Reproduced from the British Museum website to complement our articles on symbolic representation.
Lower Palaeolithic, about 800,000 years old. From Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.
The first signs of artistic endeavour?
This small handaxe from Bed IV in Olduvai Gorge is one of the most beautiful in the British Museum. It is made from quartz with attractive amethyst banding, a difficult material from which to make tools because it is extremely hard. The toolmaker would have had to hit with considerable force and accuracy to remove flakes and irregularities in the crystal structure could cause faulty removals. Such a high degree of difficulty makes the thin symmetrical shape of this piece a masterpiece of the toolmaker’s art.
After roughing out the basic form of this handaxe, the maker went on to refine its shape, straighten its edges and thin it down. This added little to its usefulness: a simple, sharp quartz flake would have worked as well. It suggests that the skill invested in producing such beautiful and sometimes very large handaxes may have had other purposes. Perhaps some pieces were status symbols or part of courtship rituals used to attract a mate. Certainly such artefacts go beyond simple needs and functional demands. They suggest that early humans could envisage a certain end product and use it as a form of symbolic communication. In this sense, handaxes may be said to represent the earliest indication of artistic endeavour.