The West Tofts handaxe has a shell fossil in the middle of it, showing that ancient toolmakers enjoyed the aesthetics of their work.

Discovered at West Tofts, in Norfolk, this remarkable Acheulean handaxe was made around 250,000 years ago – long before homo sapiens had reached the British Isles.

Acheulean stone tools are characterised by their distinctive oval and pear-shaped forms, and were made during the Lower Palaeolithic period by Homo erectus, as well as other human species including Homo heidelbergensis and, much later, Neanderthals.

While most of these tools are impressive in their own right, this one is even more special – it has been carefully shaped around a fossil shell, which sits right in the middle of it.

The positioning suggests that the individual who made the tool did so intentionally, suggesting that there have been tool makers who also appreciate the aesthetic qualities of their work for over a quarter of a million years.

In fact, the West Tofts handaxe is not the only example where the stone has been selected, at least in part, for its aesthetic qualities; a 400,000 year old axe from Swanscombe in Kent is knapped around a fossil urchin.

The Swanscombe handaxe has an urchin on its outer face

Whether you’re more practically minded, or have an artistic streak, we think the West Tofts handaxe is one of the world’s most amazing artefacts, and it’s remarkable to think that even then, toolmakers blended form and function, utility and aesthetics.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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