Things you saw when crossing Doggerland: Boute Coupe handaxes

 

This is a fine bout coupé handaxe, not from Britain, but from the Low Terasse of the Somme near Amiens.

Together with another bout coupé handaxe from N-France, shown in my Blog, it indicates specific contacts between the Neanderthals in Britain and France during MIS3.

Sites with MTA are concentrated in the South and East of England, and around water sources, with isolated finds occurring elsewhere representative of hominin hunting ranges. MTA sites in Britain are found both in the open and in caves. Those that can be conclusively dated are all of Middle Devensian date (60-40,000 BP; MIS4/3).

Assemblages in Britain are characterized by non-laminar debitage, a lack of cores and a limited Levallois component. The lack of Levallois was suggested to be due to a lack of flint, but this has to be discounted as many of the sites where MTA is found have abundant raw materials. It has been noted, that there are many similarities between British and N/W-French MTA sites (Late MIS5; MIS3), although the latter have a larger Levallois component.

While cordiform handaxes are common both in Britain and N/W-France, and per-se seem indicate contacts between Neanderthal Groups of both areas, bout coupé handaxes were suggested specific for the British Archaeological record.  Tyldesley (1987) described a bout coupé handaxe as: “A refined and fully bifacial medium-sized cordiform or rectangular handaxe with a symmetrical planform, having a straight or slightly convex butt edge, slightly convex sides and a rounded tip, and showing a marked discontinuity of curvature at the intersection of the sides and the base. Both the butt and the tip are well worked, frequently with delicate soft-hammer removals, and there are no large unworked areas or cortex patches. The cutting edge runs right round the circumference of the piece and is straight or only slightly twisted; tranchet scars may or may not be present at the tip” (Tyldesley, 1987, 155).

This definition, whilst substantially more specific than previous definitions is still one that is open to criticism (Coulson, 1990). In fact we know variants of this type, for example with thick buts and cortex remnants.  Another observation that has been made of bout coupé handaxes is that the classic shape may be as a result of intensive resharpening and there is new data which suggests a continuum of handaxe to scraper morphology which may indicate a high level of resharpening in line with the notion of a flexible design.

For major parts of the Palaeolithic, substantial areas of the current southern North Sea and what later became the English Channel were dry land. Those areas, now covered by tens of meters of sea, were occasionally core areas for large herds of herbivores and the animals that preyed upon them, including Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers.  This is demonstrated by the large amounts of Pleistocene mammal fossils, artefacts and a Neanderthal fossil, submerged in the Northern Sea, recovered during the last one and a half centuries. Any consideration of the Pleistocene occupation history of northwest Europe needs to deal with the fact that a major part of the landscape available to Pleistocene hunter-gatherers is currently submerged under the waters of the North Sea, one of the most prolific Pleistocene fossil-bearing localities world-wide.

Archaeologists tend to refer to the land that once existed between Britain and the continent as a land bridge. It was, however, a landscape as habitable as neighboring regions, and here called Doggerland to emphasize its availability for settlement by prehistoric peoples.

Well-stocked but treeless grassland, with short, cool summers and long, cold winters marked by blasting winds, frozen ground and persistent snow. This is what Neanderthals apparently faced as they headed northwest from their more southerly glacial refugia during OIS4/3. This time-Interval, often referred to as a failed interglacial, the isotopic record shows that OIS3 was actually a period of extreme climatic instability, with dramatic alternations between milder and colder conditions at millennial or sub-millennial timescales.

Beyond cordiform handaxes, in Britain the bout coupé handaxe has been singled out as an almost unique regional variant. Conversely, other types – the exaggerated triangular form of NW France and the KMG-influences – are largely absent from Britain. Chronology may explain the typological absences from Britain, certain forms being used in Europe during periods when Britain was not visited, but this cannot account for the quasi absence of bout coupés in continental Europe, leaving the typological data apparently contradicting the notion of a contiguous seasonal home-range.

It is of course possible that the uniqueness of the bout coupé handaxe is a fallacy, a mere artefact of classification, and, regarding that I hold 2 examples in my modest collection may indicate  that many examples remained unrecognized in the huge French museum collections. In contrast, recent surveys suggest that this is not the case; there are a few possible examples in the Paris Basin but their overall occurrence and frequency seems to be lower compared to the British situation.

It is also possible that the bout coupé was used exclusively in summer by peripheral task-groups – as Hopkinson (2004) has argued for the Althmühlian leaf-point – although it is hard to imagine why this would be the case for such a multi-purpose versatile object whose edges supported a number of different functions . Another possibility is that the territory of the Neanderthals for whom Britain formed a summer hunting ground did not extend onto the southern and eastern „uplands‟ of continental Europe, but remained fixed in the now submerged Channel and North Sea Basins, bounded by the major rivers that once flowed west and north.

Anyhow, the fact, that bout coupés existed in N/W-France points to  interaction not only between Neanderthals of the same local group but clearly to more intensive interaction with socially distant individuals over Doggerland.

MTA-Biface from La Chapelle Aubareil

Bout-coupé Handaxes and Neanderthals in N/W-France and Britain

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4 Responses to Things you saw when crossing Doggerland: Boute Coupe handaxes

  1. Suzy Searle says:

    Can you please add the sizes of artifacts you picture.

  2. Katzman says:

    the Bout coupe: 8x6x3 cm

  3. Craig Riedl says:

    You stated that the Bout coupe illustrated is 8x6x3 cm. I was suprised by it’s small size. How small would a lithic have to be to no longer be described as a handaxe. I feel hat this lithic should be more properly discribed as a knife or butchering tool although handaxes can be used as both.

    It would help very much if the tools described could have the long dimension noted.

    I very much enjoy this blog. It is the best source I have found on the internet. I have read most of the posts going back years. Thank you for all the work you done.

  4. Katzman says:

    Hi Craig
    The definition of a bout coupe does not depend on the size but on the overall design. The function of such artifacts was never evaluated in depth…

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