The Horse Butchery Site: a high-resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK

As a first-year undergraduate at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology in London, I spent seven weeks during the summer of 1991 at Boxgrove, enjoying stints working at several sites there, including GTP17, Q2/D, and Q1/A (as well as a week as a thatcher’s mate, but that’s a story for another time). It was the most-exciting place and the most-exciting time to be a student of the Palaeolithic. It was a season in which Lewis Binford’s notion that Acheulean hominins were passive scavengers was swept aside, replaced by Matt Pope and Simon Parfitt’s revived narratives of tactical horse-hunting parties, armed with wooden spears, followed by expert butchery and food transport to home bases in the wooded clifftops, where hungry families were waiting. It was a summer that set the course of my future career, largely played out to the seemingly endless strains of Bryan Adams.

This superbly produced and beautifully illustrated new monograph completes and updates the narrative of the horse butchery site at GTP17, providing detailed and definitive accounts of the geology, palaeoenvironments, the faunal materials, lithic and non-lithic technologies, and time-depth at the site. Together, these allow the authors to build a compelling ethnographic-scale documentary that captures a few hours in the lives of the Boxgrove hominins. That this is even possible is a testament to the exceptional quality of the data, the excavations, and the post-excavation analyses.

With all the data now finally analysed, the present volume tells a subtly new story compared to that told in the years since 1991. We are now shown a large group of humans of all ages and both sexes who, one day half a million years ago, made their way down the dry-valleys that connected the chalk downland to the coastal plain of a small embayment. Here they acquired early access to a young but unhealthy mare, brought flints a short distance but in various states of preparation, and expertly worked them into bifaces for butchering the carcass, using curated bone hammers brought along for precisely this purpose. They worked as a group, with a clear aim and a clear plan. More spontaneous decisions are seen in the use of large flakes which were occasionally brought into play for specific tasks, as well the use of bone taken from the horse to serve as makeshift soft hammers to quickly resharpen bifacial edges as work progressed. At the end of the day, these bifaces were removed from the site, clearly showing that they would be needed again, even if just to slice the fillets of horse meat. Through detailed spatial and technological analysis, real individuals can be detected, interacting with others, making decisions, and moving around each other as they went about their work.

It is notable that the evidence for direct hunting mentioned in earlier accounts of Boxgrove has been ‘walked back’, as has the presence of only a small hunting party of six-to-eight experienced hunters, who then transported prime joints to share at a campsite located on the downland block. Instead, the authors now envisage a much larger social group, including the young and the old, who may have sat in the wings while the carcass was acquired, but who were very much present at the picnic that followed. In this account, Boxgrove was far more than a hunting ground; it was the arena in which social life played out, as the group went about the day-to-day business of Pleistocene life: a fun day at the beach for everyone except the horse.

This made me wonder whether the high quality of lithic workmanship evident at GPT17 might indicate that the young, if present, were not allowed to interfere too much in the processes of production, just sharing in the consumption. It also got me thinking about whether this meant that the hominin population at Boxgrove employed a type of fission-fusion social dynamics somewhat different to that I’d imagined previously, an implication of this volume that certainly requires further thought. Thirty years on, Boxgrove continues to surprise and inspire, making this an essential volume for all students of the Palaeolithic.

The Horse Butchery Site: a high-resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK, Matt Pope, Simon Parfitt, and Mark Roberts, SpoilHeap Publications, £25, ISBN 978-1912331154.
Review by Mark White.