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Antiquity Vol 77 No 296 June 2003

The Acheulian biface project: a digital archive for teaching and research

Gilbert Marshall, Clive Gamble & Derek Roe

The Acheulian handaxe is the icon of the Lower Palaeolithic. Since they are found from North Wales to southern Africa, from Iberia to India, and now even in China, it is possible to talk of an Acheulian world which lasted for at least one million years. Not surprisingly, much has been written about the significance of handaxes for understanding human evolution. Various authors have seen in them vital evidence for the discussion of early hominids with respect to language ability, technological capacity, raw material choice, landscape use, sexual selection and cognitive evolution, to name but a few. Handaxes have been measured, typed, replicated and examined for use wear and abrasion. They are the most studied of artefacts but remain enigmas, as Wynn (1995) once described them.

But one aspect of the remarkable handaxe phenomenon that has received relatively little attention has been the systematic comparison of these artefacts over their geographical range. For such a world icon the study of handaxes has remained curiously parochial. One notable exception is the work of Derek Roe who, mainly thirty to forty years ago, in the days of cheaper travel, was able to apply a standard analysis of shape to the Acheulian of Britain (Roe 1968), Olduvai Gorge (Roe 1994) and Kalambo Falls (Roe 2001).

With an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Board we undertook to document the international character of Acheulian bifaces, a term that includes handaxes, cleavers and picks. Since Roe's early work, advances in computing and especially digital imaging, have made it both timely and appropriate to begin the task of large-scale comparison. Therefore, our primary objective in the two-year Acheulian biface project was to compile a digitised archive of as many Lower Palaeolithic artefacts as we could, as a disciplinary resource for teaching and research. Such digital archives represent a major opportunity for archaeologists whose resources are scattered throughout the museums of the world, expensive to visit and where valuable research time can be spent duplicating effort. By concentrating on a well-defined artefact type we wanted to use the Acheulian project as a pilot to identify both the potentials and pitfalls in constructing such databases.

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1: Map of sampled locations
Figure 2 (Click to enlarge) Figure 3 (Click to enlarge)

Plate 1: Flint handaxes from Bowman's Lodge Pit and Cuxton, Kent, England

While the assembling of a substantial database was an end in itself, the main aim of the project was to sample the geographical range of these artefacts, in order to examine the role of raw materials. Recent studies of British handaxes have suggested ovates, rather than pointed forms, as the preferred biface shape (White 1998) probably because, as experimentation shows, they are more efficient for butchering large animals. Furthermore, it seems that the local availability of good raw material for knapping influenced which shape emerged, while the study of raw material transfer distances allows the reconstruction of small-scale hominid ranging patterns (Gamble and Steele 1999).

The British Acheulian is dominated by flint (PLATE 1), a raw material that is rarely encountered in Africa where sedimentary and volcanic rocks predominate (PLATE 2). Our major samples were therefore drawn from Britain and South Africa. In addition we examined material from Israel, Tanzania and Morocco (FIGURE 1). Where possible we set the sample size at a minimum of 200 bifaces for each assemblage.

The implements in the archive cover the ecological gradient in both the northern and southern hemispheres, from the tropics to temperate latitudes. This gradient is considered important in accounting for variation in the technology of recent hunters (Oswalt 1976), and would probably have been similarly so during the Lower Palaeolithic. Our biface archive provides the data to test such impressions in a more systematic manner.

The archive is maintained by the Archaeological Data Service and currently contains 3556 digitally recorded implements which can be viewed at

The implements have been photographed in three planes producing a total archive of 10668 images. The images themselves have been used to generate the measurements that are also contained in the archive. To achieve this we developed automated measuring software with colleagues David Dupplaw and Paul Lewis of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. This software allowed us to maximise time spent recording bifaces in museums and has proved very reliable and accurate. A test study compared the measurements taken directly from handaxes using hand-held callipers with the same implements measured from their digital image. The study produced results well within the range of error to be expected between two different researchers handling and measuring the same artefact. Whether as a research or teaching tool, the archive can be used to directly study how artefacts vary through visual and metrical means, without having to return to the museums.

The archive also contains information on raw material type as well as technological attributes for each implement. An introduction to the sites we sampled is also included. Our first conclusions on the impact of raw material on handaxe and cleaver shape (Gamble and Marshall 2001) expand the arguments put forward by others (Ashton and McNabb 1994; White 1998) for the flint rich British assemblages. Ovate shapes appear to be one of the 'default settings' throughout the Acheulian world, a result of factors affecting the natural production of flakes. Raw materials were universally obtained from within a short distance leading one of us (Gamble 1999) to describe the Acheulian as a set of transferable skills which accounts for its superficial similarity over such large and ecologically diverse geographical areas.

The database presents only a small sample of the artefacts from each of our study regions. It is planned that we, and hopefully other researchers can expand the archive as the opportunities arise. To this end it is hoped that the automatic measurement software can be made available as part of the archive.

Figure 4 (Click to enlarge) Figure 5 (Click to View)

Plate 2: Quartzite cleaver from Montago Cave and silcrete handaxe from Elandsfontein, South Africa


The work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Board grant AN5347/APN8525. Digital recording was undertaken by Gilbert Marshall and Paraskevi Elefanti. Computing assistance was given by David Dupplaw of ECS at Southampton University and William Kilbride of the ADS in York. A full list of acknowledgements can be found at the web site.


  • Ashton, N. and McNabb, J. 1994. 'Bifaces in perspective' in N. Ashton & A. David (ed.), Stories in stone: 182-191. London: Lithic Studies Society Occasional Paper 4 British Museum.
  • Gamble, C.S. 1999. The Palaeolithic societies of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gamble, C.S. and Steele, J. 1999. Hominid ranging patterns and dietary strategies, in H. Ullrich (ed.), Hominid evolution: lifestyles and survival strategies: 396-409. Gelsenkirchen: Edition Archaea.
  • Gamble, C.S. and Marshall, G.D. 2001. The shape of handaxes, the structure of the Acheulian World, in S. Milliken & J. Cook (ed.), A Very remote period indeed, Papers on the Palaeolithic presented to Derek Roe: 19-27. Oxford: Oxbow.
  • Oswalt, W.H. 1976. An Anthropological Analysis of Food-Getting Technology. New York: Wiley.
  • Roe, D.A. 1968. British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic handaxe groups. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 34: 1-82.
  • Roe, D.A. 1994. A metrical analysis of selected sets of handaxes and cleavers from Olduvai Gorge, in M.D. Leakey & D.A. Roe (ed.), Olduvai Gorge Volume 5: excavations in Beds III, IV and the Masek Beds, 1968-71: 146-234. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Roe, D.A. 2001. The Kalambo Falls large cutting tools: a comparative metrical and statistical analysis, in J.D. Clark (ed.), Kalambo Falls Prehistoric Site III: the earlier cultures: Middle and Earlier Stone Age: 492-599. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • White, M.J. 1998. On the significance of Acheulian biface variability in Southern Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 64: 15-44.
  • Wynn, T. 1995. Handaxe enigmas. World Archaeology 27: 10-24.

  • Marshall, Gamble: Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ
    Roe: Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre, Pitt Rivers Museum, 60 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN

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