World’s Biggest Handaxe? You Betcha! [Warning! Here Follows a Short Treatise on Best Archaeological Practices]

Photo courtesy of Shelby Graham


I lied. It’s not a handaxe. Clearly it’s a pick, according to any authoritative Lower Palaeolithic typology.

Actually, this is today’s object lesson in archaeological site formation. The above is [to my eye] an artist’s impression [in grand style] EITHER of what happens to an artifact on the surface of a predominantly clay substrate when the clay becomes dessicated and cracks form, OR of [for example] a peri-glacial environment when the frozen ground expands due to the presence of liquid water and [again] cracks form in the surface. In either case, should the crack open just a smidgeon wider [and those enormous wedgy things holding it up be removed], the artifact, which might have been dropped last week, will suddenly become encased in dirt that was deposited at some unknown time in the past–perhaps many thousands of years in the past. And, who’s going to be able to infer the depositional circumstances once the ground closes back up, and before the crack fills in with aeolian or colluvial sediments in the here and now to make it visible in profile for the archaeologist to recognize? [The illustration on the right, below, is an example of a frost wedge that’s only visible because it has been filled in before it could close up.]

Dessication cracks in clay soil (Photo source)
Frost wedge (Photo source)

     The answer lies in the encasing sediments, and in the palaeoecological indicators found within them. If there’s wooly mammoth skeletal remains in the same context, you can be sure it was a cold environment that would have been susceptible to frost cracking. If, on the other hand, you were to find the remains of terrestrial vertebrates AND crocodiles or other water-loving animals, you might suspect that the encasing substrate had been susceptible to periods of drying and the development of cracks such as the ones in the photo above, left. In either case the archaeologist should know to be wary of making any hasty conclusions as to the contemporaneity of [in this case] the pick and the animal bones.
     That’s what I love about archaeology. You really have to have your head on straight and pay attention to the things that can mess with associations. So, if you’re digging in a pan, or in the Perigord, you should. Be. Careful.  

[Forgive me if this ended up looking like a case of the preacher preaching to the choir. Something tells me this may not obtain in every reader’s case, and therefore I was emboldened to hold forth.]  

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