This stone axe is from the Seine river basin of northeastern France. This region is in the heartland of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture, ca. 4000-5100 BP, and the axe likely dates to this Late Neolithic period.
The artefact is curated by the Australian Institute of Archaeology, catalogue no. IA24.188.
This flint axe is outstanding in size and workmanship, measuring 25 cm long. It was likely a ‘prestige’ axe. The axe-maker spent many hours grinding the surface to remove all traces of the flake scars from initial manufacture. Visit this model to learn about the laborious grinding required to make a flint axe. Deep grinding striations can be seen on the faces and sides of the axe. The sides of the axe were flattened by expert grinding, giving the tool a rectangular profile. The cutting edge is centred and the small amount of flaking there may be taphonomic damage. The flake scars on the butt of the axe may be use-wear scars from tapping the axe free from its wood handle.
The morphology of this axe from France is very similar to the thin-butted rectangular-sectioned axes made in Denmark during this period. The flintknappers in Denmark created the squared sides by flaking then eliminated most of the flake scars by grinding. An example of a thin-butted axe from Denmark can be viewed here.
Stone axes appear in the European Mesolithic period by about 10,000 BP and proliferated during the Neolithic, from about 3700 to 7500 BP. Hundreds of thousands of stone axes have been found across Europe, and they are one of the most common tool types of the Neolithic. Most researchers believe that they were an essential tool for clearing forests for agriculture. An array of different axe forms were made and used across this period, but most varieties had cutting edges produced by grinding—referred to in Europe as ‘polished’ axes. Some types were completely ground across all of their surfaces, while the grinding on others was limited to the cutting edge. Grinding was a laborious process, particularly on flint axes. Cross sections ranged from rectangular to lenticular or nearly round, and axes varied considerably in shape and size. Axes of prized stone were traded widely between Neolithic groups across Europe.
Axes were set into a hole made in a wood shaft handle. Because the axes tapered backwards from the cutting edge, they wedged into the hole with use. Several stone axes have been recovered from sites with the handle still intact. An ‘axe’ was hafted with the cutting edge parallel to the shaft, and an ‘adze’ was hafted with the cutting edge at right-angles to the shaft. The edge is centred on an axe, but offset from the centre on an adze.
Stone shaft-hole axes (or ‘battle axes’), usually made of igneous or metamorphic stones, appeared by about 4800 BP and persisted into the Bronze Age. These were often ornate in shape and were perforated to receive a relatively thin wood handle. The perforation was drilled using a hollow bone or wood. Stone axes with pecked grooves (‘saddle-grooved’ axes) were made and used during the Bronze Age in Bavaria alongside metal axes, and grooved stone axes were used to mine and process copper ore in southern Italy.
Large ‘prestige’ axes, often expertly made of spectacular stones, were interred in graves or buried together in caches. While some caches included only unused prestige axes, others included axes in all stages of use and repair. In Denmark alone, 171 caches, comprising about 500 axes, have been found and reported. One author notes that, in Sweden, stone axes ‘were deposited in almost every single bog’, probably as part of ritual activity. These various patterns suggest that axes were not only functional tools, but were also important in a social context. Their symbolic importance continued into the more recent past: ancient stone axes were collected from archaeological sites since Medieval times as amulets that provided protection to life and property.
The Seine-Oise-Marne Culture is famous for megalithic tombs made with large stone slabs, and images of hafted stone axes were sometimes pecked onto the walls of these megalithic tombs. Ancient DNA studies have shown a spike in genes during this period from farmers expanding into France from Anatolia, but with persistence of local hunter-gatherer genetic contribution. This axe was expertly made by flaking followed by grinding, which removed almost all of the flake scars. Grinding was likely done on sandstone bedrock, as seen on this site in France.