There’s lending a hand, and then there’s lending several hundred handaxes.
The latter is how UCCS, with the help of Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Thomas Wynn, received an impressive collection of stone artifacts from the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages ranging from about 6,000 to 600,000 years old. The Department of Anthropology has agreed to curate the collection, and the UCCS Center for Cognitive Archaeology paid the shipping costs.
Donated by Tony Berlant, a California-based American artist, the collection is comprised of nearly 1000 artifacts and is about 2/3 of Berlant’s overall collection. Berlant started collecting them around 1998 and his primary motivation when adding to his reservoir was how a handaxe spoke to him as an art form, versus selecting specimens based on their archaeological history. As a result, many of the handaxes have a similar teardrop-type shape and design while the texture and size vary. There are also several artifacts that are “spheroids,” some of which may have been used as hammerstones to chip flakes off of other stone tools.
While these types of tools often performed functions, many have “overdetermined” forms, meaning they were shaped beyond what was necessary for them to do the job they were made for, suggesting that those making them did so for not just functional but also visual appeal.
“Some of them are way too big to be effective hand tools, and we think that they were, in fact, used for display purposes or simply to demonstrate your skill at making the tools,” explained Wynn.
The collection, most of which comes from regions of northwest Africa, southwest Asia and western Europe, is being used not only for display but for teaching purposes. This gives students the opportunity to study and learn from them in class and the potential to use them in research projects.
“For example, if somebody wanted to do a research project on the relationship between raw material and artifact form, we have a huge range of raw material in these,” Wynn said. “Even if we don’t know their age or exactly where they’re from, we can figure out what the raw material is. And the student could look at it from a technical point of view and do that, so there are certainly research projects that the collection would be amenable to.”
Berlant chose UCCS as the collection recipient in part because of his work with Wynn. The two connected around 2012 when Berlant was looking for an archaeologist to help him put together an art exhibition of the stone tools and a curator from the British Museum suggested Wynn.
“Jill Cook, the curator, gave him my name and he called me out of the blue,” Wynn said. “We talked about hand axes for an hour and he had me fly out to LA and he flew in the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, and we sat around for several hours talking about hand axes and what we might do.”
Eventually Berlant and Wynn put together some of the collection for an exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, titled “First Sculpture” that opened in 2018.
To see the UCCS collection, head to Centennial hall where the display resides.
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