human occupation in this country 200,000 years earlier than previously thought, so it has rewritten the history books.

It’s 500,000 years old so we’re talking about something that is pre-Neanderthal; it’s very old.

It was found by a man walking his dog on the beach on the north Norfolk coast at Happisburgh; the area is undergoing coastal erosion at the minute which means things are being exposed for the first time.

In the same area we discovered shards of flint that are twice as old as the hand axe itself, so we know it was a local material and wasn’t brought in from anywhere else.

a photo of a smiling woman holding a flint hand axe
Colly Mudie with a replica of the hand axe
After it was handed in to Norwich Castle, the local museum service worked with the British Museum to identify and date the object - it wasn’t immediately apparent how significant it was.

What its age reveals is that human occupation happened very much earlier in north-west Europe than previously thought - and that’s very exciting.

It is a beautiful object. The flint is black in this area of Norfolk - it is not grey as you might think - and someone has gone to enormous lengths to make it beautiful.

It’s more crafted than it really needs to be for the purpose it was intended, so somebody has obviously wanted to create a tool that was nice to look at as well as being nice to hold and use.

Rather like a Swiss army knife, it could be used in a variety of ways; for scraping, chopping and butchering. There was even a blunt end so it could have been used as a mallet for knocking something into the ground – it really was multipurpose. It was also quite sharp.

Although we have no real evidence for a hierarchy in society at that time, a hand axe like this would have been an enormously valuable object. They would have had to hunt for their food and butcher the animal in order to eat and get material for their clothes and shoes.

The axe would have been a very important tool that would have been sharpened and re-used over a period of time.

We’re very lucky in Norfolk because there is a very long history of human occupation. The area would have been joined to Europe at that time, so you could have walked to Ostend.

Butchery sites of mammoths have been found on the north Norfolk coast around the same area the hand axe was found, so we have several flint tools in the collection. But this is the star of the show. This is the oldest one.

Find out more about the British Museum's Teaching history with 100 Objects project at teachinghistory100.org.

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As a result of this find the AHOB group found over 70 even older lithics at Happisburgh, which have been dated to at least 850,000 years old (the oldest in Northwest Europe), probably made by H. antecessor. These are far older than the Happisburgh Handaxe. The Happisburgh footprints were independently investigated by several researchers from different UK universities, and the data is available for anyone to scrutinise in the paper available online at PLOS ONE.
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