An Ovate Handaxe from the UK

During the 1960ies Dereck Roe was engaged to quantify  artifact variation across the Acheulian world.  Of all of the ratios and measurements calculated by  Roe, the essence was the tripartite division of handaxes into Pointed, Ovate and Cleaver forms. The genesis of this paradigm is seen when Roe demonstrated that a typical ficron, ovate and cleaver can have the same figure for the width/length ratio despite their obvious differences in shape. He identified that the major difference between these three shapes is in the position of the maximum width (L₁). ‘From this simple fact emerges the very promising index L₁/L as an indicator of shape’. This classification, which is measured on the basis of the relative position of maximum width of the tool, stems from an arbitrary division of the L₁/L. Ovates were defined by their ratio  between 0.351 – 0.550. The wonderful executed 12 cm Long ovate from S-England shown here has a ratio of 0,47. Ovates were common in Britain especially during OIS 11 (Hoxnian).

The significance of morphological variation in Acheulean bifaces has been a central issue in Paleolithic research for over a century. For much of that period interpretation has been dominated by culture-historical models and it is only in the past 20 years that other explanatory factors have received adequate attention.  These factors include raw materials, site function, and reduction intensity. These questions  have especially been discussed in the UK.

In 1964 Dereck Roe, categorized 38 British sites either belonging to a predominantly ovate or pointed “tradition”. Roe was an “intentionalist”, who proposed that “Traditions” were created by the intention of their makers. This pattern has been repeatedly confirmed by other researchers. Anyhow, it is important to note that each assemblage contains a mixture of both forms. Pointed handaxes comprise, in most cases, no less than 30% of an assemblage, even in ovate dominated sites. In assemblages devoid of cleavers, a group to which all of the UK sites belong, the dominance of either pointed or ovate shapes suggests that the picture is probably much more complex than a clear-cut ‘‘pointed’’ vs. ‘‘broad’’ handaxe shape dichotomy.

We should also remember that Roe used  museum collections, which particularly in Britain and France, have been heavily biased by the past practices of both collectors and sometimes excavators where often only the finer bifaces, or those made of more easily identifiable raw materials such as flint, have been retained. Despite Britain having a rich Lower Paleolithic record, the number of recent large-scale excavations is low compared to other parts of Europe. The debate over this UK dichotomy and its sources is ongoing, principally between the proponents of the ‘‘raw-material’’ model and those advocating the ‘‘reduction’’ model.

White examined the British bifaces and noted the type of raw material from which they were made. He found a consistent pattern that led him to suggest that variability in raw material size, shape, and quality is behind the shape patterning in these assemblages. Pointed forms tend to be made on smaller, poorer quality raw materials obtained from secondary deposits on river terraces. In these instances, the shape of the nodules often placed constraints on the type of form that could be manufactured. Conversely, rounded forms were generally made on larger, high-quality raw materials obtained from primary sources. Because pointed or ovate forms could have been manufactured in these instances, White takes the analysis a step further, arguing that ovate forms were in fact the preferred form of Britain’s hominids and that pointed forms were simply an accommodation to inferior raw material.

Mc Pherron argues that the bifaces of an assemblage represent different stages of the reduction process. Some will be in the earlier stages of reduction when they enter the archaeological record and others will be nearly exhausted. The model links the intensity of bifacial reduction with variability in biface shape.

If a particular shape was important to these hominids, then one would expect the shape to remain relatively constant despite the diminishing size of the biface. On the other hand, if factors other than shape were more important for their makers, then one might expect shape to gradually change as the biface diminished in size. Mc Pherron argues for the latter assumption: In the reduction sequence large pointed handaxes were eventually resharpened into smaller ovate forms. It remains somewhat unclear, how the reduction process should be quantified without the presence of the complete reduction chain in the archaeological record.

All models of variability in the British Acheulian have their flaws and refer to the simple and abitrary dichotomy of pointed vs. ovate handaxes. While the reduction model fits to some assemblages, it has been falsified on others.  Raw material size, shape and quality as the primary factors influencing the form of handaxes seems to fit better to the observed pattering in the UK.

Anyhow, such results can not be easily extrapolated to other regions: Sharon showed that these models are irrelevant to the tools’ morphological variability, at least as far as the Large Flake Acheulian (LFA) in the Middle East and Africa is concerned. It has been demonstrated that raw material constraints had minimal impact on biface shape and size, and that the morphology of LFA handaxes and cleavers cannot be explained by the reduction sequence model, since their minimal retouch shaping strategy ruled out intensive resharpening.

Overall  it is hoped, that a multi-modal synthesis of analytical techniques that incorporate a variety of methods may resolve such questions in the future.

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