Milford historian treasures pre-human artifacts

Tim Chaucer holds the Acheulean hand axe, which he believes is up to one million years old.

Tim Chaucer holds the Acheulean hand axe, which he believes is up to one million years old.

Tim Chaucer, who runs the Milford Marine Institute museum, has a historian’s love of old things.

So when he got a call about five years ago from a Milford man who was getting rid of his grandfather’s collection of artifacts, some likely acquired during the years he funded Yale archaeological digs, Chaucer headed right over.

The man who called Chaucer said the collection had gotten wet, and he planned to throw away the items that he couldn’t give away.

Chaucer and his assistant spotted some interesting items right away, like three-legged pots dating to the 18th century.

“And then I see these three stone tools,” Chaucer said, indicating a trio of rocks now in his possession.

“I look at the stone tools and I see they are not North American,” Chaucer said, “but they are really old, I think.”

For a while he tried to find an expert who could tell him more about the stone tools, but he didn’t have any luck right away.

Fast forward two years, and Chaucer had a new assistant who was taking a course at Southern Connecticut State University with an expert on evolutionary archaeology.

So Chaucer asked his assistant to bring the tools to school and ask the professor to take a look at them.

That’s when Chaucer learned that what he had was not just old, but ancient. Pre-modern-civilization ancient.

According to Chaucer, SCSU Anthropology Professor Michael Rogers said one of the tools, which he calls an Acheulean hand axe, is 400,000 to 1 million years old, made by a pre-human Homo erectus.

Homo erectus, or “upright man,” had body proportions much more like humans than apes, Chaucer said. The species lived between 1.89 million years ago to 143,000 years ago, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“Looking at the patina, shape, technique of construction, Dr. Rogers had no reservations that this lithic tool was made by Homo erectus,” Chaucer said. “He was very confident of its age.”

Chaucer said the tool would have been used to cut meat, hide and saplings.

The smaller stone among the group, a grinding stone, is anywhere from 500,000 to one million years old, and was also fashioned by Homo erectus, Chaucer said.

And the meat cleaver, the final piece in the collection, is even older: Chaucer said it may be 1.2 million to 1.7 million years old.

Rogers called this piece “interesting and authentic,” Chaucer said, noting that the tool would have been used to cut apart animals, meat, bones, tendon and muscle.

The tools are Acheulean, which refers to the Lower Paleolithic culture in Europe, represented by hand-ax industries, according to an online source.

Rogers has been undertaking fieldwork in East Africa since 1990, according to a biography posted on the SCSU website. He completed his doctorate in 1997 by taking a landscape approach to the 1.5 million-year-old archaeological record at Koobi Fora, Kenya. Since then, he has worked at Koobi Fora, Kenya, on 1.5 million-year-old modified fossil bones sites; at Laetoli, Tanzania, on 2.7 million-year-old deposits, and at Gona, Ethiopia, on various 2.6-0.3 million-year-old sites.

In 2000, he discovered the oldest archaeological site in the world, containing both stone tools and fossil bones at Gona, according to the university website.

Chaucer said the tools do not have monetary value, but they have a lot of value for someone interested in history. When he holds one, he said, he tries to imagine the original owner and creator of the tool and the times so long ago.

He keeps the three stone tools in storage, and takes them out occasionally for special historical events in town, such as the Longest Night event at the Minuteman House in downtown Milford Dec. 21.

Rogers said he doesn’t recall the specific artifacts, noting that he had a very large class of students the year Chaucer’s assistant studied with him.

But looking at photos of them recently, the professor said they are typical tools of the Acheulean stone tool industry, which began about 1.7 million years ago and lasted until about 250,000 years ago.