This flint thin-butted axe is from Denmark, and has a rectangular cross section. The axe dates to the Funnel Beaker phase of the Neolithic period, ca. 4800-6300 BP. It was shaped by flaking on four main platform edges, each flaked bifacially to create a four-sided ‘quadrifacial’ tool. The scars on the faces were mostly ground away in preparing the axe for hafting and use.
The artefact is curated by the Australian Institute of Archaeology, catalogue no. IA24.182.
The bifacial edge at the butt of this axe places it in the ‘thin-butted’ type. Both faces are extensively ground, eliminating the flake scars. Most thin-butted axes also have the flake scars on the edges eliminated by grinding, but on this example the grinding is minimal. One edge is not ground and the opposite edge is partially ground, but most of the flake scars are still visible. The cutting edge was expertly prepared by grinding. Damage to the axe’s butt may have been from blows to dislodge the axe from the wood socket handle.
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).