Curator's Choice: Museum of London

My curator's choice is a Palaeolithic hand axe (above) found in Glasshouse St, by Piccadilly Circus, London WC2. It is between 400,000 and 70,000 years old and was discovered in about 1913 during building works in the area. The reason I like it is that it fits fantastically well into the hand and, when holding it, you have an instant sympathy with the person who used it.

The axe presents you with this instant link to the past, but at the same time it's such a distant past. The person holding the axe at that time would have probably been a member of a different sub-species to us altogether, Homo erectus (upright man), who originally spread out of Africa two million years ago and were the first people to reach Britain about 450,000 years ago. During the ice age they would have been able to walk across to Britain, at a time when the sea level was up to 200 metres lower than today and the whole continental shelf was exposed with no English Channel.

The hand axe itself is made from a large pebble of flint, probably taken from the river Thames, which has been meticulously chipped into shape. It is 17 cm long and 10 cm wide and would have been used for all sorts of tasks from cutting and chopping to using the blunt end as a hammer, basically the equivalent of the modern Swiss army knife. The people holding these axes would have been hunting deer, mammoth and woolly rhinoceroses on the tundra that is now Piccadilly Circus.

Nick Merriman is head of the Dept of Early London History and Collection at the Museum of London, EC2 (071-600 3699)

(Photograph omitted)

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