British Collections by Archaeological Period:

Palaeolithic (c. 750,000 - 12,000 years ago)

The Palaeolithic (or Old Stone Age') in Britain spans a period from at least 700,000 years ago until around 12,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene geological epoch ('Ice Age'). The Palaeolithic is traditionally considered to consist of three main periods: a Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. Currently the earliest evidence of occupation in Britain during the Lower Palaeolithic dates to at least 700,000 years ago in East Anglia.

In common with most museums in Britain the Ashmolean collection is dominated by Lower and Middle Palaeolithic material, while Upper Palaeolithic material forms a very small proportion of the holdings. This situation is presumed to result from a variety of factors including the visibility of handaxes and other larger objects in the archaeological record, the practice of collectors concentrating on gravel quarries and similar exposures where Lower Palaeolithic material is known to occur, and the general focus of Palaeolithic research being directed to the oldest finds.

The Palaeolithic collection at the Ashmolean is dominated by the personal collection of Sir John Evans (1823-1908), which was presented to the museum by his son, Sir Arthur Evans, in 1927. Sir John was a pioneering figure in the fields of prehistoric archaeology, geology and numismatics, and one of most eminent antiquarian collectors and thinkers of his day. He is perhaps best remembered as being, with Sir Joseph Prestwich, one of the people responsible in 1859 for providing the decisive evidence for an extended antiquity of humans beyond the boundaries of written records and into distant geological time. He is also recognised as being the main 19th century scholar and proponent of the concept of a chronologically distant Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) populated by archaic peoples.

Sir John amassed one of the two major mid-late 19th century collections of Palaeolithic material from Britain and from around the world – the other being by the British Museum. He was an active and direct collector who conducted geological fieldwork with his colleagues, built up a network of informed contacts amongst quarrymen and local collectors, encouraged other researchers, and publicised the subject in popular as well as academic lectures and publications. In addition, for almost 50 years he was regarded internationally as the greatest authority on the Palaeolithic, and new discoveries were usually brought to him for authentication. The collection consists mainly of type series and specimens from classic sites, and provides an excellent resource for study of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods in Britain, and the history of the profession.

The Ashmolean's Palaeolithic collection is complemented by that of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, which was a key institution for research and teaching on the Palaeolithic from the 1910s - 1920s until 2003, when the Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre (founded at the Pitt Rivers in 1975) moved to the Oxford University Institute of Archaeology.

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Paleolithic axe

Paleolithic axe from Chatteris, Cambridgeshire (AN1928.69)

Paleolithic axe

Paleolithic axe from Cannoncourt Farm, Maidenhead (AN1941.832)

Paleolithic axe

Lower Paleolithic axe from North Hill, Lakenheath, Suffolk (AN1886.1112)

Paleolithic tool

Paleolithic tool from Wick Plateau, Kent (AN1928.128) (John Evans)

flint tool from Hertfordshire

Paleolithic tool from Hitchin, Hertfordshire (AN1928.109e) (John Evans)

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January 2012