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

Something Seasonal – the Virgin and Child

virgin & child

This delicately carved ivory plaque was found during excavations by W J Andrew at Romsey Abbey in 1922. The dig was financed by Col. Ashley, owner of Broadlands, but Andrew retained the ivory and displayed it at a Society of Antiquaries meeting in 1927. Seven years later, following his death, it was sold by auction at Sothebys. It then effectively disappeared from view until its re-emergence in a Paris salesroom sixty-four years later.

With the help of grants from the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Fund, Test Valley Borough Council and the Friends of Andover Museum, Hampshire County Council was able to buy the piece, and it is currently on display at Andover Museum.

The ivory is 135mm in height. The crowned Virgin is seated, supporting the Child, who is standing on her left knee. There are traces of red colouring in the folds of her gown. He holds an apple in his left hand and was originally gazing at a flower in her right, but one unhappy occurrence between the 1934 and 1998 sales, was that the head of the Infant was lost.

Expert opinion, based on stylistic features and the quality of workmanship, places the ivory in the early 14th century; and considers it to be of French workmanship.  Ivory has been used for making artefacts since prehistoric times. In Northern Europe walrus tusk was popular, as well as the more obvious elephant ivory. There appears to have been a lack of raw material in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, but this was followed by the emergence of a massive industry of elephant ivory carving in Paris, mostly creating large numbers of small objects for private devotion, and this is when the piece was made.

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One strange consequence of the use of elephant ivory is how it influenced artists working in other materials. The Virgin and Child of la Sainte-Chapelle, (above left) now in the Louvre, Paris, incorporates the natural curve of the tusk into the finished piece. This ‘leaning Virgin’ attitude was then copied by sculptors in wood and stone, as is apparent in the Virgin and Child from Sainte-Corneille, Compiègne, (above right) a stone statue which need not have struck such a pose.

Virgin and Child – A1998.20