Real ‘Southend Rock’

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Bob Williams (UK)

Chert and flint are crystalline (perhaps more accurately described as microcrystalline) forms of rock that man has made use of from Stone Age times. The crystals consist of a microcrystalline form of silica, more commonly known as quartz (silicon dioxide). Flint is the better-known form of this substance and is commonly found as very hard concretions in deposits of chalk. It is so hard that, when the chalk is eroded, the flint remains in an almost undamaged state.

Fig. 1. The Clactonian culture ‘handaxe’ tool, which was the first tool we found at Southend beach.

When fractured, flint and chert nodules disintegrate to produce conchoidal, glass-like breaks, and this creates sharp edges capable of inflicting physical damage. When controlled, this damage can be put to practical use and early species of man (Homo erectus, H habilis, H neanderthalensis and early H sapiens) recognised this fact and put it to good use in their everyday lives. During the Ice Ages, spreading ice sheets eroded many millions of flint nodules from chalk deposits and spread them all over the UK.

When the ice melted during warmer interglacial periods, the nodules were deposited wherever they happened to have been transported to. Such flint nodules are referred to as “derived” nodules. Early man came to recognise them and collected them to make use of their physical properties. In this way, the first stone tools appeared and, as skill levels developed in their manufacture, they became more and more sophisticated in form. The tools were used for different purposes and each purpose resulted in the production of a tool of a particular generic form. Examples include the very familiar handaxes (used for general chopping purposes), hammerstone implements (used for striking and breaking), side-scrapers (used for cutting meat from hides and trimming samples of hide to make clothing) and many others, all of which can be recognised with a little experience.

As each of the species of man evolved, so the degree of sophistication that was used in the making of tools developed. The earlier tools were of a more simplistic construction, with only a few flakes being taken from a ‘parent’ stone to produce the final implements. Later tools were made in a much more sophisticated and refined fashion, with many flakes being worked off a single parent stone. This may be seen particularly in the construction of handaxes.

Fig. 2. The Clactonian culture ‘hammerstone’ tool found on Southend beach. It measures about 7cm in height and visible are two of the three fracture faces around the base of the handgrip, which indicate intentional manufacture.

Early tools have few obviously created ‘faces’, which produce the final, functional edge of the tool. However, later tools have many smaller faces, often of a more sophisticated nature to produce the final ‘cutting’ edge. The degree of skill that was used in the manufacture of stone tools gave rise to different, but distinguishable types of implement and the methods of manufacture of each type are called ‘industries’ and ‘cultures’ by archaeologists. These provide a very visible means of recognising stone tools. The industries are often named after the locations in which each tool-type was first discovered. For example, tools from the ‘Clactonian industry’, which is one of the earliest and most primitive forms of Stone Age tool, were named after Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, while ‘Acheulian’ tools are named after St Acheul in France. This latter industry includes later and more sophisticated tool forms, most notably the classic ‘handaxe’.

Many Stone Age tools can be seen in museums and collections around the UK, with even small museums annexed to public libraries exhibiting examples found in the local area. In fact, you can get a good education in the size, colour and variation of forms that exist by viewing such displays. In addition, Stone Age tools are now readily available on the commercial market.

When ‘in the field’, a particular give-away shape to keep an eye open for is one in which a number of fractured faces come together to form a distinct point. This is not a natural occurrence. Of course, natural fractures do occur in rocks, but when three or more fracture faces come together to form a prominent point, it is likely that the fractures are not natural and the possibility of artificial creation by man must be considered. Such features can be seen in the hammerstone (pictured) that caught my attention during an outing, its identity being subsequently confirmed by a specialist.

Fig. 3. An early type of ‘handaxe’ found at the tool culture ‘Type’ location. It is attributable to the Clactonian tool culture used by Homo erectus. The damage to the upper edge and ‘point’ are evidence of use.

Southend beach

Of course, while walking along a Southend beach on a sunny day, one’s thoughts tend to be on other matters, especially when in conversation with friends. This was the case during a trip I made to that location some time ago. However, one of my companions was seen to hesitate momentarily and take a step backwards in surprise. What he had noticed was an unusual, triangular-shaped piece of stone that had the look of having been worked. It did not need my close examination to recognise it as a Stone Age handaxe. The fracture faces, of the type and number it possessed and which formed its iconic shape, were just not likely to be natural occurrences.

Fig. 4. A ‘side-scraper’ stone found on Southend beach with 20p coin for scale. The functional edges are to the top and right of the specimen, and both show wear damage.

When it was passed to me, it dawned on me that I was holding something that had been made tens of thousands of years earlier by early man – probably even by an individual of another species of man (see above), and such thoughts can have a powerful impact. The axe was very primitive and has subsequently been identified as a Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) flake-tool of Clactonian origin, dating from around 350,000 years ago.

But why was it on a beach in Southend? The answer to that question lay in the fact that beach reinforcement work had been undertaken there. The matrix required for such work needs to be of a type resistant to erosion and flints were the most suitable, locally abundant and readily available rock type. It was later ascertained that this flint was dredged from a known source in the North Sea. The material had gathered there over time, as a result of the erosion and subsequent deposition processes that had occurred during the last Ice Age. It had then been concentrated by underwater currents, when the area was subsequently flooded by the North Sea. Clearly, among those natural flint nodules were quantities of Ice Age flint tools manufactured by men, who had lived on the open plains that had once existed there and who had used that flint to make their tools.

After that find, we all started to look at the pebbles to see what else could be found. My first find was a hammerstone of the type referred to above and then a scraper. However, my real desire was to find a handaxe, but it was not to be on that occasion. Unfortunately, I have only been able to make one further trip back to that beach, but my friend has returned several times (as might be expected). Some swapping and exchanging activities have now resulted in a handaxe from that beach being added to my collection.

Specialists have now examined many of the tools recovered and they have all been allocated to the Clactonian tool industry. As the Clactonian dates from about 350,000 years ago, there also exists the possibility that the tools could have been made by a species of man other than us. That really is something to think about when such objects are held in one’s hand. With the number of people who visit this beach, one would think that the most obvious specimens must now have been collected. However, each tide will result in the turnover of the flint pebbles and more specimens are constantly revealed. No doubt this will continue for quite some time, so the numbers of tools that remain to be found are possibly huge.

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