On the Master Hand Axe from Kathu Pan

This is a picture of the object that got me interested in South African stone age archaeology.

Side a

Side a

It wasn’t the object itself that got me excited, but a description of it by archaeologist Duncan Miller.  His picture was tinged with awe because he is a technical-minded person with a keen understanding of stones and their properties. In addition to his archaeological interests, Duncan is a gemmologist and lapidary.

The hand axe in the picture is estimated to be about 800k years old. It was found in a sinkhole at Kathu Pan, and has been dated by association with tooth-plates of an extinct species of elephant. It is arguably the most symmetrical and perfectly-worked hand axe anywhere.

It is thus the oldest artifact which is indisputably aesthetic – worked for beauty and symmetry, perfectly oriented, and worked considerably beyond the functional requirements of the hand-axe, which could have been achieved with half or fewer blows.

The technology which produced it is known as the Acheulian, and the artifacts are thought to be made by Homo ergaster (Homo Erectus in Africa), a diverse grouping of early humans commonly imagined as small-brained, small-jawed and robustly built, with heavy eyebrow ridges.

The knapping of Acheulian bifaces is notoriously difficult, requiring great strength and precision to be maintained over a large number of sequenced procedures. Hand-axes are extremely common in the region where this one comes from, occurring in the billions at nearby Kathu Townlands, but no other axe yet discovered is as finely made. This one eschews the more common ‘sinuous edge’, orienting the edge almost perfectly along one of the bands. It has exploited the banding in the stone to give the scalloped effect.

It is a show-off piece, a masterpiece, a demonstration of the scope of its own technology, of subtlety and control of technique.

Speculation about what was going on there is all but useless. There are prolific beds of banded ironstone nearby. Higher layers in the site’s stratigraphy produced evidence of the (at present) earliest known hafted tools. There was something going on at the site at various widely-separated times.

Here are four sonnets I wrote about it:

1   Duncan Said

Duncan said: “If we could choose one thing
to send into the universe to show
who we are, we wouldn’t have to bring
stuff like computers into it. No –
that hand-axe says it all, to me it’s
the defining human artefact.”
The thing he pictured for me was more grand
than, when I saw it, merely this.
It was inert, itself, discrete, exact,
too broad for the comfort of my hand.
The random cleave of the flake had met the mind
of the blow so cleverly as to stir the stone
into a froth of waves, yet true the line
of the edge. It caught me and I was thrown.

2   Ironstone

In banded ironstone the layers are
precisely parallel, in hues that range
from ochre to dark red. The stone is hard
and lasts. I’ve felt edges still sharp
after a million years – that’s not much change
compared to anything in our back-yard.
Each flake taken from that master-stone
cuts a scalloped curve through layered bands,
rendering in flowing lines its own
manufacture – a relief-map in the hand
that converses with the hand that made it.
Call it the pattern of the world, call it
pretty lace varnished with old silica.
It is your own face. You can’t evade it.

3   Dusty Room

The master hand-axe stands beside a box
in a dusty, ill-lit but ordered place
behind the museum.
There are no locks
on it here. The one back there in the case
is a replica.
You might hold it, if it suits
the museologists.
Here are its attributes –
practice  culture  mastery  elegance
persistence  design  skill  transmission
flow  function  grasp  pattern
truth  beauty  forethought  attention
precision  intention
– in your hand,
in a dusty place.
Yes, yes, take it,
allow your fingertips to understand.
Then you must replace it.

(can’t get this blog software to format the indents properly in the above)

4   Nobody knows

Nobody knows how old it is. No-one
knows who made it, no-one knows
what it was for. Hands like these? No-one
knows. Stories, laughter, words? Nobody knows.
The silent stone is silent. It does not
speak. Though the stone is written, it is
a text we cannot read since it does not
propose anything other than what it is.
The stone does not negate anything, it does not
argue against anything – it is silent,
it does not speak, though it does not
refuse to speak or choose to be silent.
Nobody knows how silent this stone is,
or how old, who, where, why this stone is.
For those who support “balanced” journalism and want  to get both sides, here’s the other side:

Side b

Side b

Do click on the images to see them at higher resolution. They are truly astonishing.

  1. su zi Kim said:

    We are a Photo Agency ‘BOOKNFOTO’ in South Korea.

    I want to buy that image(side ‘a’) for a p-book.

    So, here’s the question I’d like to ask you.

    1) What is the procedure for the using image?

    2) Could we get the high resolution image of the attached file and use them in a book?

    3) How much do we need to pay for image?

    Should you need more information about us or this project, please don’t hesitate to contact us by my email.

    We wait your answer.

    Best regards,

    • Dear Kim, you can get the copyright for the image for a fee of ZAR 500. I would like the money to go to a heritage preservation site in the region where the axe was found. I will get the details.

      best wishes
      Michael Cope

  2. I love the sonnets you’ve written about this tool. Really beautiful. I’m reading the book “Work” by James Suzman and the hand axe is discussed – glad this was the result that came up when I went searching for an image of the axe!

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