The axeman cometh 450,000 years ago

WHEN Alan Price found himself with an hour to spare he decided to walk along the beach looking for the semi-precious stones which are often washed ashore.

Instead, he stumbled upon an ancient axe which could be up to 450,000 years old and may change our understanding of Scottish history.

The 14cm-long flint axe discovered on the shore at St Ola in Orkney was described as "incredibly exciting" by Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer in archaeology for the University of Aberdeen.

She believes the flint axe dates from the Palaeolithic period, or Old Stone Age, of prehistory and could be anything between 100,000 and 450,000 years old.

Palaeolithic axes are incredibly rare, with fewer than ten being found in Scotland.

Mr Price, 62, a full-time carer with a keen interest in archaeology, recognised his find as an axe head but was astonished to learn how old it was.

"I put my van in for a MOT and had an hour to spare so I thought I'd take a walk along the shore," he said. "It was just lying there among the gravel. I was actually looking for small, red agates which I used to find there years ago.

"I couldn't believe what I saw. I knew it was an axe but I didn't know it was palaeolithic. I'm interested in archaeology and have an eye for it. I've found things in the past like bits of pottery, but this is definitely the most significant discovery.

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"It's very rare in Scotland and has great historic value. It was really nice to see the response of Julie Gibson - the archaeologist I took it to. It then struck me that it might really be a really significant find."

The axe has been broken and originally would have tapered to a point opposite the cutting edge. But at some stage the point broke off and someone reworked the flint to its present straight edge.

Ms Wickham-Jones said: "This axe is definitely older than 100,000 years - so old it's become geology. Whoever made it would have been familiar with animals long since extinct - the woolly mammoth, for example. I find that really mind-blowing.

"If it really comes from Orkney, it would change our understanding of the whole of Scotland. It would set back our known history from 14,000 years ago to at least 100,000 years ago."

She said is was not possible to tell whether the axe is in fact from Orkney as Palaeolithic axes discovered in Scotland to date have not been found "in context" - that is, associated with other finds of the same era.

Julie Gibson, county archaeologist for Orkney, said as the axe was found by itself on the beach experts have to remain sceptical.

"We cannot just assume it was dropped by a local guy following a mammoth. I find it very possible that it is from the south of England and that it was brought here as part of the ballast of a sailing ship. But there is always a corner of doubt.

Just because we don't have any proof of Stone-Age people living here, it doesn't mean they didn't."