Stone axe from Bali, Indonesia, engraved with a Hindu deity. The engraving postdates ca. 1000 BP, but it may have been applied to a much older axe. It is made from a fine-grained metamorphosed mudstone.
This stone axe from Bali has an unidentified Hindu deity or spirit engraved on one face. The engraving postdates ca. 1000 BP, and it may be considerably younger than this. The axe’s ground edge is glossy and polished, suggesting that it was used to process phytolith-rich plants, probably while held in the hand rather than hafted onto a handle. One face is spalled by weathering or exposure to heat, and use-wear appears to intrude onto the spalled face.
Metalwork arose in Indonesia by ca. 2500 BP, and sophisticated cast bronze ceremonial axes and kettledrums were made in Indonesia soon after. The transition from stone to metal tools occurred progressively during this time. Most early Bronze Age tools were used in ceremonies. The engraving on this stone axe suggests a ceremonial context, and, indeed, ceremonial bronze axes were sometimes decorated with anthropomorphic motifs, such as the famous axe from the island of Roti in eastern Indonesia. However, the motifs on bronze axes do not invoke Hindu deities and seem to belong to an earlier symbolic tradition. It is possible that the stone axe in this model was found and recycled from an earlier archaeological site, and engraved for ceremonial use.
Edge-ground stone axes and adzes were made by ca. 32,000-38,000 BP in the Japanese archipelago, and 19,000-21,000 BP in southern China. These are the oldest in the world outside Australia, where they date to over 40,000 years old. The earliest axes were flaked to shape with a bifacially ground edge on one end.
Flaked and pecked axes with rounded or lenticular cross-sections were made across Asia and the pacific throughout prehistory, but axes with rectangular cross-sections were especially popular in some regions. The squared edges on axes and adzes made from igneous or volcanic stones were often made entirely by grinding, but in some regions the edges were squared-off by flaking, probably using an indirect percussion technique and a bone, antler, or stone punch. This indirect percussion-flaking technique was used in East Java and Flores, Indonesia, by 2600 BP, and was also used in New Zealand and perhaps northeastern India. The technique and manufacturing stages are strikingly similar to indirect percussion axe-making at about the same time in Northern Europe, and the technique was almost certainly developed in these areas independently as a stone working ‘good trick’.
Axes and adzes in Asia proliferated in late prehistory into a bewildering array of sizes and shapes that reflect regional trends. In Northeast Thailand, adzes were made with tangs at the proximal end, called ‘shouldered adzes’ by archaeologists. In parts of Indonesia, axe- and adze-makers began grinding the top surface into two facets with a ridge down the centre. Ceremonial gouges were made on Java with a central ridge first made by indirect percussion ‘stitching’ similar to that seen on stone dagger handles made in Denmark. A gouge is similar to an adze, but with a U-shaped working edge rather than a straight one. These Javanese gouges were made from spectacular stones, such as chalcedony and agate, and the flake scars from manufacture were completely removed by grinding.
Jade axes were made in China from about 7000 years ago, along with elaborately carved jade ‘dagger-axes’. Jade axes were perforated near the middle or proximal end as an aid in hafting. Axes with preserved handles have been discovered, showing that they were inserted into a hole in the wood handle and were wedged tight through use. An image engraved onto a Liangzhu Culture pot (ca. 4300-5300 BP), which portrays a perforated axe, shows that the hole was used for a string binding.
Elaborate jade and basalt adzes were also made in late prehistory and into the recent past by Maori people in New Zealand. Some were made with elaborately-shaped proximal ends for hafting, with extremely fine, sharp cutting edges. Similar examples were made in Hawaii. The basalt examples were made by a combination of flaking, pecking, and grinding, while the jade adzes were made mostly by sawing and grinding augmented in the haft area by pecking. These tools were essential for making the elaborate wood carvings on ceremonial houses and canoes, and certain jade examples were used exclusively for ceremony. Maori also made narrow gouges with round cross sections.
A widespread belief in East and Southeast Asia is that edge-ground stone axes and adzes were the products of lighting strikes, often likened to the ‘teeth’ of lighting. As such, they are thought to have magical protective and healing abilities. In Vietnam, stone axes and adzes are used as talismans against lighting and powder is abraded from them for medicine. This belief is particularly strong in the Indonesian archipelago; for instance, in eastern Java in 2008, a nine-year-old boy, Mohammed Ponari, was struck by lightning but was claimed to have been saved by an edge-ground axe. Water in which Ponari’s axe was soaked was said to have healing powers, and thousands of patients travelled there in 2009 to partake of the elixir.
Hinduism arrived in Bali by ca. 1000-1500 BP. The powerful Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire arose in eastern Java by 650 BP and established a colony on Bali. Muslim armies invaded the Indonesia archipelago 400-500 BP and targeted Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, and Islamic Sultanates were established in Sumatra, Java, and Borneo. This ended the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in those regions, but Hindus and Buddhists fled to small, defensible islands like Bali. Dutch Europeans arrived about 400 BP during this period of conflict, and established a colonial empire headed by a private enterprise called the Dutch East India Company, or VOC. The VOC helped prevent escalating conflicts between regional leaders because warfare threatened the VOC’s lucrative trade in spices. Bali retained its Hindu traditions, and with independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945, the Indonesian Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, although struggles continued through the 1950s over what was deemed a suitable religion under the Constitution. This culminated in the joint petition by the Hindus of Bali in 1958, satisfying the Constitutional requirement that religions must be monotheistic, and demonstrating that Balinese Hindu practices fit within the Indonesian national ideology of panca sila. Bali is the only predominately Hindu island in Indonesia, and the religion is a mixture of ancient Hindu traditions and accomodations to panca sila. In this Balinese Hindu philosophy, all of the different forms of gods and goddesses are manifestations of the one Supreme Being, and thus it is considered a monotheistic religion.