Does flint axe picked up on an Orkney shoreline predate the Ice Age?

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The Palaeolithic handaxe found on a shore, outside Kirkwall, could be anything from 100,000 to 450,000 years old.

A flint handaxe, recovered on a stretch of shore in St Ola, could be the oldest man-made artefact found in Orkney to date.

Dating from the Palaeolithic period of prehistory, the axe could be anything between 100,000 and 450,000 years old.

Palaeolithic axes are incredibly rare, with fewer than ten being found in Scotland.

Around 14cm long, the Orkney axe was picked up by Evie man, Alan Price, who passed it to county archaeologist, Julie Gibson. The axe has been broken and originally would have tapered to a point opposite the cutting edge. But at some point in antiquity, the point broke off and someone reworked the flint to its present straight edge.

Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer in archaeology for the University of Aberdeen, has studied the axe, along with Professor Mark Edmonds.

She described its discovery as “incredibly exciting”, but one which brought with it a wealth of perplexing questions.

Caroline explained: “The problem with the Palaeolithic axes found in Scotland, to date, is that because they were not found ‘in context’ — that is, associated with other finds of the same era — there is some debate as to their authenticity. But we’re not going to find much contextual evidence, as we’re not likely to find sites of that date in Scotland that still have hearths and postholes still in situ.”

“We have to remember that this was an incredibly long time ago — pre-Ice Age, in fact. Britain wasn’t an island but was still connected to mainland Europe, and across this landscape the people of the Palaeolithic, nomadic hunter-gatherers, wandered from season to season.”

“Whoever made this axe, and it’s very nicely made, would have been familiar with animals long since extinct – the woolly mammoth, for example. I find that really mind-blowing.”

Caroline added: “Had this axe been found in, say, East Anglia, in England, it would probably have been hailed as a find of national significance. But this was picked up on a shore in St Ola and, as yet, we can’t say very much about it.”

“What we can say is that it is definitely older than 100,000 years — so old it’s become geology. Palaeolithic people must have passed through what was later to become Scotland, so we’ve not discounted the possibility that the axe is evidence of people of that era in this area. But, because it’s so early, we need further information first.

“It is also possible that the axe might have arrived in Orkney in much more recent times, possibly imported among the ballast of a ship.

“A site visit, to check for the presence of other flint nodules, will be first on the agenda to see whether there is any more evidence of ballast in the area the axe was found, and we’re hoping to take first steps soon.”

Lynda Aiano, from the archaeological department of Orkney Museum, commented: “This exciting and intriguing find raises more questions than it answers. It would be useful to know more about ballast deposition practice around Kirkwall Harbour, and we would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has information on local traditions.

“It also gives us a headache, here at the museum, in that, suddenly, our timeline depicting prehistory might need to get a lot longer; possibly ending somewhere in Broad Street!”

The only other suspected Palaeolithic axe found in Orkney came from Upperborough, in Harray. This axe was discovered in the early years of the 20th century and presented to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1913.

It was “picked up . . . on the surface of the ground, in gravel, on the common to the west of the township of Upperborough, Harray, at about half a mile distant from the Loch of Harray, and some five miles from the sea”.
However, in his 1997 Society of Antiquaries paper, Palaeolithic handaxes in Scotland, Alan Saville, of the Artefact Research Unit of the National Museums of Scotland, argued that the Harray artefact was not from the Palaeolithic, an opinion shared by Caroline.

The Palaeolithic – or Old Stone Age – was a long period of hunter-gatherers, extending from the time when humans first evolved up to about 10,000 BC. In Britain, the earliest evidence of human activity dates from about 700,000 years ago, although there are long periods, of 100,000 years or more, when there appears to have been no human presence.  The period is divided up by historians into the Lower (the oldest), Middle and Upper Palaeolithic to indicate when social and technological developments – mainly increasingly sophisticated flint tools – occurred.

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