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Hand Sandwich


Here’s my hand, sandwiched between two marvels of engineering.

Hand axe

The hand axe is around 200,000 years old and is made of flint. I could heft it in my hand for hours. It fits perfectly in the palm, not just in one way, but offering varying surfaces for the fingers, multiple points of balance and arcs of trajectory. I don’t know who made it.

The Herbert bone screw is about 6 years old and is made of titanium. You can’t see it in this picture, only its wake, because it fits perfectly inside my scaphoid bone, deep inside my wrist, holding it together so I can continue to use my hand. It was screwed in by a Mr. McCullough.

There’s a story about loss and destruction here. One theory has it that these flint tools were made to be used and then thrown away. You don’t want loads of heavy stuff weighing you down when the main asset is in your head. It’s about the technique not the technology.

But skill is a process, much more delicate and fragile than an object, and now the artefact is all we have left. But as Mark Keleher was saying yesterday, there are twenty-first century experts in stone knapping. They’ve reconstructed the knowledge largely by reverse engineering ancient tools. So flints like this are now a kind of document. A kind of writing perhaps. A teaching, handed down over aeons.

It takes some effort to re-imagine what a stone age craftsperson’s attitude to objects might be. The degree of attachment to them. If I made a tool every time I needed one wouldn’t I gradually get better and faster at it, and walk lighter in between? On the other hand if I produced a particularly nice one would I want to hang on to it, learn its idiosyncracies, hand it on when arthritis took me over?

Driving too fast through a Welsh mountain blizzard listening to Tito Puente at full whack, I hit a patch of ice and found myself in a somersaulting car. I was lucky the car landed on its roof just yards before a lake, allowing me to escape with my life. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized there was something wrong with my wrist.

At that time I was earning my living mainly as a percussionist. Work which traditionally requires at least two hands. Over the next few years, while undergoing all sorts of diagnostic exams and osteo-carpentry, I had an opportunity to fully realize my dependency on my right hand.

There may be all sorts of tender feelings for treasures in a museum, or even in the world, but no object anywhere is more precious than one’s own body. It is nonetheless just that. An object. And no object lasts for ever. The real resourcefulness, it seems to me, is to enjoy what is here without depending on it.

I wonder if that stone age artisan happily discarded the product of his labour, recognizing that the sharpest thing he had, the one most perfectly fitted to his body and his environment, was not the thing he’d just let go of.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Priyabrata Acharya permalink
    10/07/2009 9:27 am

    I have been deeply puzzled by the interlink between spiritualism and materialism since my childhood and still searching for that one path that leads me to the way of this unique understanding. I have read about you and seek advice from you as to what first step should I take to embark on this path. Please help me by showing the way which I desperately am searching for. I wish all that helps you achieve success in the path you have chosen for yourself. Thanking you, Priyabrata Acharya . . . Kolkata

    • Cosi (on a twisted path) permalink
      10/07/2009 10:48 am

      Some people believe that you carry the answers to your spiritual questions within you.
      Look inward and maybe you will find your path 🙂
      I’m sorry if this is not the quick fix you ahd hoped for, but the best paths to travel are the difficult ones.

    • Nina from Brittany permalink
      10/07/2009 12:17 pm

      Apologies in advance if this sounds pompous…

      There are many paths to peace of mind (and heart). I’ve just pent my morning debating the pros and cons of war with a 22 year old wannabe pastor (I’m a 17 year old agnostic).

      He says that he has peace in his heart and that Jesus gave him that peace. I do believe he has found that special situation where he is absolutely happy and content, but I don’t think it was, or is easy, nor do I think it’s something he’s done, or somewhere he is. He does it every day.

      It’s not the only path to enlightenment, and it’s not the one you’re pursueing. (Also bear in mind my age and inexperience. I am still very much in the black and white stage of life, where right and wrong are clear cut and my vision of justice and rightness is unforgiving. But…)

      Priyabrata, I think his path has this in common with yours. It’s an ongoing journey, not a quick ride to a place of peace. I know what it’s like to feel lost, but you are on a path just like everyone else- Keep on walking. Keep trying. Keep moving. Keep fighting if you have to.

      If I’ve learned anything during my few years on the Earth, it is this:

      No matter how much help you are given, no matter how good that help is, it’s ultimately down to you, and you alone. I believe that is one of the great tragedies of life. No matter how much well-being you get from other people, the path to true peace is always personal, intimate, and lonely. Trust yourself.

    • 14/07/2009 5:57 pm

      Tumi jokhon Kolkata theke bolchho ami Bangla-tei likhchhi.
      Ei proshno gulo amake diye kono laab nei. Ami tomari moton jobab khnujchhi.
      Amar pokkhe ei project-ta shei jobab pabar ekta rasta. Tumi borom amar shonge ashte paro, ar buddhi khete ei blog-er alochonar moddhe neme porte paro.

      Ta chhara – kimba tar shonge shonge – aro akta upay achhe. Amar mote erchhe bhalo sushikkha kothao pabe na. Kolkatar kachhe Sodepur bole ekta jayega achhe, cheno? Shekhane gele, Boro Mandir Ghat-er pashe, Dhamma Ganga bole ekta vipassana kendro pabe. Oikhane dosh din theke ei chonchol mon-take sthir korao, ar moner moddhe ki ki hochchhe bhalo kore bojho. Aste aste shob proshno-r uttor apni apni sposhto hoye dekhte parbe.

      Ei website-e gele puro thikana, phone nombor, shob pabe.
      Ekbar cheshta kore dekho. Asha kori bhalo lagbe.
      Ar kore ekbar janiyo.

  2. Cosi (marvelling) permalink
    10/07/2009 11:28 am

    two marvels of engineering indeed.
    How can we be sure that flint tools were discarded as readily as you suggest? Of course prehistoric humans tried to travel light. Nonetheless, “Oetzi” (the ice-mummy found in the austro-italian alps), who certainly had reason to travel as lightly as possible, carried a flint dagger (even though he also had a copper axe, the very latest in technology at the time and possibly a much better tool and was making his arrows as he went along).
    But that’s beside the point. I am surprised that this stone tool was lingering in stores and not on display.
    Clearly Manchster Museum simply has way too much stuff in stores! There must be more ways to get it out and seen! I don’t know much about their outreach programmes, but maybe they should aim to put a display in every school in Greater Manchester. Everyday objects such as this are particularly good for this purpose and it doesn’t matter, if we have little information about their context & provenance.
    Children are not that bothered about knowing where something comes from and much more interested in seeing how it was used.

  3. 10/07/2009 3:18 pm

    Cosi – I work with the secondary education dept, and I absolutely agree; I am working on various ideas for outreach; I would love to develop a project which involved young people and children selecting objects for display/ research from the stores … hopefully something will develop from the Hermit project, and a resource I’ve been developing over the last year.

    However, I disagree with you on one point: I think children are fascinated by the history of objects. More to the point, I think children (and adults) always desire to make a connection between their own personal narratives those of objects.

    Essentially, objects are for storytelling, and in storytelling we lose all boundaries of truth and reality, fantasy and fiction. Objects embody spatial histories of travel, of physical and emotional journeys, of personal development. They are essential to the human cycle of birth, love, hate, transition, abandonment, loss and death. To engage with an object – to handle and to view – is to witness layers of human history, onto which we project our own narrative and story. Children and young people understand these themes as well as any adult. I hope we can hear some young voices soon …

  4. Bodger permalink
    10/07/2009 3:53 pm

    Wonder what people in the future will make of us from the tools we leave behind.

    Wonder what people in the future will make of the Hermit’s hand. Sounds almost Terminator-like.

    • Lucas permalink
      11/07/2009 9:30 am

      Dear Hermit you should keep the hand sandwich beacause it is really old but it is SUPER COOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      Lucas (aged 8 )

  5. 11/07/2009 2:15 pm

    “But skill is a process.”

    The axe head is process too. ‘Substance’ and ‘process’ are just complementary apprehensions of one reality.

  6. 11/07/2009 9:01 pm

    Here are some relevent bits I have written on KNIFE which seem relevent to this image.

    ‘The Knife becomes an extension… like claws or sharp horns. A Knife may be used in defence, but equally it may be used to attack’.

    Knife has co-evolved with the human species, shaping cultures, emotions, habits and behaviours and perhaps even our bodies. It has survived both because it is useful and because we have!

  7. 11/07/2009 9:12 pm


    I am returned from my week in the woods, but was working elsewhere today. I was demonstrating friction fire and ‘primative skills’ down at the Eden Project to a bunch of keen families. Myself and a colleague, who happens to specialise in flint knapping. Today we ran a ‘have a go’ at making fire the ancient (but every bit as valid) way, using friction. We also were treated to a display of some truly stunning flint tools, spear heads, arrows and atlatl points, all of which were made within the last couple of years.

    The technology is anything but primative. Some of the fine microliths are still out of reach of the skills of even the best contemporary knappers alive today. Talk to any one studying the fine craft of knapping and they will soon make it know the worth of studying and handling ancient stone tools. They offer so much more then their appearance as crude man-made objects might suggest. To track the movements and even thought processes of another human from a time when life on earth was very different gives us a completely unique perspective on what it is to be human.

    Please keep it for us all to learn from.

  8. 11/07/2009 9:22 pm

    Dear Hermit,
    could I to claim the hand axe to save it from destruction. I teach the young about our ancestors using artifacts like this one.

    We animate the lives of our forebears by using and making their tools. To hold a hand axe in your hand and realise it was made by our earliest ancestors prehaps 2 million years ago is truly a spiritual experience, that connects you to them.

    To then be able to share that skill, wisdom and enthusiasm with the young is beyond description.

    To know your ancestors is to know yourself, something we need now more than ever before

    All the very best


  9. 11/07/2009 10:05 pm

    OK Ansuman.

    I have re-read my previous post and realised that I am still guilty of theorising. ‘We can learn from it’ is not strong enough a statement and offers no commitment – and I know action is what you are after.

    So, after a day of being surrounded by flint tools and glimpsing a world that otherwise has remained mysterious to me, I vouch to learn to knap in order to more fully appreciate the process and the resultant objects from our stone age past.

    I am fortunate enough to know of a person to teach me and now I must negotiate with them to offer something of similar value in return. I must also focus my energy on building the skills and knowledge base as well as give up my ever precious down-time in order to realise this.

    Alternatively, if there is anyone out there that can commit to offer their skills and knowledge on the subject then please get in touch. I have a lot to learn!

    • 13/07/2009 10:26 am

      Hi Martin. Good place to meet huh!!
      Mark and I want to learn to flint knap too, so if your friend agrees I wonder if could come in on it ? Sure we can agree something by way of recompense.
      Meanwhile I already experimenting with simple hafts- moss, seaweed- to make the
      two part ” knife”. Not sure how to upload images here.

      • 13/07/2009 12:34 pm

        Anna, and anyone else with pictures to share, the best way to upload them is on the Manchester Hermit Flickr group. In the sidebar to your right there’s a link that will take you there. I look forward to seeing them.

        Videos can be posted on YouTube for us all to see. Let me know if any of you would like to do that.

        Anyone who can’t upload that way is welcome to come to the Museum where someone will help you, or mail your work to me at the Museum in an old fashioned paper envelope.

        As for the flint knapping lessons, it looks like we’re starting to gather a whole workshop. Cat over on The Point is also interested. Any more?
        I wonder if the museum could lay on a flint knapping day? And plenty of bandages.

        Alternatively I can recommend a fine bunch of people here who will be able to help you teach or learn anything. Sign up and start a neolithic revolution (again).

        • 13/07/2009 2:52 pm

          Thanks Ansuman,
          Have just uploaded images to your flikr. So fingers crossed you can see them.

  10. trine permalink
    13/07/2009 4:00 pm

    hi ansuman`
    the lady who has let me looseon this laptop0in th e resouce centre says im the fist member of the public to venture up here beneath you,now theres a thing!

    first of all hand sandwich,immediately raised a memory,of a river it was summer so the river bed was dry enough to walk mostways,and i had my drum with me big deep toned buffalow drum,with a hand made beater,a majical instrument,were lovers my drum and i.

    so there iam walking the river,drumming, when,my head turned to the ground and engaged,and there it was, long the thickness of a branchfrom the arm of a young tree,but this was stone, white, bleached by the passages of the river.

    i reached for the stone.

    later it was stolen,but that stone stil lives,as it did when itouched it,instantly i knew,it spoke through th touch communicaiton,it had been made.

    scarey,it was made by hand for a hand,the feeling so strong i knew exacctly which way it had been held,

    wornas it was over time it stioll bore the semblence to a stone honed to an edge an axe,or for scaping skins,heavy,longer that my hand .

    a handsome waepon

    • 14/07/2009 6:04 pm

      Thanks trine. Beautiful story. Sounds like a desirable stone. Wonder how many times it’s been lost and stolen.

  11. Bryan Sitch permalink
    16/07/2009 11:09 am

    I share JC’s commitment to showing objects like the handaxe to school children and students. In fact this example was actually used in our education section for many years and the chances are that thousands of Manchester kids have seen and handled it.

    The problem today (and I guess this is why the education staff returned the handaxe to us) is that education is directed by the needs of the National Curiculum and if a subject is not listed then teachers don’t teach it and don’t ask to use the objects. The situation might change of course but currently Romans and Egyptians are part of the National Curriculum, prehistory sadly is not.

    Yet the majority of the time that ‘modern’ human beings have been on earth is classed as prehistory. To ignore it is to ignore the developments that made and make us human.

    Human evolution, prehistory and stone tools were all hotly debated a century and a half ago, which explains the large collection of stone implements amassed here at the Manchester Museum by our predecessors as curators, people like William Boyd Dawkins.

    So, historically there is a reason why we have the collections but we have more than we can currently display all at once, though we can and do use objects in handling, outreach and (to a small degree in this case) in education.

    It remains a cracking object and to hold it is to reconnect with our dim and distant past and to ponder on what makes us human and to ask how did we get from using stone tools like this to living in towns and cities, driving cars and shopping in supermarkets…

  12. 16/07/2009 12:01 pm

    Bryan I like what you wrote re the hand-axe and education.
    I am fascinated by the capacity this and similare tools have to shape behaviours; holding, photographing, typing, looking, thinking, cutting.

    For technology obsessed primates, contact with this or similar ancient artifacts has got to be fundemental to any serious quest to understand ourselves, lives and cultures. Useful tool for carving out the future.

    To see the tool/haft images I have uploaded in the group pool. Please click on the flikr icon to lower right of page.
    Ansuman suggested I also direct you to see more of my y engagement with archaeological remains as part of a dialogue with place, people and things.

  13. Bryan Sitch permalink
    22/09/2009 4:04 pm

    It was suggested at the recent Hermit meeting at the Manchester Museum that we dispose of the hand axe because it was unprovenanced, had been broken in the past and glued back together. There are other better examples of hand axes in the collection. However, it was felt better to use the hand axe in outreach, perhaps as a model for a flint knapping activity. Several people had expressed interest in flint knapping on the Blog. John Lord was a popular demonstrator. I’ve spoken to Anna Bunney, Curator of Public Programmes at the Museum, about running this as an event.

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