This percussion-flaked axe is from site 31St2, Stanly County, North Carolina. The axe is made from a fine-grained metavolcanic stone, and dates to the Guilford Phase of the Middle Archaic period, ca. 6000-5000 BP.
Flaked axes like the one in this model are referred to as Guilford axes because they are characteristic artefacts found on Guilford Phase sites. The axe was shaped and notched on the margins by percussion flaking, and edge-grinding is absent. The broad notches on the lateral margins were made for hafting the axe onto a handle. Guilford axes are never edge-ground, which is unusual for stone axes in the Americas.
The artefact is curated in the North Carolina Archaeological Collection, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The earliest stone axes in North America date to the Early Holocene, ca. 10,000 BP, but they became far more numerous in the Middle and Late Holocene. In the eastern woodlands of North America, axes began to proliferate as the diet changed from a focus on hunting large-bodied animals to an increase in the use of plant and animal foods concentrated in river valleys. In particular, a shift in food procurement occurred ca. 5500-7000 BP to bulk-processing of foods like hickory nuts. Stone axes may have proliferated to manage nut-tree stands through the removal of undesirable tree species. However, they were used for other types of woodworking as well, and are found across most of North America.
Flaked-stone axes lacking ground edges were made and used in various times and places, but edge-ground axes are more common in North America. These were made from hard igneous stones through a combination of pecking and grinding. A groove to receive a wrap-around handle was often pecked into the end opposite the sharpened cutting edge. Axes were either fully-grooved around their entire diameter, or grooved around 3/4 of the diameter with one side left flat. The groove on some axes was very expertly made, with raised rims around the boundaries of the groove. Axes were sometimes decorated with parallel pecked lines, referred to as ‘fluted’ axes. The butt-ends of some axes, called the ‘poll’, were often relatively flat and show signs of use as a hammer. Grooved stone hammers—with polls at both ends—were also made. Axes without grooves are called ‘celts’ by North American researchers. Celts were inserted into a hole in a wood handle, and they wedged tightly into the hole with use.
Adzes were also made and used in various parts of North America. Adzes were hafted with the cutting edge at a right angle to the handle, in contrast to axes, which were hafted with the cutting edge parallel to the handle. Dalton adzes date from 8000 to 10,000 BP, and are found in eastern part of the continent. These small tools were made on thick bifacially-flaked stones, and were manufactured with a curved, gouge-like cutting edge. Elaborate half-grooved adzes made by pecking and grinding were used in the New England region of the United States, and adzes were made into the recent past by people living in Arctic and Subarctic regions and the Pacific Northwest.
Most utilitarian axes in North America range between about 10-20 cm long, but much larger examples are found, as well as miniature versions referred to colloquially as ‘toy’ axes. Some axes are made from unusual materials, such as iron-rich haematite, or stone with striking visual characteristics, such as quartz or porphyry. Axes took on a ceremonial significance during the Mississipian period (ca. 900-1500 BP); at the Etowah site in Georgia, for instance, elites were buried with one-piece ‘monolithic’ axes with both the axe and the handle carved from one piece of stone, as well as stone celts covered with copper sheeting.