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Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, Pro-Vice Provost for Africa and The Middle East, talks axes, status and civilisation.

Interview Kate Hilpern
Photograph Alun Callender


The thing that appeals to me most about these 400,000-year-old hand axes is the proof they provide of functioning societies long before Africa was colonised by various Western countries. The traditional narrative is that colonisation is the point at which things really start for the continent, but the axes point to a very early group of humans living in the Nile area of Egypt, with societies that were organised enough for a person to be making tools.

You can see and feel exactly where the stone has been chiselled away, but there are no sharp edges, so you are left with this wonderful smoothness that means they’ve been used quite a bit. From a tactile perspective, they really speak to me about the person who first made them and used them. It’s not that we know exactly what they were used for – we don’t – but what is clear is that, through trial and error, this sculptor decided that this was the best shape to get the job done.

Each hand axe fits beautifully into my (rather large) hand, suggesting they were made for a man. That makes you wonder what sort of place women had – probably quite lowly. It’s also likely that, conversely, the person making these tools would have had a very high status in this micro-society. And if you consider that early humans had to do everything for themselves, then these sculptors must have depended on others for those tasks. From this, you can surmise that hierarchies were forming due to the possession of certain skills, and I like the way these tools tie in so neatly with UCL’s own aim of giving students knowledge to gain wider benefits – transforming them into highly skilled individuals, just like one of these early craftsmen.

If you think about what’s already known about early Egypt, it mostly comes from funeral-related objects, particularly around kings, revealing the power and high standing they had. In many ways, this has shaped our understanding about early Egyptian civilisation. How amazing to see that well before this, a lot of human activity was already taking place in this area of Africa.”

The UCL Petrie museum is open to the public Tuesday to Saturday 13.00 – 17.00. For more information visit www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie or follow the museum on Twitter @Petriemuseum

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Portico Issue 3. 2016/17