John McNabb

Primary position:
Senior Lecturer in Palaeolithic Archaeology


The University of Southampton
Dr John McNabb's photo

I began my archaeological career at Lancaster University. Dr Roger Jacobi was an inspirational lecturer and he kindled a passion for human origins research that has never dimmed. After my BA I went to the Institute of Archaeology in London to do an MA under the equally inspiring Dr Mark Newcomer. It was he who set me to look at the excavated material from the Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, which had not been published at that time. This became the core of my doctoral dissertation on the Clactonian, an industry that is still very close to my heart. After completing my Ph.D I worked as a volunteer assistant at the British Museum where I collaborated with friends and colleagues on publishing Swanscombe and working on other British Lower Palaeolithic sites. In 1995 I replaced Professor John Gowlett for a year at Liverpool while he was on sabbatical. I stayed on as an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool working on further publications of British Lower Palaeolithic sites and collaborating with colleagues from Liverpool and Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, on Earlier Stone Age sites in South Africa.

I joined the Southampton department in 2000. Since then I have worked on a number of projects, completed my African research, and developed new interests in the history of Human Origins research. Most recently I have been collaborating with colleagues from the University of Crete to excavate and analyse the first extensive Lower Palaeolithic site in Greece, on the island of Lesvos. I am also developing other reseach interests in Tanzania with colleagues from the University of Dar-es-Salaam and the University of Brighton.

Web linksOther University of Southampton sites


The University of Southampton's electronic library (e-prints)


McNabb, John and Cole, James (2015) The Mirror Cracked: symmetry and refinement in the Acheulean handaxe. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 1-33. (In Press).
Galanidou, N., Cole, James Nathan, Iliopoulos, G. and McNabb, John (2013) East meets West: the Middle Pleistocene site of Rodafnidia on Lesvos, Greece. Antiquity , 87, (336)
McNabb , John and Beaumont, Peter (2012) Excavations in the Acheulean Levels at the Earlier Stone Age Site of Canteen Koppie, Northern Province, South Africa. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 78, 51-71. (doi:10.1017/S0079497X00027109).
McNabb, J., Hosfield, R., Dearling, K., Barker, D., Strutt, K., Cole, J., Bates, M. and Toms, P. (2012) Recent work at the lower palaeolithic site of Corfe Mullen, Dorset, England. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 78, 35-50. (doi:10.1017/S0079497X00027092).
McNabb, John, Cole, James, Hodgson, Derek, Coward, Fiona and Grove, Matt, Ruebens, Karen and Cole, James (eds.) (2012) Human Origins.
McNabb, John and Hannah, Fluck (2007) Raw material exploitation at the middle Pleistocene site of Vértesszölös. Lithics, 28, 50-64.
McNabb, John (2005) On tools and traditions. Reply to Palmer, Coe and Wadley. Current Anthropology, 46, (3), 460-462. (doi:10.1086/430015).
McNabb, John (2005) More on Acheulean tools. Reply to Hodgson. Current Anthropology, 46, (4), 648-649. (doi:10.1086/432749).
McNabb, John, Binyon, Francesca and Hazelwood, Lee (2004) The large cutting tools from the South African Acheulean and the question of social traditions. Current Anthropology, 45, (5), 653-677. (doi:10.1086/423973).
White, Mark, Lewis, S G and McNabb, John (1998) Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic Site of Whipsnade, Bedfordshire 1992-1994. Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, 110, (3), 241-255. (doi:10.1016/S0016-7878(99)80074-1).
White, Mark, Mitchell, John, Bridgland, David and McNabb, John (1998) Rescue excavations at an Acheulean site at Southend Road, South Woodford, London Borough of Redbridge, E18 (TQ 407905). The Archaeological Journal, 155, 1-21.
McNabb, John and Ashton, Nick (1995) Thoughtful flakers. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 5, (2), 289-298. (doi:10.1017/S0959774300015080).
McNabb, J. and Ashton, N. (1995) Editors note. [in special issue: Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Edition] Lithics, 16, 1.
Ashton, N.M., Bowen, D.Q., Holman, J.A., Hunt, C.O., Irving, B.G., Kemp, R.A., Lewis, S.G., McNabb, John, Parfitt, S. and Seddon, M.B. (1994) Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic site at East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk 1989-92. Journal of the Geological Society of London, 151, 599-605. (doi:10.1144/gsjgs.151.4.0599).
Ashton, Nick, McNabb, John, Irving, Brian, Lewis, Simon and Parfitt, Simon (1994) Contemporaneity of Clactonian and Acheulean flint industries at Barnham, Suffolk. Antiquity, 68, (260), 585-589.
Ashton, Nick and McNabb, John (1994) Bifaces in perspective. Stories in Stone Lithic Studies Society Occasional Papers, 4, 182-191.
McNabb, John and Ashton, Nick (1992) The cutting edge, bifaces in the Clactonian. Lithics, 13, 4-10.
Ashton, Nick, McNabb, John and Parfitt, Simon (1992) Choppers and the Clactonian: a reinvestigation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 58, 21-28.
Ashton, Nick, Dean, Phil and McNabb, John (1991) Flaked flakes: what, where, when and why? Lithics, 12, 1-11.
McNabb, John and Ashton, Nick (1990) Clactonian gunflints. Lithics, 11, 44-47.
McNabb, John (1989) Sticks and stones: a possible experimental solution to the question of how the Clacton spear point was made. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 55, 251-257.


McNabb, John and Sinclair, Anthony (eds.) (2009) The Cave of Hearths: Makapan Middle Pleistocene Research Project: field research by Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Quinney, 1996-2001, Oxford, GB, Archaeopress, 193pp. (University of Southampton Series in Archaeology, 1).
McNabb, John (2007) The British Lower Palaeolithic: stones in contention, London, UK, Routledge, 448pp.
Conway, B., McNabb, J. and Ashton, N. (eds.) (1996) Excavations at the Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe, 1968-1972, London, GB, British Museum Press, 265pp. (Occassional Papers of the British Museum, 94).

Book Section

McNabb, John (2012) The importance of conveyIng visual Information in Acheulean society. The background to the visual display hypothesis. In, Cole, James and Ruebens, Karen (eds.) Human Origins. Volume 1. Oxford, GB, Archaeopress, 1-23. (Papers from the British Academy. Lucy to Language: Archaeology of the Social Brain. Seminar Series on Palaeolithic Visual Display).
McNabb, John and Wadley, Lynn (2009) Introduction. In, Sinclair, Anthony (ed.) The Cave of Hearths: Makapan Middle Pleistocene Research Project: Field Research by Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Quinney, 1996-2001. Oxford, GB, Archaeopress, 1-11.
McNabb, John (2009) The ESA Stone Tool Assemblage from the Cave of Hearths, Beds 1-3. In, McNabb, John and Sinclair , Anthony (eds.) The Cave of Hearths: Makapan Middle Pleistocene Research Project: Field Research by Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Quinney, 1996-2001. , Archaeopress, 75-104. (University of Southampton Series in Archaeology, 1).
McNabb, J., Sinclair, A. and Underhill, D. (2009) Overview and broader significance of the ESA and MSA at the Cave of Hearths. In, McNabb, J. and Sinclair, A. (eds.) The Cave of Hearths: Makapan Middle Pleistocene Research Project: Field Research by Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Quinney, 1996-2001. Oxford, GB, Archaeopress, 150-163. (University of Southampton Series in Archaeology, 1).
McNabb, John (2007) 1.9 Myr-300,000 years ago in Europe. In, Elias, Scott A. (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Quaternary Science. Volume 1. London, GB, Elsevier, 89-98. (doi:10.1016/B0-44-452747-8/00363-X).
McNabb, John, Jacobi, Roger and Collcutt, Simon (2006) Chapter 2: the Palaeolithic. In, Cooper, Nicholas (ed.) The Archaeology of the East Midlands. An Archaeological Resource Assessment and Research Agenda. UK, University of Leicester Archaeological Services, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, 11-43. (Leicester Archaeological Monographs 13).
McNabb, John (2005) Hominins and the Early-Middle Pleistocene transition: evolution, culture and climate in Africa and Europe. In, Head, M.J. and Gibbard, P.L. (eds.) Early-Middle Pleistocene Transitions: The Land-Ocean Evidence. London, UK, Geological Society, 287-304. (GSL Special Publications, 247). (doi:10.1144/GSL.SP.2005.247.01.17).
Sinclair, Anthony and McNabb, John (2005) All in a day's work: Middle Pleistocene individuals, materiality and the lifespace at Makapansgat, South Africa. In, Gamble, Clive and Porr, Martin (eds.) The Individual hominid in context : archaeological investigations of lower and middle Palaeolithic landscapes, locales and artefacts. London, UK, Routledge, 176-196.
Garrard, Andrew, Conolly, James, McNabb, John and Moloney, Nora (2004) Palaeolithic-Neolithic Survey in the Sakçagözü Region of the Northern Levantine Rift Valley. In, Le Mière, O A M and Sanlaville, P (eds.) From the River to the Sea: the Euphrates and the Levant. , British Archaeological Reports, International Series, Archaeopress, 145-163. (British Archaeological Reports International Series, 1263).
McNabb, John, Sinclair, Anthony and Quinney, Patrick (2003) Recent Investigations into the Later Acheulean of Makapansgat Region, Northern Province, South Africa. In, Moloney, Norah and Shott, Michael J. (eds.) Lithic Analysis at the Millennium. London, UK, Institute of Archaeology, UCL, 1-16.
McNabb, John (2001) The shape of things to come. A speculative essay on the role of the Victoria West phenomenon at Canteen Koppie during the South African earlier stone age. In, Miliken, Sarah and Cook, Jill (eds.) A Very Remote Period Indeed: Papers on the Palaeolithic presented to Derek Roe. London, GB, Oxbow Books, 37-46.
McNabb, John (1998) The history of investigations at the East Farm Pit, Barnham. In, Ashton, Nick, Lewis, Simon and Parfitt, Simon (eds.) Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic Site of Barnham St Gregory, Suffolk, 1989-1994. London, GB, British Museum, 5-12. (Occasional Papers of the British Museum, 125).
McNabb, John (1998) On the move. Time, averaging and resource transport in the Oldowan. In, Aston, Nick, Healy, Francis and Pettitt, Paul (eds.) Stone Age Archaeology. Essays in Honour of John Wymer. Oxford, GB, Oxbow, 15-22. (Lithic Studies Society Occasional Paper, 6).
Ashton, N., McNabb, J. and Bridgland, D. (1995) Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe. In, Bridgland, D., Allen, P. and Haggart, B.A. (eds.) The Quaternary of the Lower Reaches of the Thames: Field Guide. Durham, GB, Quaternary Research Association, 129-143.
White, M., Bridgland, D., Ashton, N., McNabb, J. and Berger, M. (1995) Wansunt Pit, Dartford Heath. In, Bridgland, D., Allen, P. and Haggart, B.A. (eds.) The Quaternary of the Lower Reaches of the Thames: Field Guide. , Quaternary Research Association.
Ashton, N., McNabb, J., Irving, B., Lewis, S. and Parfitt, S. (1994) Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic site of East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk 1989-93. In, Keen, D. (ed.) Excursion Scientific en Angleterre, 12-15 mai 1994. Livret-Guide. , Association Française pour l'Etude du Quaternaire.
Ashton, N. and McNabb, J. (1992) The interpretation and context of the High Lodge Industries. In, Ashton, N., Cook, J. and Rose, J. (eds.) High Lodge: Excavations by G. de G. Sieveking 1962-1968, and J. Cook 1988. London, GB, British Museum Publications, 164-168.


McNabb, John and Beaumont, Peter (2011) A report on the archaeological assemblages from excavations by Peter Beaumont at Canteen Koppie, Northern Cape, South Africa. , Archaeopress, 86pp. (University of Southampton Series in Archaeology, 4).


Research Interests

One of the principal themes of my research is Interpreting the behaviour of ancient human ancestors. This is largely based on either the analysis of ancient material culture, primarily stone tools, or alternatively on site based contextual data (and more usually both). Specifically my interests focus on 1.8 - 0.25 million years ago, and the period of the Acheulean handaxe culture. I have developed (and continue to do so) original and innovative ways of interrogating handaxes, and other stone tools, in order to draw out an understanding of the behaviour of the hominins who made these tools. I have applied these new methodologies at sites I have directed or worked on in South Africa, Europe, and UK. Major monographs have recently appeared on Canteen Koppie and Cave of Hearths, two key sites in South Africa. I have also extended and adapted my methodology to explore more theoretical issues which focus on what stone tools can tell us about the cognitive evolution of humans. I am currently working on the question of when do hominins begin to incorporate non-utilitarian messages into material culture. This question boils down to when do we become self-aware, and when do we become aware that others in our social group are the same. This is a key threshold in our evolution, and one that is currently under researched.

The second them is the historical research on the development of human origins as an intellectual question in Victorian and Edwardian society. I have recently completed and published my latest book Dissent with Modification. It takes a multidisciplinary look at the period 1859 to 1901. It combines archaeology and anthropology with historical and literary scholarship. It incorporates arguments about what exactly the Victorian general public understood human evolution to be, and where that information came from. I argue that despite an unprecedented access to factual data and polemical discussion through topical magazines, much of the public's understanding of human evolution came from fictional stories, in particular science fiction. This was one of the very few outlets whereby ‘unpalatable' truths on brutish origins could be presented in a safe and non-threatening medium. As an extension of this strand I am currently involved in the reanalysis of the Piltdown forgery whose centenial is this year. I was the first researcher to investigate the stone tools from the hoax in 50 years. Some important new insights into the forgery and the practise of Edwardian science came out of this (2006 paper in The Arch. J.).

Primary research group:  Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins

Research projects

Lower Palaeolithic Lesvos

This project is exploring the character of Lower Palaeolithic/Earlier Stone Age occupation of Greece's first major Lower Palaeolithic site.

Crossing the Threshold: the evolution of place and landscape in earliest prehistory (Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) 2013-2016

With an award of £570,000 from the AHRC we will investigate a critical period in deep human history. The three year project "Crossing the threshold: the evolution of place and landscape in earliest prehistory" will focus on the unparalleled archive of one hundred thousand stone tools and ice age faunal remains from the site of La Cotte on Jersey.

Teaching Responsibilities

PhD Supervision

I am interested in supervising any topics on the Earlier Stone Age/Lower Palaeolithic of Africa or Eurasia, ancient technology, the Acheulean or non-handaxe industries of the Old World. I am also happy to supervise projects on Victorian and Edwardian archaeology and anthropology, and the history of Palaeolithic archaeology as a discipline.

Current Ph.D/MPhil topics I am supervising:

  • Clovis and the technology of the earliest peopling of the Americas
  • Benjamin Harrison and the eoliths of north Kent
  • Neanderthals at La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey
  • Simple prepared cores and the origins of Levallois in Europe


Dr John McNabb
Faculty of Humanities University of Southampton Avenue Campus Highfield Southampton SO17 1BF United Kingdom

Room Number: 65A/2221

Telephone: (023) 8059 3178
Facsimile: (023) 8059 3032