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Eoliths: stone tool or natural?

Eoliths: stone tool or natural?

Walking on a beach, do you stop to admire a nice looking rock? I do.

I have a nice shiny Tanzanian rock sitting on my bookshelf – every time I look at it I am flooded with fond memories of my travels. Victorians liked to do this too. They particularly liked those they thought to be hand axes.

Before the Victorians and before the Stone Age was known to exist, some people thought that stone tools were the remnants of lightning bolts. Some even thought they were Roman: woolly mammoth bones with a stone tool were found in London and deemed to be Roman elephants from the time of Emperor Claudius.

Eventually, the antiquity of humanity was realised and a classification system for stone tools arose. People longed to find older and older tools – tools which were indicative of the origins of tool making and the earliest humans. The Victorians were finding thousands of very crude tools and these were popping up in museums everywhere. The problem was, they couldn’t distinguish between humanly-worked stone and those modified by natural processes like falling off a cliff.

These are called eoliths. Eoliths typically have fractures and look usefully sharp and so were widely accepted as artefactual. This was becoming an important issue as the presence of eoliths in very early Stone Age sediments was being used to prove that ancient humans were in Britain from 5.3 million years ago. Relating to nationalism, Britain was yearning to be the centre of the world and the evolutionary ‘birth place’ of mankind and tools as ancient as 5.3 million years, made Britain this piece of the puzzle.

Presumably not liking Britain taking this limelight, French prehistorian Marcellin Boule argued his theory in 1905 that eoliths were stones modified by natural processes like frost and mechanical shattering. It wasn’t until the 1930s however that eoliths were objectively demonstrated and generally agreed that their characteristics were homogenous with natural formation processes. Today it’s known that the earliest humanly-modified stones are found in Africa and are 3.3 million years old.

So how do we decide what’s a real stone tool?
Many decades of scientific study and experimental archaeology highlights humanly-modified stone exhibit:

  1. A bulb of percussion and conchoidal fracture(s). This arises from the elasticity of the flint.
  2. Facets on the flattish faces of the stone

What do eoliths mean for museums?
What do we do with these naturally ‘manufactured’ stones? I wrote this blog as I recently came across one when working in the stores at Rutland County Museum:

 

The British Museum, among others, holds many eoliths. Obviously these are using up lots of space which real hand axes could have. However, these stones can provide us with valuable and interesting information. Information can be revealed about the collector as well as the history of stone tool classification. The fact our predecessors had this debate about the authenticity of these stone tools is interesting. These objects are then part of the history of ideas which museums are here to tell.

What do you think the smaller museums should do? I think eoliths shed light on an important episode of Palaeolithic Archaeology. Typically, the smaller museum isn’t burdened by thousands of these stones so they’re not too much of a problem. Some museums have audited the eoliths and kept a small representative sample and have disposed of the rest. I’ve seen eolith museum gardens featured on the internet. Of which, small plaques could then inform museum users the stories behind them.

​For now, Rutland County Museum’s eolith is safe on the shelf.

By Ellie Cooper, Resilience Syndicate Intern at Rutland County Museum

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