A new Bronze Age axe

Here is my almost ready socketed axe:

Bronze Age socketed axe

Two things remain to be finished.  The cutting edge is blunt as a blunt thing and the handle is probably too thick.  Although I have polished out most of the scratches and the tiny casting flaws along the edge, I have to sharpen it.  It was cast by Neil Burridge and came safe-for-posting (not sharp!).  The wide angle of the axe’s bit takes some getting used to, and I’m sure that I will find it harder to sharpen than my narrower, more acute, steel axes.  You can see how wide the bit is by looking at the wedge-shaped cut mark it makes:

Bronze Age socketed axe

The haft is a piece of ash.  It used to look like this:

ash haft

The useful shape made by the side-branch also makes the perfect angle for this haft.  The angle between the handle (main branch) and the foreshaft (side branch) is about 65°.  There are two wooden handles for socketed axe heads excavated from Perry Oaks, angled at 66° and 62.5°, made from similar branches with side-branches.

My handle can be up to 60cm long, given the way the piece of ash was cut before it got to me.  The two Perry Oaks handles are 24.5cm and 70.6cm long, and both are close to 4cm thick.  4cm is a bit big for my hands.  This means I need to prioritise the fit more to my hands, less to the archaeology.  I’m not making a replica or facsimile; I’m making a working tool, that is based on the archaeological record.

The Perry Oaks foreshafts onto which socketed axe heads would have been fitted are short, only 9.4cm and 7.9mm long.  Marks on the wood suggest that the bronze axe heads fitted closely, butting up to the handles.  At their narrowest points the Perry Oaks foreshafts are 1.8cm and 2.4cm wide.  The socket hole of my axe head is this narrow only about one-third of the way down.  I need my foreshaft to be a better fit than this, and I want to keep it longer so that I have the option of making it shorter and bringing the axe head closer to the handle later on.

ash handle

There was much shaping to do to make the foreshaft fit the socket hole, the most awkward part of the task.  I could use the Flag Fen handle as an example to guide me.  Its foreshaft is 44.3cm long, its axe head fitted onto the end leaving lots of space between it and the handle.  The angle is more acute though, closer to 50°/55°.  Its axe head probably needed to be further away from the handle to provide enough clearance.

The naturally-grown shape is convenient, but brings some problems with it.  There were other, smaller, branches growing out of the main branch.  This means that the grain of the handle is knotted, not nice and straight.  This makes it harder to cut a smooth, regular surface; more likely to get blisters and splinters using the axe.  Cutting across the tumbled grain could create weak points.

But it’s almost finished, so the proof of the pudding will be in the eating…or axing.

Details about the Perry Oaks finds, analysed by Steve Allen, are available online from Framework Archaeology here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/388449/The-wooden-finds-from-Perry-Oaks   The Flag Fen handle, and others excavated from the site, is reported on in Pryor, F. (2001) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape  Swindon: English Heritage

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The Guilsfield Hoard Sword

The talented Dr H from prehistories kindly joined the North Wiltshire Branch of the Young Archaeologists’ Club in October.   Led by Dr H, the morning’s drawing activities focused on some objects from the group’s handling collection.   The children did a great job and really enjoyed working on comic books and strips to tell stories inspired by the artefacts.  I’ve inked up my effort on the sword from the Guilsfield Hoard.

The Guilsfield Sword

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…

I’m not the first…

…to observe that photographs accompanying museum online catalogue entries often don’t show you the one thing you most want to see.   Nothing beats studying and handling the objects themselves.   A case in point are cast copper alloy artefacts.   Blades, such as Bronze Age swords and daggers, are always photographed longitudinally.   This makes it very difficult to pick out clues about the casting methods that were used to make the objects.

When I started to clean up the sword (see previous blog post) the first thing I did was to remove the pouring cup from the hilt and the little spur of bronze from the tip of the blade.   During the casting the molten metal was poured, vertically, from the crucible into the pouring cup.   When Neil Burridge made the sword mould he included a little channel continuing from the tip for about 2cm, to ensure that the molten metal ran all the way down to the bottom of the sword tip during the pour.

pouring cup scar

Pouring cup scar, May 2013

I used a hacksaw to remove the pouring cup and spur, but following some filing and grinding it is only the pouring cup scar that remains.   With more work, this too will become harder to see.   And this will finally be covered by a grip.   There is a palstave axe on display at the Corinium Museum which still has a slight visible scar.

Were blades like this sword cast from the tip or the hilt?   Having studied these objects in close detail, Neil concludes that at first they were cast from the tip; but that as the Bronze Age proceeded, casting moved to the hilt.

Whilst it is likely that in the Bronze Age waste metal was gathered up for recycling, I still have the pouring cup.

Sword pouring cup

Sword pouring cup, May 2013

Doing something new

My current task is a new experience for me.   I have finally got round to start the finishing of a copy of a later Bronze Age sword, cast by Neil Burridge for a Young Archaeologists’ Club meeting a good while back.

The sword still had its pouring cup attached, as well as flash and casting marks.   The sword was cast vertically, through the hilt.   Not being a proficient Bronze Age metal-worker, I used a hacksaw to remove the pouring cup and a file to remove the flash, followed by some simple polishing to start to bring out the shine of the blade.   There’s a great deal more to do, to do the job properly.

bronze sword

Bronze Age sword, April 2013

On his website, Neil gives some indication of the unknowns in Bronze Age sword production.   Despite the very large volume of bronze circulating in objects such as swords, daggers, axe-heads and so on during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, and the archaeological literature that categorises all these finds and their copper alloys, it is true to say that relatively little is understood about the detail of the casters’ techniques.

Neil shows how a practitioner’s experience, built up over the years, is an essential component in understanding past practices.   It is hard enough to hacksaw, file and polish the sword blade in my workshop.   What were the Bronze Age tools used to complete these tasks?   This is but one of many questions.   I shall explore some of them in future blog posts about this sword.