This serpentinite axe is from Zug, Switzerland. The axe was discovered in 1867 and dates to the Neolithic period, ca. 6300-6200 BP.
The axe in this model is the classic specimen of the Zug type jadeite axe. It was found during excavation for the basement of a house at 2 Alpenstrasse in Zug, Switzerland, in 1867. The axe is made of local serpentinite from the Saint-Gotthard Massif in the Swiss Alps. It is interpreted as a locally-made version of the Carnac/Tumiac type jadeite axe and likely dates to 6300-6200 BP. It was expertly finished by grinding, eliminating the manufacturing marks from earlier stages. The perforation is thought to have been made so that the axes could be worn or suspended in some way. Researchers have suggested that the imitation of this axe in Switzerland reflects an expansion of the ‘religious grammar’ from the Carnac region along the Atlantic coast and towards the interior of the continent.
Large green jadeite axes circulated across Western Europe during the Neolithic period, from about 7000 to 5000 BP. These axes derived primarily from high-altitude stone quarries in the Western Alps of North Italy, with well-known sources occurring on Mount Beigua and Mount Viso. The quarries on Mount Viso are between 1700 and 2400 metres elevation and the axe blank production area extends sporadically for some 250 km. ‘Jadeite’ is a general term to describe a variety of similar metamorphic rock types of greenish hue, such as omphacitite, eclogite, serpentinite, veriscite, sillimanite, and amphibolite. The axes ranged measured up to 46 cm long, and circulated to Sicily, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Bulgaria, and all of the areas in between. One axe was found 1700 km from the Italian quarry, and the exchange system cross-cut a diverse range of Neolithic cultures. Quarrying for jadeite in the Alps began about 7500 BP, with trade encompassing the whole of France, west-central Europe, and the Balkans by 6700 BP, and across Germany around 6300 BP. Jadeite axes were circulating in Britain and Ireland by 5800 BP, with jadeite axe pendants dating from about 4800-4200 BP.
The woodworking function of the largest jadeite axes was secondary to their social role. They were made from visually striking semi-translucent green stone, demonstrate expert workmanship in exceptionally tough material, were portrayed extensively in rock art, and are found in burials and cached at other significant cultural sites such as standing stones. Some have been found in pairs, buried vertically into the soil with the cutting edge oriented upward. A research team led by the archaeologist Pierre Pétrequin has suggested that ‘one can thus think of the axeheads as symbolic artefacts, charged with myths and their own life-histories, belonging to the realm of sacred objects.’ A variety of smaller, less well-made axes circulated less widely and were probably made for woodworking and other tasks.
Axes portrayed in Neolithic rock art—often engraved on standing stones in the Carnac region—indicate that the axes were mounted into sockets in long wooden handles with swept-back tops. Some of these engravings are colossal in size, suggesting to some researchers that they denoted concepts of violence, power, and virility. They are often portrayed alongside engravings of circles thought to represent the perforated jadeite discs or bracelets found archaeologically. This suggests the symbol-system used both of these objects in tandem.
Pétrequin’s team conducted a comprehensive typological analysis of the largest jadeite axes, and they defined four main axe groups composed of nine types. The Southern Group, from southern France and Spain, are narrow and thick with rounded sides. The Northern Group, in contrast, are broader and more triangular, thin and flat, with relatively flat or sharp-edged sides. A third group are from the Carnac area of Brittany, where scores of axes were excavated from Neolithic mounds at the Gulf of Morbihan. These axes were likely Southern Group axes that were obtained in trade and reworked by thinning, altering the shape, and re-polishing. This was done so the Neolithic elite in that region could differentiate themselves from other Neolithic groups. The Carnac axes tend to be relatively flat and thin, like those of the Northern Group, and some flare outward slightly at the cutting edge, mimicking metal axes which were circulating in the Balkans and Central Europe ca. 6000 years ago. The Tumiac type within the Carnac group are sometimes perforated by a single hole near the butt end of the axe. The Ubiquitous Group consists of large jadeite axes of more variable morphology found throughout western Europe. Large axes similar in shape to these jadeite axes were sometimes made locally of chert or flint, and these may have been made in emulation of the more valuable jade axes. Versions of Italian jadeite axes were made of local jadeite in southwest Germany and Switzerland, imitating the perforated Tumiac type. By about 6000 BP, a ‘Europe of jade’ characterised the axe trade in the western part of the continent, and a ‘Europe of copper’ characterised traded axes in eastern parts of the continent.
Quarrying must have been done in the summer given the high altitude of the stone quarries in the Alps. Stone sections were detached from bedrock using fire at some of the quarries. The axes were made initially by rough percussion flaking and hammering, followed by extensive hammer-dressing, also referred to as ‘pecking’. Quarrying was most intensive ca. 7300-6000 BP. A sawing technique was innovated ca. 6500 BP, using wood saws and crushed quartz as an abrasive. This allowed the sectioning of extremely tough blocks of stone into large blanks of high-quality jadeite up to near 50 cm long. Final stages of axe production involved grinding to refine the shape, eliminate the peck-marks, and sharpen the edge. Some utilitarian axes were only ground at the cutting edge or, in some cases, on the faces of the axe but not the sides. Peck-marks are visible on these axes.