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29 May 2011
Paleolithic handaxe discovered in Orkney

A flint axe, recovered on a stretch of shore in St Ola, looks like being the oldest man-made artefact found in Orkney (Scotland) to date. Dating from the Paleolithic, the axe could therefore be anything between 100,000 and 450,000 years old. Paleolithic axes are incredibly rare in Scotland, with fewer than ten being found in the country. Around 14cm long, the Orkney axe was picked up by 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.
     Orkney-based 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 Paleolithic 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 Paleolithic, nomadic hunter-gatherers, wandered from season to season."
     Caroline added: "It is definitely older than 100,000 years. Paleolithic 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."
   
Edited from Orkneyjar (26 May 2011)

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