This large bifacial axe blank is from the Neolithic period, ca. 4350-6000 BP. The biface is made from silicified volcanic ash (also called ‘tuff’) sourced from the Great Langdale region of the Lake District, and was found in 1925 in Birchfields Park/Platt Fields Park in Manchester, England.
The artefact is curated by the Australian Institute of Archaeology, catalogue no. IA24.147.
The large axe blank in this model was shaped by well-controlled hard hammer bifacial percussion flaking. The blank was prepared for grinding but was rejected before this step was undertaken. It was recovered from Manchester, some 150 km south of the likely source of the stone, suggesting that axes were often traded and transported before they were edge-ground into finished tools. The stone is a vitrified volcanic ash (‘tuff’) probably from the Langdale Axe Factory in the rugged Great Langdale area of the Lake District. Large quantities of rejected axes, flakes, cores, and hammerstones occur at the axe quarries. Axes made from Langdale tuff are referred to as ‘Group VI’ axes, in reference to the petrography of the stone. The axes were traded across Britain and Ireland during the Neolithic, and around 27% have proven to be Group VI axes. Some authors have suggested that the high-elevation sources may have imbued the axes with spiritual significance or power. The Langdale Axe Factory was utilised for about 1000 years.
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.