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Matt Pope, Simon Parfitt & Mark Roberts. 2020. The horse butchery site: a high resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK. Woking: Spoilheap Publications; 978-1912331154 paperback £25.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2021

Rob Hosfield*
Affiliation:
Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, UK
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Abstract

Type
Book Reviews
Information
Antiquity , Volume 95 , Issue 383 , October 2021 , pp. 1348 - 1350
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Antiquity Publications Ltd.

The site of Boxgrove in West Sussex has played a leading role in discussions of Lower Palaeolithic archaeology, both in the UK and internationally, since the major phases of excavations in the 1980s and 1990s. As with all such major archaeological projects, the journey from fieldwork to publication has been complicated: the 1999 monograph mainly reported results from the 1980s, and while aspects of the site have been published since then in a range of papers and PhD theses, there was a clear need for further volumes to draw together key aspects of the site and the later 1990s excavations. This excellent volume is the next step in that process.

The volume focuses on a discrete portion of the Boxgrove palaeolandscape: the concentration of horse remains and lithic artefacts in a single horizon (‘Unit 4b 2nd level’) of the Slindon Silts, which represents open mudflats within a semi-enclosed marine bay. This part of Boxgrove is commonly described as the horse-butchery site (and is referred to below as GTP-17 for simplicity). The GTP-17 evidence was initially presented and interpreted in the 1999 monograph, but this volume presents a revised interpretation (helpfully contrasted as Models 1 and 2 in Chapter 10), drawing in particular on expanded artefact re-fitting studies. The international significance of GTP-17 has always stemmed from the recognition at the time of excavation that it represented a short-lived and extremely well-preserved episode of hominin tool-making, tool-use and horse-butchery (if not necessarily hunting). As those familiar with the Lower Palaeolithic period will know, such instances are extremely rare and offer invaluable opportunities to discuss hominin behaviour on ecological timescales.

The volume is divided into ten clearly written chapters, covering the site's geology, palaeoenvironment and formation processes (Chapters 2−4 & 7), lithic and bone artefacts (Chapters 5 & 8), the horse remains (Chapters 6–7) and behavioural reconstructions (Chapters 9–10). It is pleasing to see French and German translations of the volume summary, especially given the international significance of the Boxgrove site. The volume is richly illustrated throughout, with some thought-provoking inclusions (e.g. the use of modern habitat images to illustrate aspects of the Boxgrove palaeolandscape). There is also a useful glossary and two valuable appendices.

The early chapters strike an impressive balance between presenting the overall geological sequence, site setting and excavation history (critical for a complex site such as Boxgrove), and where and how GTP-17 fits into that, especially in Chapter 3, while not ignoring uncertainties and complications in the interpretations. The discussion of GTP-17's taphonomy in Chapters 4 (lithics) and 7 (horse remains) is critical to the volume's behavioural reconstructions, and both chapters are generally convincing, suggesting a scenario of hominin activity over a few hours, carnivore activity over the following days and burial by multiple cycles of monthly high-tide sedimentation (McPhail suggests deposition of the Unit 4b 2nd level sediments over a few years in the first Appendix). Chapter 6 valuably draws together horse ecology and the site landscape to explore how and why a horse ended its life at GTP-17.

One of my favourite aspects of the volume is its emphasis on nuances and choices in hominin behaviour; for example, when highlighting the different origins and uses of bone tools (Chapter 8), flaking choices (Chapter 5) and when discussing artefact mobility (Chapters 5 & 9), which also brought to mind similar insights by Jane Hallos at other European Lower Palaeolithic sites. There are, and will continue to be, strongly held views about the nature of Middle Pleistocene hominins (i.e. what sorts of ‘humans’ were these?), and insights and data such as those presented here play a major role in informing those debates. The volume also includes a short initial report on an artefact with potentially wide-reaching implications: the possible lissoir (hide-working tool).

Chapters 9–10 convincingly draw all the evidence together to explore hominin behaviour at GTP-17 and consider the wider implications for our understanding of the Lower Palaeolithic. The interpretations emphasise hominin planning and anticipation of needs, the complexities of carcass exploitation, and social group sizes and dynamics (a personal highlight is the infants splashing in the water in fig. 9.4). The importance of artefact mobility and the spatial dimensions of the data to those interpretations does highlight the potential complicating impacts of excavation limits, as at so many sites (and I think the gap between the western and main Unit 4b excavation areas at GTP-17 is slightly under-explored in parts of the volume), but arguments must be made on the data as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Chapter 10 emphasises changing views of the Middle Pleistocene and the Lower Palaeolithic, and how GTP-17 has influenced and fits into those debates by providing “the clearest record globally of a hominin group engaged in a cooperative and assured episode of comprehensive carcass processing and complex stone and organic tool production” (p. 137). The nature of the GTP-17 evidence also makes important wider points about the impacts of sampling decisions on fieldwork data (an issue that feels especially pertinent given current concerns in the UK about archaeology and the planning process).

In places I would like to have seen additional annotations on figures (e.g. highlighting sample locations or specific lithic re-fits) and extra figures (e.g. high-resolution images of the different cut-marks). Occasional sections would also have benefitted from greater clarity (e.g. the use-wear discussions in Chapter 5). But these are minor issues and they do not detract significantly from the overall quality of the volume.

Overall this is an excellent volume, which highlights the ‘humanity’ of Lower Palaeolithic hominins and reminds us that we can, just occasionally, talk about a ‘day in the life’ in the human past, even half a million years ago in the Lower Palaeolithic. Congratulations to the three main authors and all the other contributors for bringing GTP-17 so successfully to full publication.

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Matt Pope, Simon Parfitt & Mark Roberts. 2020. The horse butchery site: a high resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK. Woking: Spoilheap Publications; 978-1912331154 paperback £25.
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Matt Pope, Simon Parfitt & Mark Roberts. 2020. The horse butchery site: a high resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK. Woking: Spoilheap Publications; 978-1912331154 paperback £25.
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Matt Pope, Simon Parfitt & Mark Roberts. 2020. The horse butchery site: a high resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK. Woking: Spoilheap Publications; 978-1912331154 paperback £25.
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