Science Art: Hoxne Hand Axe, by Thomas Underwood and John Frere


This is a hand axe made by prehistoric humans – but the image is a historical relic in its own right. It represents the first time a modern human (in this case, John Frere) was able to prove that these funny-shaped bits of flint were actually shaped intentionally to be tools, and not produced by lightning strikes or meteorites.

As the folks at put it:

On the 22 June 1797, Frere wrote a letter to the Royal Society of Antiquars (illustrated with two fine engravings above and two samples of hand axe) which would later set the stage for Palaeolithic Archaeology as we know it today. One of the hand axes is on permanent display at the British Museum.

In his letter, he came to the conclusion that the flints were “weapons of war, fabricated by a people who had not the use of metals” and that “the situation in which these weapons were found may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed: even beyond that of the present world”. Frere’s article was in effect publically challenging Archbishop Ussher’s date of creation of 4004 BC which most authorities accepted as the literal truth of the Bible. However, at the time the Secretary of the Royal Society, the Reverend John Bland, was less than impressed and John Frere received little comment other than thanks for his “curious and most interesting communication”.

This was more than 60 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

The picture is a watercolor done by Thomas Underwood (after Frere’s engravings) which appeared with Frere’s article in 1800, and is now in the library of the Society of Antiquaries in London.

[via Linda Hall Library]