Type:  Hafted Stone Axe, reconstructed

Location: Sigerslev, Denmark

Age:  ,


MoST ID: 5664

Pedestal Link: https://une.pedestal3d.com/r/zsInIfLbyS

Model Author:  Patrick Roberts

This ancient flint thick-butted axe from Denmark was fitted with a reconstructed handle. The axe dates to the Funnel Beaker phase of the Neolithic period, ca. 4800-6300 BP.  The replicated ash wood handle was made in the 20th Century to mimic the Neolithic Sigerslev Axe, discovered in a Danish bog.

The axe in this handle is a small thick-butted rectangular-sectioned axe.  The sides of this type of axe were rarely ground, and the flake scars are clearly visible on this artefact.  A handle was made in the 20th Century that simulated the archaeological example referred to as the Sigerslev Axe, recovered from a bog (Sigerslev Mose) near the town of Sigerslev in Denmark, and now displayed in the National Museum of Denmark.  The reconstructed handle is made from a similar ash wood as the prehistoric handle.  The ancient axe was inserted into the modern handle and was secured in place with an unknown type of glue or resin.  As with the Sigerslev Axe and other hafted Neolithic axes found in Europe, the replicator tilted the axe slightly down relative to the axis of the handle.  The faces of the axe were modified with modern lapidary grinding wheel; this reworking partly eliminated the artefact’s patina.  The experimental axe was used to chop wood, creating microflaking use-wear and depositing residue from the wood along the cutting edge.

The hafting and reuse of ancient stone artefacts was a widespread approach used to understand stone tools in the 19th and 20th Centuries, although this would rarely occur now.  Few skilled flintknappers were available during the early years of stone tool research to make replicas for experiments.  Since the 1980s many flintknappers became sufficiently skilled to replicate most types of stone tools, and experimenters now use these modern-made implements.

For example, an experiment conducted by the well-known Danish archaeologist Axel Steensberg in February 1952 used ‘a number’ of Neolithic flint axes hafted into a replica of the Sigerslev Axe handle.  All the axes broke catastrophically during the experiment, prompting Steensberg to note: ‘[t]he usual tree-chopping technique, in which one puts one’s shoulders and weight into long, powerful blows, would not do.  The lumber-jacks, unable to change their habits, damaged several axes.  The archaeologists soon discovered that the proper way to use the flint axe was to chip at the tree with short, quick strokes, using mainly the elbow and wrist.’ Steensberg also concluded  that the handle must not hold the stone axe too tightly, or the handle will split.  It was suggested that the hole in the handle ‘must leave room for a little sideways play when struck’.  That is, to help prevent splitting, the rectangular-sectioned axe needed to be affixed in the hole at the top and bottom, but not along the sides.  It was estimated that one person would require about 96 days to clear all the trees from one hectare (100 x 100 metres) of lightly-forested Danish woodland using a stone axe, including axe resharpening and rehafting.

See the annotations for technological details about this stone tool.

Sigerslev Axe, Denmark. Photo by the National Museum of Denmark.

Hafted axe from Neolithic Denmark, discovered in Stormose near Borum, Aarhus, during peat digging in 1946. Photograph by R. N. Johansen, Moesgaard Museum.

Neolithic axes with preserved handles from Denmark, England, and Scotland.

During the Mesolithic period in Denmark, especially during the Maglemosian phase (ca. 8000-11,000 BP) stone axes were made on large flakes.  One sharp edge of the flake blank was retained as the unmodified cutting edge for the axe, and the lateral edges were shaped by steep direct hard-hammer percussion flaking to produce a roughly rectangular section.  The lateral edges were bifacial, steep and non-invasive flakes struck to the ventral surface of the flake blank; these scars provided a platform for striking flakes invasively across the flake blank’s dorsal surface.  Flake axes continued to be made in the Neolithic.  In the Mesolithic Kongemose phase (ca. 7300-8000 BP), bifacial axes were produced from cobbles rather than flake blanks.  These are called ‘core axes’ because the core was shaped into the final tool, as opposed to a flake struck from a core.  Flaking was similar to that seen on the lateral edges of flake axes, but flaking tended to be more invasive, creating a sub-rectangular or roughly lenticular cross-section.  The cutting edge of core axes was made by striking a flake from a lateral margin so that it propagated transversely across the bifacial edge at the axe’s proximal end.  This removed the bifacial edge as a ‘tranchet flake’, and the scar left behind was exceptionally sharp.  This sharp edge was the working end of the axe, and it was resharpened by striking additional tranchet flakes.  Core axes continued to be made in the Mesolithic Ertebølle phase (ca. 5950-7300 BP), with some axes trimmed by invasive bifacial flaking at the proximal end, which served as the cutting edge of the tool.  Sometimes this edge was ground to create the finished edge, but more frequently it was left unmodified.

The early part of the Neolithic period in Denmark is known as the Funnel Beaker phase (ca. 4800-6300 BP).  Point-butted axes emerged early in the Funnel Beaker phase.  These are similar to the bifacial core axes of the preceding Ertebølle, but the cutting edge was always created by bifacial grinding extending much of the way across both faces of the tool.  The cross-section is lenticular (lens-shaped) rather than rectangular.  The cutting edge is the widest part of the axe, which constricts towards the opposite end, or ‘butt’.  Also emerging early in this period were the rectangular-sectioned axes that were to become pervasive during the middle and later Neolithic.  The rectangular cross section is first seen in the four-sided pointed-butt axe, the precursor of the thin-butted axe.  The initial stages of flaking of four-sided pointed-butt axes and quadrifacial axes were accomplished by direct percussion and resembled the methods used to make Mesolithic flake or core axes, but then the technique switched to indirect percussion with a punch to refine the rectangular cross section and established four platform edges.  In the indirect percussion technique the core face is unconstricted and flakes tend to end in feather terminations.  This is possible because the punch can be set on the platform at a more oblique angle than can be reliably achieved by direct percussion.  By doing this, the flakes can be prevented from ‘rolling over’ the centreline and removing the opposite platform edge.  Indirect percussion was independently innovated in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, Indonesia, and New Zealand to produce rectangular-sectioned stone axe blanks.  In Europe, the four bifacial edges were sometimes straightened and refined by the removal of smaller flakes by indirect percussion or pressure flaking.

Rectangular-sectioned axes in Denmark are divided into ‘thin-butted’ and ‘thick-butted’ varieties depending on the thickness and treatment of the end opposite the cutting edge.  Thin-butted axes taper towards the butt to an edge or low vertical edge, and thick-butted axes have the butt end squared-off in the same way as the edges, with less tapering towards the butt.  The main faces and edges of four-sided pointed-butt axes and thin-butted axes were completely ground after flaking, eliminating most of the negative flake scars.  Large ‘prestige’ thin-butted axes up to 18 inches long were produced and ritual caches containing multiple axes have been discovered.  Axes were often interred in burials or ceremonially deposited in bogs.  These patterns suggest that high-quality examples were imbued with symbolic significance that went beyond their functional usefulness.

Thick-butted axes tend to be shorter than thin-butted axes, with a higher width-to-thickness ratio.  While thin-butted axes were ground on all four faces, the edges of thick-butted axes were less thoroughly ground, or were not ground.  Thick-butted axes are thought to occur chronologically later than thin-butted axes, although they overlap in morphology.  Narrow rectangular-sectioned woodworking tools, referred to by archaeologists as chisels and gouges, were made using the same indirect percussion flaking technique.  Rectangular-sectioned flint and chert axes were used throughout southern Scandinavia and across the northern parts of Eastern Europe to Ukraine, but the technique was not used by axe-makers in Western Europe or Britain.  Rectangular-sectioned axes became less popular at the start of the Battle Axe phase in southern Scandinavia and Single Grave phase of Denmark (ca. 4200-4800 BP), in favour of shaft-hole battle axes made from volcanic, igneous, or metamorphic rocks rather than flint.  The indirect percussion technique continued to be used in the manufacture of the famous Danish flint daggers during the transition from the Late Neolithic to the Bronze Age during the Bell Beaker phase (ca. 3800-4800 BP).