‘Giant’ handaxes found in Frindsbury, Kent

Excavations at Manor Farm in Frindsbury, Kent – in advance of the construction of a Maritime Academy – have revealed more than 800 stone artefacts found within sediments thought to relate to a Middle Pleistocene tributary of the River Medway.

Amid the assemblage recovered by Archaeology South-East, UCL Institute of Archaeology, in 2021 were two significantly large flint tools – labelled ‘giant handaxes’, they have long, finely worked tips and thicker, more crudely knapped butts – probably dating to the interglacial period more than 300,000 years ago. During this period of the Palaeolithic, Neanderthals and potentially other early species of human inhabited a wooded landscape, along with familiar animals such as red deer and horses, as well as now-extinct species like straight-tusked elephants and lions.

Image: Archaeology South-East

Initial post-excavation analysis of the largest of the two handaxes (below) has since been carried out, including being 3D-scanned using photogrammetry by Dr Sarah Duffy. It was found to measure 29.5cm in length and had no significant abrasions – their presence would have indicated that it had been transported far down the river channel. Instead, it could be that this handaxe was originally deposited in the stretch of river where it was found. While these types of tools have previously been found in the Medway Valley, this is the first to be discovered during a large-scale excavation, providing the rare opportunity to learn more about these enigmatic objects and the culture in which they were produced.

Highlighting the significance of the site, Letty Ingrey from UCL Institute of Archaeology said: ‘These handaxes are so big it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been easily held and used. Perhaps they fulfilled a less practical or more symbolic function than other tools, a clear demonstration of strength and skill. While right now, we aren’t sure why such large tools were being made, or which species of early human were making them, this site offers a chance to answer these exciting questions.’

In addition to the spectacular prehistoric finds, during the course of the excavation the team also uncovered a Roman cemetery, including the remains of 25 individuals, 13 of whom were cremated. They may have inhabited a villa that is believed to have been located 850m south of this site.

A 3D model of the larger of the two handaxes can be found here: https://sketchfab.com/ 3d-models/maritime-academy-giant-handaxe-242e16a1e43e 4a16bc2bfcdfb e3cdc59. A paper describing the discovery was recently published in Internet Archaeology:  https://doi.org/ 10.11141/ia.61.6.

Text: Kathryn Krakowka