A late Bronze Age Socketed Axehead from a Surrey Hillfort

Whilst the vast majority of metal objects recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk) come from detectorists, every so often a more unusual method of discovery results in a find coming our way from people out enjoying the countryside. A good example is this socketed axehead (SUR-F51EA5) dating to the late Bronze Age (c 1100-800 BC), which was uncovered by a dog nosing around in rabbit burrows a short distance outside of the banks and ditches of Holmbury Hillfort in the southern part of central Surrey. The owner of the dog picked up the find and apparently kept it in a drawer for two years without realising its significance, before bringing it to the Surrey FLO for proper identification and recording in September 2019.

SUR-F51EA5: a late BA socketed axehead

The axehead itself is a well preserved example of its type, remaining complete aside from surface damage typical from the prolonged exposure of copper alloy surfaces to the acidic sandy soils of the area. The form is small and simple, with a short, narrow blade, a sub rectangular socket with moulded rim, single side loop and undecorated sides. There are pronounced casting ridges down each side as is typical for these mould-made objects. These types of axeheads were produced in large numbers during the Ewart Park phase of the later Bronze Age (c 900-700 BC) and continued to be used well into the subsequent beginnings of the Iron Age.

The context of discovery of this example is particularly significant from the perspective of the local archaeology. Whilst it ties in to a general picture of late Bronze Age activity on the greensand escarpment along the Wealden fringes of Surrey, the specific archaeological evidence from the nearby hillfort, most particularly the ceramic sequence, has previously suggested a late Iron Age origin for the site (Thompson, 1979; Bird and Bird, 1987), with no strong evidence for permanent settlement. Small residual quantities of late Bronze Age post Deverel Rimbury pottery, contemporary to this axehead, have also been recorded, which has provided tentative evidence for earlier origins for the site (Seager Thomas, 2010). Consequently, whilst this axehead in isolation can tell us very little in the way of specifics about the history of the site, when seen in the context of this previous evidence it becomes very important in strengthening arguments for the earlier origins of the hillfort. It quickly becomes apparent from this just how important it is to record the discovery of unusual stray finds like this to ensure that the information that they represent becomes preserved within a broader context of understanding.

The story of the discovery of this find has a happy ending. It has now been returned to the landowner, Shere Manor Estate, with the intention that it will be displayed either in a local museum or in a community space in the village. This type of outcome, where finds remain preserved and displayed within the communities and areas from which they originate is a very important one with regards to the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is only made possible through the generous actions of finders and landowners and is becoming ever more vital in a time when museum acquisition budgets are cut to the bone and the public facility to retain items of archaeological heritage is constantly challenged by the activities of both commercialised metal detecting and a booming online antiquities trade.

Bird, J and Bird D.G. 1987, The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540, Surrey Archaeological Society

Seager Thomas, M, 2010, A re-contextualisation of the prehistoric pottery from the Surrey hillforts of Hascombe, Holmbury and Anstiebury, Surrey Archaeological Collections 95

Thompson, F.H, 1979,Three Surrey Hillforts: excavations at Anstiebury, Holbury and Hascombe, 1972-1977, Antiq J, 59.