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Replicating the handaxe shaping strategies from Boxgrove (Sussex, UK).

Abstract

The experimental replication of lithic artefacts, specifically handaxes and cleavers, has contributed to im-prove our knowledge and interpretation of the archaeological record. This work consists of the experimental reproduction of the shaping strategies of large flint cutting tools based on specimens recovered from the Acheulean Boxgrove site (Sussex, UK), using the procedures elucidated from the archaeological record. The raw materials used were flint nodules eroding out of mass movement chalk gravels at the site. The final goal of the experiments was to correctly weigh the variables required to produce the handaxes. These included the dimensions and shape of the original nodule, the type of hammer used and the reduction strategy employed by the knappers. Experimental knapping by a team with varying degrees of experience in handaxe manufac-ture proved invaluable for gaining insight into the Acheulean “chaînes opératoires”.
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The morphological variability of large cutting tools (LCT) during the Middle Pleistocene has been traditionally associated with two main variables: raw material constraints and reduction intensity. Boxgrove — c.500 ka — is one of the most informative sites at which to analyze shaping strategies and handaxe morphological variability in the European Middle Pleistocene, because of the large number of finished handaxes, and the presence of complete operational chains. We focused on the entire handaxe and rough-out sample from Boxgrove-Q1/B with the aim of assessing the role of raw material characteristics — size, form, and homogeneity of nodules — in the shaping process, and to ascertain if they represent real constraints in the production of handaxes. Additionally, given the large number of handaxes and the intensity of the thinning work at Boxgrove, we also aimed to determine if reduction intensity affected the final shape to the degree that some authors have previously postulated. The methodology combines traditional technological descriptions, metrical analysis, and experimental reproduction of shaping processes together with geometric morphometry and PCA. The conclusions we draw are that the Q1/B handaxe knapping strategies were flexible and adapted to the characteristics of the blanks. These characteristics affected the reduction strategy but there is no clear relationship between initial nodule or blank morphology and final handaxe shape. Throughout the experiments, we explored the capacity to solve problems arising from reduction accidents, which led to re-configuring the knapping strategy to achieve the predetermined “mental template.” Furthermore, no substantial morphological differences related to reduction intensity were noticed with the Q1/B handaxes. Systematic re-sharpening as the cause of shape variation seems highly unlikely, perhaps related to the short use-life of the Boxgrove-Q1/B handaxes. Preferred forms constitute part of a broader pattern emerging for specific handaxe types at different times during the British Acheulean. The patterns have tentatively been interpreted as the result of changing environments and the movement of hominin populations.
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