Axe heads in Three Ages

Later this Summer I shall be commissioning a group of facsimile Bronze Age tools – axe and adze heads, gouges and chisels.   I’ve done a little bit of copper alloy casting but can boast neither the skills nor the equipment to produce a suite of mid- to late-Bronze Age artefacts.   Not of high enough quality, anyway.   As well as thinking about exactly which tools I require, I shall also have to plan their hafting.   This has led me to look at some of the axes in my tool kit and our local Young Archaeologists’ Club handling box, because there is such a range of axe shapes and styles throughout prehistory and history.

One of the longest-lived tool types, hominids older than Homo sapiens were knapping stone chopping tools and axes.   Also known as bifaces, because they are knapped from both sides to make cutting edges and thus have two faces, stone hand axes are the characteristic object of deep human prehistory.   There are some fabulous examples in the Museum of London’s collections – take a look at this example from Richmond Lock, this from Yiewsley, and this from Swanscombe.   These date from hundreds of thousands of years ago.   My little review is by no means a comprehensive study of the development of the axe; I’m just curious about some of the observations prompted by looking at a group of axe heads.

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The Palaeolithic hand axe in my selection was knapped by Karl Lee a few years ago during a Young Archaeologists’ Club meeting.   Karl also knapped me the Neolithic axe head.   The Bronze Age axe head was cast by Neil Burridge, also for a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity.   I bought the steel axe head from a bric-a-brac shop in Marlborough many years ago.

A number of differences are immediately obvious.   Two of the objects are made of flint, two of metal.   The shapes are very different and they vary in size, colour and texture.   Something about the relative ages of these objects is suggested in the names I have used to label them.   Now consider those varied shapes, and the subtle difference between my description “hand axe” and “axe head” – how would you go about making use of these objects?

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“Palaeolithic hand axe”: an Old Stone Age tool made for use in the hand.   That is, no handle.   Odd when you think about it.   The sharp edge created by the opposing flake scars on each side goes all the way around the thin, oval-shaped tool.   Wouldn’t you be just as likely to cut your palm as the material that you were cutting with the axe?   Would you be more likely to cut down a tree, or cut your fingers off?  So…what else might you have had to make this tool work for you; and what do you do with an “axe” anyway?

There are plenty of things you can do and use to protect your hand, so let’s set to one side prehistoric leather production and focus on what we mean by the word “axe”.   There is no evidence that hand axes were hafted (although that hasn’t stopped some people trying!).   They are generally thought to have been used for a variety of tasks, especially butchery.   Thin, flat, oval-shaped hand axes, like this one, were perhaps not used as chopping tools at all – but were more like knives (Butler 2005, 2008:64).   They certainly do slice through flesh very well and I especially like this tool type for skinning.   Not tree felling.

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“Neolithic axe head”: a New Stone Age tool made for use in a handle.   Now it’s not that this axe head can’t be used in hand to cut through a range of materials; but I’m sure you would agree that it looks a lot more axe-y than the hand axe.   The opposing flake scars run all the way around the tool just like the hand axe, it’s certainly sharp enough all the way round for every edge to be used for something.   The main cutting edge, however, the bit, is at the broader end, whilst the narrower butt allows the axe head to be let into a wooden handle.

The narrower, longer Neolithic tool doesn’t feel so comfortable in hand, although I can slice with it.   It’s just not meant to work that way.   A few Neolithic axe heads have been found with their handles, like the one recovered from the beach at Port Talbot in 1970 (Savory 1971) and the Ehenside Tarn axe.  The glossy, dark flint of the hand axe contrasts strongly with the light grey.   The grey seems duller, less responsive to the sunlight – but then this axe head has not been ground and polished.   A characteristic of many (but not all) Neolithic axe heads is their silky-smooth, dazzling surface once the knapping traces have been ground away.

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“Bronze Age axe head”: a Bronze Age tool made for use in a handle.   For the first time we have a unique cutting edge – only the bit of this axe head is capable of cutting (although it’s not sharpened, this is used in the Archaeology Club handling collection).   It is the smallest axe head in this selection, almost but not quite symmetrical, and by far the thinnest overall.

Now there is a huge range of shapes, sizes and hafting methods for Bronze Age axe and adze heads.   I refer in the same breath to what in a modern age are distinct tool types (“axe”, “adze”) because it is entirely possible that many of the Bronze Age tools called axes were set horizontally – even used both ways, as either axe or adze, at different times.    You can see this in action in the toolset used to build Morgawr, the Bronze Age-type sewn plank boat recently built by the University of Exeter and National Maritime Museum (Van de Noort et al 2014).

This copper-alloy axe head is an example of an early Bronze Age Arreton type, with my punched decoration inspired by the Bush Barrow mace.   You can see the casting scar along its edge left by the two-piece mould.  The slight flanges – the raised sides – suggest that axe heads like this should be hafted in a “shoe”.   That is, not pushed through a hole in a handle, but slotted between two prongs which extend at an angle from the handle, like the example excavated from Palaeochannel 1 at Peterstone Great Wharf (Bell 2013), and bound up with maybe raw-hide or a leather strip.

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“Kent pattern axe”: a steel axe head made for use on a handle.   Hafting technology has changed again; now the axe head has a socket (the “eye”) into which a wooden handle fits.  The axe head has a broad and thin bit, rounded shoulders, lugs either side of the socket, and the butt is really a poll.   The poll has a flat surface that can be struck, to exert additional force, without too much risk of damaging the axe head – unlike the butts of the three previous examples.

Edit: whilst the poll can be struck, the primary purpose of this extra mass of metal behind the handle is to balance the weight of the blade in front of the handle.

The many regional variations of axe head shape common until the end of the nineteenth-century were often named by counties.   The Kent pattern itself included variations such as the Banbury Axe, Guildford Axe, Mahogony Axe, Manchester Axe, Norfolk Axe, Plymouth Axe, Suffolk Axe (Salaman 1975:58).   Although you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between some of these.

And at last, a maker.   Had my first three axe heads been prehistoric, archaeological examples, I could not have told you who knapped or cast them.   But the Kent pattern axe head was forged by the Eagle Edge Tool Company, whose foundry was at Monmore Green, Wolverhampton.

stone, bronze, iron

stone, bronze, iron

These four axe heads are also stand-ins for the Three Age System – stone, bronze, iron – which has been used by archaeologists to divide [prehistoric] time in technological terms since the system was drawn together in Scandinavia in the nineteenth-century.   Is the Iron Age over?*

Bell, M. (2013)  The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary  York: Council for British Archaeology

Butler, C. (2005, 2008)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Salamon, R.A. (1975)  Dictionary of Tools used in the woodworking and allied trades c.1700-1970   London: George Allen and Unwin

Savory, H.N. (1971)  “A Neolithic Stone Axe and Wooden Handle from Port Talbot”   The Antiquaries Journal 51/2:296-7

Van de Noort, R., Cumby, B., Blue, L., Harding, A., Hurcombe, L., Hansen, T. M., Wetherelt, A., Wittamore, J. and Wyke, A. (2014), Morgawr: an experimental Bronze Age-type sewn-plank craft based on the Ferriby boats. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12058

*not in my workshop…


The cutting edge – more on toolmarks

A few days ago I came across an unexpected example of toolmarks in a piece of oak, so having taken a snapshot it has prompted me to collect a few other examples and post them together for comparison.

There’s nothing scientific about this little collection of photos.   I chose them because of the way they contrast one another.   Unlike the fascinating sense from seeming chaos that Maisie Taylor was working on, analysing marks left by Bronze Age axes on thousands of preserved timbers at Flag Fen (Peterborough, UK), my pictures should suggest some of the variety to be found in edged tools – sharp cutting tools, usually made of metal these days.

So here’s the first:

Oak lintel above the door of 35 High Street, Royal Wootton Bassett

Oak lintel above the door of 35 High Street, Royal Wootton Bassett

This is a snapshot of the private access door for the residence and shop-rear at 35 High Street, Royal Wootton Bassett.  The rich colour of the bricks offsets the pale, shabbily-elegant paintwork, just as the fine fanlight contrasts with the well-weathered oak lintel above (I’m not sure what’s underneath that more recent, dark wooden batton which has been screwed on above the fanlight – probably bricks).   The rough surface and shaped cutaway in the lintel caught my eye as I walked past.   It looks like there had once been a porch roof over this door, with a decorative moulding perhaps which had to be accommodated against the lintel – hence that curved rebate cut in the wood on the left-hand side.

There are at least two different toolmarks on the lintel’s roughened surface.  On the left-hand side, inside the curved rebate, there is a group of very straight, square cuts.  They do not, however, slice all the way through the wood fibres to remove chips from the lintel’s surface.  Instead, the person making the cuts stopped the tool before it sliced all the way through; leaving wood fibres lifted from, but still attached to, the lintel.

The tool used to make these cuts must have had a straight, square edge.   It could have been an adze or large firmer chisel.   By contrast, the second set of cuts covering the rest of the lintel were I think made with a large axe.   The surface has been roughened by cutting long chips out of the oak, striking the surface twice each time to remove pieces which would have been characteristically triangular in cross-section.

Axes can also be used to make really smooth surfaces.   Here’s one way.   Marks left by axing chips from the end of this billet are themselves removed by using the axe to shave off wafer-thin slivers of wood:

Here’s another technique, being used to thin a strake in the Roskilde shipyard.  A strake is a plank for a clinker-built boat.   First, a small axe with a curved cutting edge is used to cut along the length of the timber.   Each cut is perpendicular to the length of the strake, cutting through wood fibres but not removing chips.   Secondly, a broad axe is used, cutting from the top of the board downwards, to remove large, thin pieces of wood; these are more like shavings, which you can see carpeting the ground.

These two techniques leave characteristic waste material, but less (if any) evidence of tool marks on the wood that has been cut.   By contrast, the planks used for the walls of the Trelleborg longhouse are covered in shallow, broad facets (almost the size of my hand) left by the tool – probably a wide, near-straight adze – used to finish each surface.   These are difficult to see, in the shade under the roof, without a raking light.

The external surface of the hall wall, Trelleborg.

The external surface of the hall wall, Trelleborg.

The facets look a little like flake scars on a piece of knapped flint.   Knapping is a reductive process: flakes are removed from the parent stone to make a tool; they can’t be stuck back on; and the more that are taken off, the smaller the object becomes.   The scars are caused by the fracture of stone which has been hit at one point, the shock waves passing through the stone and forcing a flake away.   Carving is also a reductive process, but the scars – the facets left on the wood – are formed in their entirety by the sharp tool edge slicing through the wood fibres.

Interpreting the hammer types used to knap flint is possible by studying the nature of the waste flakes and the scars left on a flint tool (see for example Butler 2005, 2011:37-42).   Theoretical foundations and a range of methods have been developed for that type of study (Andrefsky 1998, 2005).   The huge variety in edged tools presents different analytical problems for woodwork.   Take this pair of photos:

On the left, the facets on this piece of elder are thin, flat and straight.   They could have been left by any number of different tools, ranging from a tiny knife with a blade no more than 2cm (¾ inch) long to a drawknife – of which there are many different types and styles.   Not only that, but more than one tool type could have been used during the shaping.

This was almost certainly the case for the bowl in the photo on the right.   The whole of the interior is covered in long, narrow, concave facets left by curved tools.   Some of the cuts  near the handles finish with snapped fibres, not a clean cut (a bit like a hinge or step fracture in flint knapping).   This suggests that a small adze with with a tightly curved edge was used to remove these chips.   A bowl interior doesn’t have much room to work in.   Sometimes it isn’t possible to slice cleanly with the adze all the way through the wood to remove a whole chip.   Instead, the chips snap out.   This is more likely to happen, the steeper the sides of the bowl.

The facets inside the long sides of the bowl, however, are all clean cuts – despite being the steepest and most awkward part of the bowl to carve.   This suggests that a narrow chisel with a shallow sweep was used.   The small adze is moved with a hammer-like action against the bowl interior, whilst the chisel is pushed from the top of the bowl towards the bottom.   This means that it is possible to slice through the wood fibres and finish before either snapping a chip out or hitting the bottom of the bowl.

Finally, here is a set of images to illustrate a range of toolmarks and wood chips all taken from one piece of wood, following its reduction sequence:

Andrefsky, W. (1998, 2005)  Lithics: Macroscopic approaches to analysis   Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Butler, C. (2005, 2011)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

How to keep your tools sharp – and why archaeologists might prefer you not to

First things first – this post will not tell you how to sharpen your tools.

The best advice I can give you – without showing you – about how to sharpen your (steel) tools is (a) read Sainsbury, J. (1984) Sharpening and Care of Woodworking Tools and Equipment   Burgess Hill: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd.   The chapter on hand-tools is very useful, and the book has some great advice on grinding and sharpening equipment suitable for different types of workshop.

Then (b) take care over the quality of the materials that your tools are made of; poor quality materials won’t take and keep much of an edge.   And finally (c) learn through practice what it feels like to work with your edged tools, how they behave in different materials so you know what’s going on at the edge, and check your edges all the time.

So, back to how to keep them sharp.   I invest time in sharpening my edged tools.   The majority are steel (the rest bronze and flint), with a relatively high carbon content that among other things helps me to sharpen them by hand.

Most of my steel tools jumble around in a tool-bag, or when in use can be found lying around on my various chopping blocks or on the end of the shave-horse – recipe for disaster should anything fall to the floor!   Which is the main reason why I keep a thick layer of all the wood-shavings and chippings in the workshop.

But what about their storage and transport?   Most of the steel tools are odd shapes and sizes and whilst some came with sheaths, others have no protection.   Here is a selection of photos to demonstrate my solutions for keeping my tools sharp.   It’s easy to spot the home-made sheaths.

Nevertheless, imperfections in the cutting edges of tools can be revealing.   Maybe you’ve watched the TV CSI lab technicians match the tool marks in someone’s skull to potential murder weapons?   Remember how they work out which particular type of tyre iron, knife or blunt instrument was used to kill someone by comparing the shapes left in the victim’s bone with marks the CSIs thwack or stab into a suitable test material?

In theory you can do something similar in archaeology too.   An edged tool with a “ding”it it, like this one-

Edge damage on a small cleaver

Edge damage on a small cleaver

will leave a characteristic mark in the wood that it is used on.   Take my right-handed spoon knife.   In the photo below, you should be able to see the facets where I have used it to cut little chips away from a piece of birch; and inside the facets, thin, parallel lines which are left by the (currently damaged) knife edge.

Evidence for tool edge damage

Evidence for tool edge damage

Wouldn’t it be amazing to match up marks on prehistoric wood with the tools that were used to do the carving?  For example, some 9000 pieces of wood were recorded from the Area 6A excavations of the Bronze Age timber platform and trackway at Flag Fen (Peterborough, UK) (Taylor 2001:171).  Linking tools with timber at Flag Fen could throw light on ways that a major building enterprise was carried out and organised more than 3000 years ago.   In theory, the very chisel used to cut a mortise joint could be identified, and we could say “this tool was used to do that job”; just like the antler picks excavated from Stonehenge which were used to dig out the ditch and the holes for the standing stones.

In practice, it’s not so simple.   First, you need tools in order to study their edges.   Despite all that wood, the Flag Fen excavations revealed no more than one socketed gouge and one socketed axe-head (Coombs 2001:263, 265).   Why after all would anyone leave their tools behind?  Perhaps as part of a ritual, or accidental loss; but not if they are still needed for other activities.

In fact, many of what could be described as Bronze Age carpentry tools – especially axes – have been found in circumstances other than archaeological excavation; they were ploughed up by farmers or found by metal-detectorists, for example, with no associated timber to try to match to.   In any event, that timber will only be preserved if the underground conditions are right, like in the waterlogged peat at Flag Fen.   And archaeologically excavated examples of Bronze Age metalwork finds often show, by the careful positioning and arrangement of the objects, that the tools had been put in the ground in carefully deliberated ways (Barber 2003); in what archaeologists call hoards, and not necessarily associated with the timbers that tools might have been used on, nor abandoned in the workplace.

This raises an interesting question: were all Bronze Age carpentry tools intended for woodworking?   Metal – copper alloys and iron anyway, if not the precious metals – is often seen as “inherently utilitarian” (Barber 2001:164).   Yet sometimes there is evidence that tools had not been used.   For example, some of the axes from the Manton Copse 2 hoard found in Wiltshire in 1999 (and now in Wiltshire Museum) still bear their casting scars.   Were they “poorly finished” as described in the excavation report (Lawson et al 2011:35), or unfinished because they were never intended to be fettled and sharpened for carpentry?

Secondly, you need to be able to identify edge damage.   This could be difficult if the metal is corroded following thousands of years buried under the ground.   Or the object could have been damaged after it was buried, for example if hit by a plough share.   Some  imperfections, which could leave very characteristic marks, are nevertheless very difficult to see on the edge itself – like on my spoon knife, whose faults cannot be seen with the naked eye but are very obvious in the wood.

Thirdly, edge damage is easy to remove, and it is usually in the interest of the carpenter to re-sharpen and re-shape the edge.   Marks left in the wood might never be traceable to a tool which has been re-worked in this way.   There used to be a wonderful example of the reductive effects of sharpening on display in the Museum of St Albans, when the Salaman Collection was exhibited.   In the cabinet of sharpening equipment, a new chisel about 25cm long was shown alongside another of same make and original size, but which had been used and sharpened so much it is now only 10cm long.   The evidence would also disappear if the tool was recycled – melted down and turned into a new object.

That’s not to say that the study of prehistoric toolmarks is wishful thinking.   For example, 168 different axes were counted on the basis of the toolmarks left on the Flag Fen timbers.   Comparison of the toolmark shapes with the dimensions of different types of British Bronze Age axe led Maisie Taylor to conclude that socketed axes had been used to do the wood-working at the site (Taylor 2001:194-202).   More recently, photogrammetric and GIS techniques have been applied to the analysis of toolmarks on hewn prehistoric timber (Kovacs and Hanke 2012, 2013).

And finally…what might we conclude from the description of the Flag Fen scoop, carved from a piece of willow; “The bowl of the scoop was shaped across the grain and so well finished that no clues survive as to the method of fabrication.” (Taylor 2001:226)?


Barber, M. (2001) “A time and a place for Bronze”  In Brück, J. (ed)  Bronze Age Landscapes, Tradition and Transformation   Oxford: Oxbow Books

Barber, M. (2003) Bronze and the Bronze Age   Stroud: Tempus

Coombs, D. (2001) “Metalwork”   In Pryor, F. (et al) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape   Swindon: English Heritage

Kovács, K. and Hanke, K. (2012) “Hydrologic and feature-based surface analysis for tool mark investigation on archaeological finds”   International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences Volume XXXIX-B5:565-570

Kovács, K. and Hanke, K. (2013) “Automatic tool mark identification and comparison with known Bronze Age hand tool replicas”  ISPRS Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences Volume II-5/W1:181-186

Lawson, A.J., Robinson, P. and Swanton, G. (2011)  “Bronze Age metalwork from Manton Copse, Preshute, Wiltshire”  Wiltshire Studies 104:31-43

Sainsbury, J. (1984) Sharpening and Care of Woodworking Tools and Equipment   Burgess Hill: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd

Taylor, M. (2001) “The Wood”  In Pryor, F. (et al) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape   Swindon: English Heritage