Monday 21 May 2012

The World's Oldest Hand[-soap] Axe!

Figure 1. On the left: a hand-soap axe. On the right: dorsal view of a bar of Dial glycerin soap, identical with the one from which the axe was fashioned. 
There's an old saying: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Well, here's my own version of joining 'em, straight from an Industrial Era archaeological site near the world headquarters of the Subversive Archaeologist. What you see in Figure 1 is an astonishing example of the forethought and planning that has been a hallmark of the human lineage from at least 1.75 Ma. The object on the right is an example of the raw material that was used in this case; on the left, the exquisitely symmetrical end-product of a complex series of water-aided reductive events, all of which were intended, from the outset, to result in this aesthetically pleasing and most useful tool. I'm calling it a hand-soap axe. There's no doubt in my mind that the object on the left is a deliberate product of a highly sophisticated, human, brain. 
Figure 2. On the left: a hand-soap axe. On the right left lateral view of the same bar of soap illustrated in Figure 1.
     Just look at the metrics. The raw material blank is rectangular in plan (see Figure 1), with a convex dorsal and concave ventral aspect and 1/2-round bevelled on all vertices (see Figure 2). Its dimensions are given in Table 1. 
These items were measured in the field using the only appurtenance available at the time: a Stanley No. 26 1/2 boxwood folding caliper rule (pictured below). It's an oldy. And it's only calibrated in 16ths, so these are very approximate numbers. We'll be able to get a better handle on the morphology when we're out of the field.
Stanley No. 36 1/2 boxwood folding calipers.
As for the hand-soap axe. A glance at it convinces one that it bears little resemblance to the block of raw material, which should persuade anyone with half a brain that its final shape had nothing to do with the original shape of the raw material block. Its lateral margins, pictured above, are perfectly bi-convex. When viewed on end, the same is true. The intention was for the dorso-ventral bi-convexity to create an angle of ca. 45° that is uniform through almost its entire length. Quite an accomplishment. No? Undoubtedly this would have been used to work skins.
     And look at the length of the product--the axe itself. The artisan who made this was ever-so-careful to avoid reducing the proximal and distal mass so as not to end up with a useless lump of soap. This is indeed an artifact that represents a high level of cognitive ability, and anyone who says 'Nay' is likely to be a closet bigot or someone who doesn't know their glycerine soap from sandpaper!
     As yet we've been unable to computer-model adequately how, with judicious application of plain old water, and simply by rolling it in his hands to create a lather, the human who made this was able to fashion such a gorgeous object. I'd go so far as to say that this example is SO perfect that it may even have been a ceremonial object, or money, or something like that! 
     PLoS one here we come!

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  1. guy, seriously, stop bashing the palaeolithic - these opinions you despise are the preserve of professors and naval gazers alone, as per everything in archaeology in ten years time you will finally see the efforts of the junior academics now! (in fact the problems you are attempting to highlight with ridicule have been in the peer reviewed arena for many many years (McNabb & Ashton 1995 - and probably earlier ones too). The rest of archaeology (the non-palaeolithic specialists - will catch up eventually). Whilst i find the essence of what you are saying funny myself, those that know no better will begin to view our work with ridicule - and thats not helpful to anyones cause.

  2. I love the idea of naval gazers. But seriously, I imagine Rob will be thrilled by this post. He must have struck a nerve.
    I would have thought that if you are a keen follower of Rob's blog you would have found that his central point is that there are orthodoxies in archaeology (probably all of archaeology, and probably not only archaeology) which do not get questioned as rigorously as they should be. I named one the "Finished Artefact Fallacy" but the original insights were from George Frison and Harold Dibble. This soap post is just following on from that.
    My friend and colleague Mark Moore has similarly used blocks of cheese to show that there is nothing very special about having long parallel sided flakes in some assemblages. But, you know, people still keep trotting out the same stuff.
    ON the other hand, you are right that in the fullness of time young scholars will work their way through the arguments such as Rob has been putting on this blog and realise that they make a fundamental difference to the way we look at things. I was talking to one such young scholar a couple of weeks ago who told me more or less exactly that. It is good news. But in the meantime, it is not necessary for anyone to read Rob's Blog unless they want to. I think you exaggerate the damage it will do to the reputation of archaeology even though it is deservedly popular. But then again, isn't it a good thing to puncture the stupidities of past practice so that they do not have to be taught and then unlearned.

  3. I didn't get that it was satire until I read Professor Underhill's post.
    Great article, I especially liked the use of the word concave.


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