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350,000-year-old palaeolithic hand axe discovered in Lindsey Road garden shines light on human history in Bishop's Stortford



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Mike James and Stephen Vincent, of Friends of Castle Park, examine the history of a 350,000-year-old object found in a Bishop's Stortford garden...

Thinking about the origins of Bishop's Stortford, we rely on the objects we find around us – the buildings, the pottery, recovered artefacts, old maps and documents.

An exciting aspect of the Castle Park digs, for example, is to learn about the early years of Waytemore Castle (built c.1085) – how was it built, when, what buildings were there, where was the gaol, was there a moat?

We also assume that, before the Normans, Stortford had an Anglo-Saxon community, probably centred on High Street and Market Square, a defensible rise approached from the Causeway and Bridge Street.

But the physical evidence for our Anglo-Saxon heritage is sparse (possibly beneath our town's streets) even though the Domesday Survey records, in 1086, that 'Storteford' was worth £10 a year in the time of King Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror's Saxon predecessor.

The evidence for local pre-Roman human occupation, from the archaeological investigations at Grange Paddocks, Whittington Way and the Hadham bypass, is clear. But Bishop's Stortford Museum has an artefact on display that is about 350,000 years old, indicating human ancestors were present in this area even then. Human remains are almost non-existent from this period, but there were toolmakers using the prolific flint in this area, and they left their mark.

The palaeolithic hand axe now on display in Bishop's Stortford Museum. Picture: Chris Lydamore
The palaeolithic hand axe now on display in Bishop's Stortford Museum. Picture: Chris Lydamore

The tool is an oval-shaped flint, about the size of a man's hand – a hand axe. Its style is Acheulian, named from Saint-Acheul, a village near Amiens in France where this type of worked flint, now recognised over much of Africa and southern Europe, was first identified in 1859. Acheulian-style toolmaking covers an enormous time span (1.76 – 0.13 million years ago) as well as geography, but in the British Isles it is more recent, corresponding to the later retreat of glaciation here.

Our hand axe was fashioned from a flint nodule: flakes were skilfully struck from both sides to produce a sharp implement. Although it has a crude appearance, it is actually a precision-made tool that would have been speedily but expertly produced to meet an immediate function and then discarded.

Its sharp edge could be used to chop and cut; it would likely have been made to butcher a sizable dead animal. The toolmaker would have been an early human ancestor, probably Homo heidelbergensis or an early form of H. neanderthalensis, rather than H. sapiens – modern humans.

It was found buried in a garden on Lindsey Road, which runs down the hill to Rye Street on the Stort valley margin. The surface of the axe has signs of iron staining, indicating weathering and soil burial, but the cutting edge has only minor abrasions meaning it hadn't moved far after use. During warming periods, glacial ice melts and streams flow from underneath, carrying away the debris (including flints) scoured out by the glacier. Perhaps 350,000 years ago there was a pond or lake nearby as a result, if not the present river valley.

Waytemore Castle dates to around 1085, but the hand axe shows our ancestors were in this area a long time before that. Pic: Vikki Lince. (56206405)
Waytemore Castle dates to around 1085, but the hand axe shows our ancestors were in this area a long time before that. Pic: Vikki Lince. (56206405)

So, let us imagine our early Stortford hominid sitting with his hunting party colleagues on the bank of the river valley where Lindsey Road now is, eying up their freshly-killed animal carcass. As he starts to fashion his butchery hand axe he is thinking "Lunch!"

A National Lottery Heritage Fund donation supports the Castle Park renovation and community archaeology. Visit friendsofcastlepark.net to find out more.



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