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Stone Age Hand Axes Found at Bottom of North Sea

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 17, 2008
 
An amateur archaeologist has found an unprecedented collection of Stone Age hand axes among material collected at the bottom of the North Sea.

Jan Meulmeester of the Netherlands found 28 axes, possibly up to 100,000 years old, in marine sand and gravel scooped up by a British construction materials supplier.

He also found fragments of bones, teeth, tusks, and antlers from mammoths and other animals that had likely been butchered with the utensils.

Early humans used the stone tools for several purposes, much like today's Swiss army knives.

During ice-age periods of the Paleolithic era, which ended about 10,000 years ago, sea levels were lower and the North Sea was grassland hunting grounds.

The axes's discovery proves that artifacts from that ancient period remain exceptionally well preserved below the seafloor, experts say.

"It's something that we've dreamed about—that we knew was out there somewhere," said Phil Harding of the U.K. nonprofit Wessex Archaeology.

"But I guess most of us in our lifetime wouldn't have believed that something was going to crop up like that," he said.

(Related story: "Unprecedented Ice Age Cave Art Discovered in U.K." [August 18, 2004].)

Ancient Landscapes Preserved

Fishermen have pulled the occasional stone tool or bone from the North Sea, but this trove—dug 8 miles (13 kilometers) off the coast near Great Yarmouth in the United Kingdom—suggests something far more than a random find.

"The condition of the material is such that is evident that it really comes from one single spot," said Hans Peeters, an archaeologist with the National Service for Archaeology (RACM) in Amersfoort, Netherlands.

"We are dealing with large swaths of ancient landscapes which have been preserved in certain areas of the North Sea," Peeters said.

"You can hardly find anything more convincing than this," Peeters said. "Materials left behind were quickly covered with peat and clay, so you have perfect preservation of organic materials." RACM and its British counterpart, English Heritage, plan to explore the site further.

Harding of Wessex Archaeology added that the axes appear to come from a camp or settlement where humans butchered their prey.

"These axes are absolutely immaculate. They are as crisp as the day they were used."

Though proof of North Sea settlements has been scant so far, the recent find removes any doubt that such well-preserved sites do exist—and suggests that more could one day be found, Harding added.

Treasure Hunting

Meulmeester, the Dutch hobbyist, uncovered the axes with a bit of luck and a lot of dedicated effort as he combed though a pile of sand and gravel on a wharf at Flushing, in southwest Netherlands.

Hanson, the British company that dug up the materials, had dumped them there after dredging the seafloor.

No one is certain exactly where the axes came from. While scientists and Hanson work to pinpoint the location, the company has ceased operations in the area to temporarily protect the site.

If the site can be found, it may be possible to send cameras or even a diver to explore, but water depths in the area are a hundred feet (thirty meters), and North Sea visibility is typically poor.

"The probable gravel layer from [which] these axes originate is maybe 5 to 10 meters (16 to 32 feet) deeper into the subsoil," Peeters of RACM added.

"These are conditions that make it very difficult to investigate on the spot."

Window on Ancient World?

Because the axes were plucked off a gravel heap and not found in dated deposits, scientists aren't sure how old they are.

Early speculation suggests that they could be 100,000 years old, but Harding says any such dates are currently up in the air.

The Paleolithic period from which such tools originated lasted some 750,000 years.

"Some of the oldest sites in Europe, from the coast of Norfolk, are 700,000 years old," Harding said. In fact sites where artifacts have been found in Norfolk are just 30 miles (48 kilometers) from where the axes were recently dredged.

"It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the [axes] are as old as that. I'd hazard a guess that they are younger than that, but we simply don't know."

Dating aside, Harding is even more excited by the information that could yet emerge from further detailed study of the find.

"If we can get the implements all together and study how they were made ... that will take us so far," he explained.

(Related story: "African Bone Tools Dispute Key Idea About Human Evolution" [November 18, 2001].)

He'd like scientists to study the mammoth bones and determine the species and the animals' state of health, as well as look for pollen or beetle remains and soil samples.

"Things like that contain so much evidence that it ceases to be just a stone tool," Harding said, "and begins to tell you what that world was like and what humans were doing."

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