Axes

Bronze Age axes have often been studied, probably because in comparison with other artefacts they appear quite frequently in the archaeological record. They are also interesting to study as they span the Bronze Age and change greatly in size and form over this period. They begin as flat axes and then develop into palstaves and then to socketed axes. Many axes would have been used as modern axes are - as a tool for chopping wood and organic materials. Some, however, have been described as ingots and as votive offerings. They can be found as single finds or in vast hoards of Bronze Age copper-alloy objects.

Flat Axes

On the PAS database, the term 'Flat Axehead' is used.

Copper Axes

Example =
Date = 2500-2200 BC
Distribution = Britain (especially in the east) and Ireland
Comment = The first axes in Britain were made of copper and can sometimes be identified as copper rather than bronze as they might have a dull red colour with a blackish patina (tarnish). They will also probably be crude and heavy. They are trapezoidal and have a thick butt which is influenced by the shape of stone axes. They are generally quite tick with an average thickness of 14mm. These axes can be broken down into type based on the narrowness of the butt and the straightness of the sides both of which vary.

Bronze Broad Butted

Example = WG.1788 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809823&partid=1
OR WG.1795
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809566&partid=1
Date = 2200-1950 BC
Distribution = At least 3 areas in Scotland where these axes were produced and their numbers decrease as you move south through England and Wales
Comment = These axes have a narrow butt which is usually convex and has rounded shoulders. Well preserved axes are smooth indicating that they would have been ground and polished and some are decorated. These axes developed from simple triangular shaped axes with curved sides to axes with narrow bodies and straight sides and some even have early signs of a stop or early flanges. There are three main types: Dunnottar, Kilaha and Migdale with some variants. Open stone moulds have been found, mainly in north-east Scotland, which fit the shape of Migdale axes quite well. These axes would have been fitted into a holded handle as stone axes had been in the Neolithic

Developed Flat Axes - Narrow butted

Example = WG.1811 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809614&partid=1
Date = 1950-1850 BC
Distribution = these axes are found all over the UK but type Bandon is found generally more in the north and types Aylesford, Glenalla, Falkland, Scrabo Hill tend to occur in the south.
Comment = trend for axes to become narrower and have straighter sides. The handle of the axe changed from a holed handle to a 'knee handle' with a forked angled end. Axes developed to fit these new handles. Developed flat axes come in a variety of different shapes from almost being Migdale axes but with some developed characteristics to axes which are almost entering the next stage of development, the flanged axe. There are five main types, Aylesford, Glenalla, Falkland, Scrabo Hill and Bandon and a number of variants.

Long-flanged Axes

Example = WG.1814 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809479&partid=1
Date = 1750-1550 BC
Distribution = Type Balbirnie is generally found in the north and Scotland while Type Arreton are mostly found in the south east
Comment =It is very difficult to decide when raised edges of axes officially turn into flanges. However there are two types of long-flanged axes which are the first flanged axes to occur. The first is the Type Balbirnie, which is generally found in the north and is closely related to Type Bandon (a developed flat axe type). Type Balbirnie axes have straight butts and sides which suddenly widen to the blade edge and there is usually a median bevel. Some of these axes have punched or engraved decoration. Type Arreton long flanged axes are similar to Type Balbirnie but are longer, the butt is higher and the sides are more curved. There is occasional decoration on these axes.

Early Short-Flanged Axes

Example = WG.1880 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809520&partid=1
OR WG.1831
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809617&partid=1
OR WG.1833
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809204&partid=1
Date = 1550-1450 BC
Distribution = different types of early short flanged axes have different distributions
Bannockburn: suggestions that they originated in Ireland as many have been found there and in England and Scotland they are mainly found on the western side of the countries. However they are also found in the Thames Valley
Caverton: they are not found in areas where earlier axes such as migdale were found and are found more in the north than the south
Cragg Wood: mainly from Yorkshire but examples have been found in the south east
Kirtomy: Scotland and as far south as Yorkshire
Comment = early short-flanged axes developed out of the long flanged axes and vary widely in their different shapes and sizes. It has been suggested that the variety of forms is due to the smaller individualised workshops of the UK at the time which led to combinations of ideas from different areas. These axes are also difficult to place chronologically due to the fact that they are often found with very few other finds which could be dated. There are four main types, Bannockburn, Caverton, Cragg Wood, Kirtomy and a number of variants of these types.

Later Short Flanged Axes

Example = WG.1820 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=810374&partid=1
OR WG.1825
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809481&partid=1
OR WG.1824
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809225&partid=1
Date = 1600-1300 BC
Distribution = Britain
Cargill: Scotland
Callander: Scotland
Ulrome: scattered all over
Lissett: Mainly from Yorkshire
Balcarry: south west Scotland, south east in the Highlands, south west England and Yorkshire. Could have originated in Ireland
Kirkless: south east scotland
Findowrie: the north
Comment = There are a number of types of later short flanged axes but in some examples very few axes have been found making it difficult to date them and to make concrete suggestions as to distribution. Type Cargill, Type Callander, Type Ulrome, Type Lissett, Type Balcarry, Type Kirkless, Type Findowrie.

Median Winged Axes

Example = 1984,0701.46
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=810807&partid=1
1984,0701.3
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=810612&partid=1
Date = 1200-1100 BC
Distribution = All over England and Scotland but very few finds.
Comment = median Winged axes are usually quite large with a notched butt, straight sides and short wings. Only a handful of these axes have been found in Britain and they are thought to be imports from north-eastern France.

Palstaves

On the PAS database,the term 'Palstave' is used.

The term 'palstave' is misleading, as it comes from the Icelandic 'Paalstab' meaning a digging tool, not a type of axe. The term is used in British archaeology to describe an axe where there is a stop and the flanges disappear into the stop. Palstaves are also thicker below the stop. They are usually decorated on the blade and as time went on developed loops. Palstaves can be divided into three broad groups, early, transitional and late. The small loop on the side of some palstaves would have been used to help secure the axe head to the haft more securely and a few palstaves have two loops.

Early Palstaves

Example = LVPL-3EFEA7, LVPL-84EBD1
Date = 1500-1300 BC
Distribution = generally northwest England and the west. South-western types are from the south west
Comment = Early palstaves consist of Group I palstaves (shield pattern), Group II (early midrib), Group III (low flanged) and South Western Palstaves. There are over 14 different types and variants of palstave in this broad group.
Group I palstaves have a shield like decoration below the stop ridge and variable flanges. Seems to have developed from haft-flanged axes
Group II palstaves are similar to Group I but have a midrib instead of a shield and raised edges beyond the stop
Group III palstaves have very broad blades which turn into a fan shape and many have ornaments such as shields, midribs and tridents
South Western palstaves are a variant of broad blade axes but are different from Group I, II and III as they have high flanges

Transitional Palstaves

Example = WG.1843 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=809483&partid=1
Date = 1150-1000 BC
Distribution = Britain
Comment = these palstaves always have a loop and have a much narrower blade than early palstaves. Flanges are highest at the top and should follow a straight line from stop to butt. There is less decoration but sometimes a midrib.

Late Palstaves

Example = 1989,0601.4 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=3308413&partid=1
Date = 1050-950 BC
Distribution = Britain and Ireland
Comment = Late palstaves can be decorated with ribs or grooves or undecorated. They are generally looped and are short and narrow with low straight flanges. The flanges only extend slightly up the butt. The stop ridge often projects above the flanges.

Socketed Axes

On the PAS database,the term 'Socketed Axehead' is used.

Socketed axes are distinguishable from palstaves and flat axes by their sockets and typologically can be divided into 3 main groups based on the distribution of their find spots. These are the northern English aces with broad stout forms, the Irish axes which are referred to as 'baggy' in shape and the south-eastern axes which are longer and narrower than the other axes. The small loop on the side of most of the socketed axes would have been used to help secure the axe head to the haft more securely. There are a huge number of different types and variants of socketed axes and they have not all been included here. The most common axes are examined here.

Taunton

Example =
Date = 1300-1200 BC
Distribution = Britain mainly southern areas
Comment = Taunton axes have small loops, long narrow square or rectangular bodies and square mouths. It has been suggested that there small shape could indicate that they were used more as a chisel then as a true axe.

Gillespie

Example = HESH-07A7E3 WILT-739705
Date = 1000-800 BC
Distribution = southern Scotland
Comment = Theses socketed axes have a faceted broad baggy body with a round mouth. They usually have 8 facets and the loop is placed low down on the axe.

Dowris

Example =
Date = 900-800 BC
Distribution = originating in Ireland
Comment = These axes are often described as 'bag shaped' or 'baggy' as they are wide and stout. The mouth and section are round or oval, the sides are curved and there are internal hafting ribs.

Meldreth

Example = WMID-CC5D20
Date = 900-800 BC
Distribution = southern and south eastern England
Comment =These axes have a faceted body with the most common number of facets being eight but there can be between six to 12 facets. The collar is trumpet shaped and can be round or square in section. The loop is next to the lower edge of the collar.

Southeastern

Example = HAMP-4EA817
Date = 1000-800 BC
Distribution = South East and Yorkshire
Comment = These are the most common socketed axes found in the UK. They are fairly slender, with a square to rectangular sectioned body with a squarish mouth. They can be subdivided according to the treatment of the mouth: usually some form of collar or moulding marks. Socket ribs are frequently present, and the axes may be plain, wing-ornamented or decorated with one, two or three pellets.

South Welsh

Example = HAMP-4F1980
Date = 950-800 BC
Distribution = south east Wales mainly
Comment = This is a three-ribbed socketed axe with the ribs reaching half way down the face of the axe and then converging sharply. The ribs begin at the cone shaped collar of the axe and these axes are also unusual in the UK in that the loop is placed on the lip of the collar. These axes are often rather shoddy in their quality.

Yorkshire

Example = LANCUM-0033B8
Date = 950-800 BC
Distribution = Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, East Anglia.
Comment = Can be identified by the three widely spaced fine ribs which begin below a prominent collar and stop about half way down the face of the axe. These axes have a loop and quite a wide flat section and a square socket mouth. There are sometimes ribs inside the axe socket which might have been helpful in the casting of the object or in attaching it to the haft. A great many of these axes have been found and it is possible in the future that they may be sub divided further.

Linear Faceted Axes

Example =
Date = 800-700 BC
Distribution = Britain
Comment = Linear faceted axes have facets which are enclosed by ribs. The facets can be well defined or grooves or the ribs can indicate them. It appears that they were being produced in East Anglia and Dorset even at this late period in the Bronze Age.

Sompting Axes

Example = 1996,0304.1 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=1343946&partid=1
Date = 800-700 BC
Distribution = Britain and Ireland but mainly south-eastern
Comment = Sompting axes are very large, quite narrow and have a bulging collar with a horizontal moulding. They are looped and can be decorated or undecorated. There are two variants to type sompting: Roseberry topping and Gembling.

Armorican Axes

Example =
Date = 800-700 BC
Distribution = south east, Wessex
Comment = Armorican Axes are looped and between 5.0 and 12.0 cm in length. They have straight sides and a rectangular cross section with a shallow collar. Some of these axes have decoration such as ribs. The thinness of the metal used in Armorican axes along with high lead contents, lack of finishing and the fact that the socket is extended to the tip of the axe indicates that they were not functional as a weapon or tool.

South Welsh

Example =
Date =
Distribution = South Wales and South Western England
Description = Schmidt and Burgess (1981: 239) note that there are five defining features that separate this type from the "great mass of undifferentiated three-ribbed axes". Firstly, the loop usually starts from the lip of the colour in the continental style and is not often set low down below the collar.

References

  • Schmidt, P., and Burgess, C. 1981. The Axes of Scotland and Northern England. Munchen: C. H. Beck'sche, Verlagsbuchandlung
  • O'Connor, B. (1980) Cross Channel Relations in the Later Bronze Age. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports S91