Size really matters

I’m sitting quietly on the top floor of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. A few other visitors have made it this far, but it’s been a quiet afternoon and I have the children’s activity table all to myself. It’s a very pleasing oak table, just over 2m long and about 1.5m wide. I can rest my feet on the bars that run lengthwise underneath the table. The museum has rustled up a couple of beech benches either side of the table. It’s very comfortable for a slouch like me.

TableThe table is welcoming. Its size says “come and sit around me, with your family and friends”. It’s like a refectory table for communal dining. There is nothing private or exclusive about this large and solid piece of furniture, even though it looks like it might cost more than many people could afford.  At least, nothing exclusive about it given its context – in a nice open space in a nice open museum.

Size can affect the way we look at objects. I’ve been thinking about the size of axe heads, because I am busily making handles for different types of Bronze Age axes.  When is an axe head a useful tool, when is it a status symbol, when is it a toy or a trinket? It’s an axe head, right? So isn’t it a weapon, or for cutting down trees?

Take the display in the case just a few metres from where I am sitting.  A whole shelf of the case is given over to objects excavated from prehistoric lake villages in Switzerland. Most of the objects are Neolithic stone axe heads.  Some of these are fitted into collars for hafting, although none are fixed in full-size handles. A number of the axe heads are between roughly 10cm and 20cm long, but the majority are less than 10cm long, and some are really tiny indeed:

stone axe headsMaybe you can imagine using one of these axe heads, if it was in a handle. Maybe not cutting down a big tree, but trimming branches to make timbers for your new round house, perhaps? Cutting rods to make a wattle wall?  Chopping roots out of the ground to make it easier to sow seeds?

Every time you sharpen a tool, you remove some of its metal or stone. Perhaps some of the axe heads on display had been sharpened for the very last time, they had got too small to be useful, they were discarded; only to be excavated more than 4000 years later by some busybody who wanted to collect up this refuse.  This reduction in size, and its effect on the shape of the tool, is called the Frison effect.  Some tools can end up looking completely different by the time they have been shaped and reshaped over and over.  Archaeologists risk putting certain objects into many different categories, giving them different names, because of their different size, when actually they started out as pretty much the same thing.

One of my favourite examples of this in the Salaman Collection of tools, looked after by the Museum of St Albans.  It is possible to compare brand new woodworking chisels with ones that have been used for years, and are now only a few centimetres long because they have been sharpened so many times.

So why would anyone make really tiny axe heads?

tiny stone axe headsSome of these axe heads are just a few centimetres long. I think the curators have carefully placed them in this order in the front row: the ones to the right are shaped more like the bigger axe heads in the case; the ones to the left are more like the projectile points elsewhere in the case. But apart from the two leftmost objects, the rest are at least axe shaped.

In the museum catalogue they are described as ground stone artefacts; axe; point; projectile point. The objects are grouped under one accession number 1976.381.1-10. The uncertainty about what these tiny things really are is reflected in the catalogue,

“Description: Ground stone artefacts (.1-.10). Four very small ?axes (.1-.4). Six ?projectile points (.5-.10) ‘1, 2, 3, and 4 are small chisels, (4 jadite, rest ?) 5 is shouldered arrowhead (? material) 6 is point (? material). 7, 8, 10 are jadite projectile points. 9 is a decorative schist projectile point, (20 cm x 3 cm). 27/9/2002 – S. Webb'”

Four tiny axes, or four tiny chisels? Six projectile points? It seems that the decision depends on how these little shaped and polished pieces of stone can be used. Projectile points; they could be arrowheads. Not that they look like they were hafted onto arrow shafts. No resin glue sticking to the stone, no wood preserved in the lake village’s waterlogged deposits.  Axe heads; to cut what, precisely? But chisels, well maybe, sometimes you need a narrow and slim cutting edge for a fine piece of woodwork. They are beautifully shaped and ground pieces of stone. Someone went to the trouble to make them look like this.

Let’s look at the other extreme. Big axe heads. Really, really big axe heads.

large axe heads

I have chosen this pretty poor photo deliberately.  My mother couldn’t get the whole of this museum display into her camera’s viewfinder, partly because she couldn’t get high enough over the glass cabinet, and partly because the flint axe head on the left is just so big.  The two other axe heads aren’t small either.  But the biggest is the best part of 50cm long.

Neither do these beautifully ground and polished stone tools show signs of having been fitted to handles.  They are on display, along with hundreds more, at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

Now then, if this 18cm long flint axe head weighs 485g:

Neolithic axe head

then a flint axe three times the length must weigh around 1455g.  That’s nearly 1.5kg, or the best part of 3lb.  Even my heaviest steel axe head for carving is only 2.2lb, and is a compact shape with a socket to fix it to the handle.   How do you think you would go about fixing that immense flint axe head in Copenhagen to a handle, to make a wieldy tool?  A bit impractical, isn’t it?

My point is that archaeological study of stone tools has often been the study of technology, and here’s where size really matters.  Tiny objects and huge objects falling outside a “normal”, “useful”, size range can be seen as technological anomalies, and therefore as something special and not a tool at all; whilst everything else in the middle of the range is handy, practical, workaday.  But it’s not that simple.

Is it clear where, on the sliding scale of tiny-small-normal-big-huge, usefulness begins and ends?  What about that Frison effect, and the result of reuse upon reuse?  What is normal, anyway?  We don’t use stone axes anymore, so it’s difficult to judge how these differently-sized objects were being used in the Neolithic, especially if we think only in terms of tools and weapons.  In fact, it’s not really that useful to think of tools as just tools, and of making things as simply a practical exercise in survival.

Objects, and making and using them, are bound up in what it means to be the person you are.  Think about your mobile ‘phone.  Quite often it’s an everyday object that you use for practical things, like communication or finding information on the move.  But you chose that particular ‘phone for various reasons, including its look and feel, the way you felt about it as much as the things it can do for you.  Maybe even in response to advertising, or the ‘phones that your friends have.  It is mundane and significant all at the same time.  Stone tools, no matter their size, are also mundane and significant at the same time.  This is why it is so important to study objects in relation to their context – where they were found, with what, how placed, and with what evidence for different use – and not as isolated things now on display in glass cabinets.

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…