This bifacial flint axe from Ireland dates to the Neolithic period, ca. 4500-5800 BP. The axe is likely made from stone sourced in the chalk areas of northeastern County Antrim.
Flint axes are relatively uncommon compared to volcanic, igneous, and metamorphic stones. They are most common in northeast Ireland, where flint sources are more widespread. One explanation for the pattern is that the flint sources are in the same region as porcellanite, and the porcellanite is less brittle than flint and is therefore the better alternative for axes. The axe in this model was expertly flaked by direct percussion. The flakes tended to terminate near the axe’s centreline, creating a thick lenticular cross-section.
The axe is curated in the Hunt Museum, Limerick, registration number HCA113.
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.
Axes first appear in the Mesolithic period in Ireland, by ca. 8000 BP. These ‘tranchet’ axes were made from large flint flake blanks using an unmodified margin as the cutting edge. Ground-edged axes also date to the Mesolithic, with early examples found at Mount Sandel and Lough Boora. Axes were made in large numbers during the Irish Neolithic period, ca. 4500-5800 BP. Stone axes continued to be made and used throughout the Bronze Age, to ca. 2600 BP or later, perhaps because stone for traditional axes was abundant while metal axes were relatively scarce. Most Irish axes were made from locally-available volcanic, igneous, and metamorphic stones, and porcellanite outcrops in County Antrim, in the northeastern part of Ireland, were heavily exploited for axes. Porcellanite was a prized material and the axes were traded widely. Axe shapes are usually ovate and symmetrical, with gently curving sides and a convex cutting edge. Most are between about 90-160 mm long, and they usually have round or flattened biconvex cross-sections. A variant called the ‘splaying’ axe has a more triangular shape with the widest point at the cutting edge. Axes with squared sides were also made; in some cases, they may have been mimicking Scandinavian axes (at least two Scandinavian rectangular-sectioned axes have been found in Ireland), or were made in imitation of bronze axes. Large, well-made ‘prestige axes’ have been found in Ireland, including in caches. A notable example is the Malone Hoard of 19 exceptionally large and well-made porcellanite axes found near Belfast, and now on display in the Ulster Museum. Miniature stone axes are also known, interpreted as amulets or symbol-laden objects based on the context of the finds in tombs and cemeteries. Stone axes are found with what one archaeologist calls ‘surprising frequency’ on Early Christian and Medieval sites in Ireland, perhaps reflecting a symbolic meaning that extended long beyond their period of manufacture and use.