Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – Mesolithic picks and ‘tranchet axes’

Oh dear! For many years I’ve been telling people that the ‘tranchet axe’, typical of the Mesolithic period (10,000 to 6,000 years ago) was so named because ‘tranchet’ was the French for ‘cross-blow’ and it was this action that produced a chisel-like cutting edge. Not so; a ‘tranchet’ is a hunting or paring knife and puts a slightly different slant on things, if you see what I mean.  ‘Trancher’, the verb, means ‘to slice’, so I’m probably just splitting hairs, but I’ll go with that in future.

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Tranchet axe from Whitehill, Bordon.

Tranchet axe from Whitehill, Bordon.

Tranchet axes are comparatively numerous in Hampshire. J J Wymer, in his gazetteer of Mesolithic sites, describes how they vary considerably in size (anything from 100mm to 200mm in length) and that they are often referred to as ‘Thames Picks’, as so many have been dredged from that river.  They would originally have been hafted in wooden shafts, but these rarely survive.  The real ‘picks’ are more crudely manufactured, and often have a distinctive ‘banana’ shape. They can also be larger – the example from Privett is 270mm in length.

Primed for action: a pick from Privett with a replica handle

Primed for action: a pick from Privett with a replica handle

At Broom Hill, Braishfield, near Romsey, 113 axes and adzes were found and, in 1982, this could be claimed as the largest number from any single site in the United Kingdom. Michael O’Malley put this down to the good local supply of quality flint and that the inhabitants may have been making dug-out canoes. This number contrasts with the twenty tranchet axes recovered from Star Carr and neighbouring sites in Yorkshire.

A typical selection from the Willis collection

A typical selection from the Willis collection

George Willis (centre) and companions out searching for flints.

George Willis (centre) and companions out searching for flints.

Another pioneer archaeologist who made the most of the southern distribution was George Willis of Basingstoke. In the 1920s, he and his companions were dedicated ‘flinters’ in the fields of North Hampshire and found scores of artefacts. Their tally for 1928, for example, includes over 70 chipped or flaked axes and adzes and is typical of their endeavours.  They did more than their bit in picking the fields clean – so much so that you’d be hard-pressed to find such a tool in the ploughsoil today.

A more typical discovery would be that made by Adam Carew, in the roots of a tree at Whitehill, Bordon, (top) another area generally rich in evidence of the Mesolithic period.

References:

CBA Research Report 20, (1977) Gazetteer of Mesolithic sites in England & Wales, J J Wymer (ed).

O’Malley, M, (1982) When the Mammoth Roamed Romsey, A Study of the Prehistory of Romsey and District. LTVAS.

Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone.

Willis Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust

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2 Comments

  1. Marie Keates says:

    I may have to examine the stones in my garden a little more closely. We have a lot of flint and there may be axes amongst them.

  2. davidwhallen says:

    there are axes…and axes!

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