‘Haft’ comes from the Old English work for ‘handle’, which can be traced to the Proto-Indo-European root meaning for kap-, which means ‘to grasp’. For archaeologists, tools with intact handles are referred to as ‘hafted’, and the handle itself is called the ‘haft’. If the handle is missing and the stone tool was manufactured with features to assist in attaching it, archaeologists often refer to it as a ‘hafted’ tool. The features themselves are often called ‘hafting elements’, and include, for example, notches, stems, or grooves.
Tools with intact hafts rarely survive in the archaeological record and modern interpretations of hafted tools are often intuitive and fanciful. However, intact ancient hafted tools are sometimes recovered by archaeologists, and examples of stone tools hafted and used by Indigenous peoples are curated in museums and private ethnographic collections.
The hafting of stone tools is considered an important innovation in our hominin ancestors. Hafting may have arisen as early as 500,000 BP at Kathu Pan in South Africa, based on indirect evidence from use-wear analysis of tools. The earliest surviving hafted tools are small flake knives from Campitello in central Italy with birch-resin handles dating to ca. 200,000 BP. Significant cognitive abilities are implied by joining a stone tool to an organic handle—perhaps with binding or glue as a another element. Each of these elements must be prepared separately according to their own manufacturing processes, and to haft a tool requires considerable strategic thinking (planning ahead) which subsumes tactical decisions to deal with problems as they arise. The complex knowledge underpinning hafting implies that cultural knowledge was transmitted socially. Hafted tool technology—particularly hafted hunting weapons—opened up new ways to procure food, and the social aspects of complex technology fed into social relations within and between cultural groups.
The hafting of stone tools is considered an important innovation in our hominin ancestors. Hafting may have arisen as early as 500,000 BP at Kathu Pan in South Africa, based on indirect evidence from use-wear analysis of tools. The earliest surviving hafted tools are small flake knives from Campitello in central Italy with birch-resin handles dating to ca. 200,000 BP.
Significant cognitive abilities are implied by joining a stone tool to an organic handle—perhaps with binding or glue as a another element. Each of these elements must be prepared separately according to their own manufacturing processes, and to haft a tool requires considerable strategic thinking (planning ahead) which subsumes tactical decisions to deal with problems as they arise. The complex knowledge underpinning hafting implies that cultural knowledge was transmitted socially. Hafted tool technology—particularly hafted hunting weapons—opened up new ways to procure food, and the social aspects of complex technology fed into social relations within and between cultural groups.
Hafted Axes and Adzes
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. Stone axes were often hafted via a hole, or mortise, in the handle, and the tapered shape of the axe ensured that they wedged tight into the hole during use. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicates that mortise handles arose independently in Europe, North America, and Oceania. Another approach was to wrap a thin piece of green wood, or layers of rawhide, around the axe head. Wood wrap-around handles were nearly universal in Australia, and rawhide wrap-around handles were used to haft war hammers in parts of North America during the historic period. Most grooved and waisted axes were probably hafted with wrap-around handles and, if so, the method may date as early as 50,000 BP in Australia.
Adzes were often hafted onto wood handles with a bend in them so the cutting edge was in the correct position. This method of hafting is well-documented in New Guinea where hafted stone adzes are still used today.
Stone axes and adzes in Late Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe were sometimes perforated with a hole for inserting a small-diameter wood handle, and axes in China were sometimes perforated with small holes to use in binding the flat-profiled axe onto the handle. Both these methods were also used to haft bronze axes which were circulating at the same time.
Axes were sometimes inserted into sockets which were then fastened onto the wood handle in various ways. In this case, the tapered axe wedged tightly into the socket, and the hafting focused on securely attaching the socket to the handle. In New Guinea, socketed hafts allowed the axe/adze to be rotated depending on the task at hand.
Most stone knives throughout prehistory were simple unmodified flakes that were used briefly and discarded. However, unmodified flakes, and more complex blades and bifacial tools, were sometimes given handles. The earliest known example of hafted knives were made by affixing lumps of plant resin directly onto an unmodified flake. These tools, from the Campitello site in Italy, were likely made by Homo neanderthalensis and date to ca. 200,000 BP. The resin provided an enhanced grip and protected the fingers from cuts.
Similar knives were made through the 1960s by Pitjandjara and Nakako craftsmen in Central Australia, who applied spinifex grass resin to flake knives called tjimari or kandi, depending on the tool’s size. These tools were sometimes retouched on the edge opposite the resin. Elongated macroblade leilira knives from Central Australia, and juan knives from eastern Australia, were often hafted by applying spinifex directly to the proximal end.
Another approach to hafting involved forcing the end of the stone knife into a socket made by hollowing out bone, antler, or wood. The proximal end of the stone was often flaked into a stem for insertion into the socket. The knife was usually held in place by friction from the tight fit. Slate ulu knives from Arctic North America were frequently hafted by friction in wood or bone handles, sometimes augmented by lashing through holes drilled through the stone knife blade.
A common knife-hafting approach was to split a wood handle into two pieces, hollow out one end of the split pair, and bind the handle back together with the butt of the stone knife resting in the hollow. The handle parts were usually bound to the knife with sinew, rawhide, or plant fibre string, sometimes augmented with glue or resin. The proximal end of the stone knife was often notched or stemmed to receive the binding. Sometimes the handle was only partially split and the stone knife was secured into the split, which was then bound. Large leilira macroblades made historically in Central Australia were given flat wood handles held in place by spinifex resin. Small, unmodified expedient flake knives were secured into split sticks, with or without binding; this was practiced historically in Australia, New Guinea, on the west coast of North America, and dates up to 9000 years ago in Chile.
Daggers made in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Denmark had handles flaked directly onto the proximal end. An Early Bronze Age flint dagger was recovered by archaeologists with birch bark strips wrapped expertly around the stone handle. Some juan knives from Australia were similarly wrapped with possum skin pressed into spinifex resin. Stone knives from Korea, made by sawing and grinding, were usually one-piece with the handle carved into the proximal end.
Composite knives were made by affixing small, sharp-edged microliths in series onto wood or bone handles. Composite knives like these were made from sheep metatarsals in Eastern Europe, and composite sickles with wood or bone handles and microlith inserts are well-known in Western Asia. The stone elements might held into grooves by friction or, as in the case of taap knives of Western Australia, glued to the knife handle using plant resin. Grain threshing sleds were made until recent times in the Mediterranean region by hammering simple unmodified flakes into soft boards.
The handle part of some stone knives were undecorated and utilitarian, but handles were often highly decorated and used for social signalling. This was a principal function of the painted wood handles on Australian leilira blades, and even the simple resin handles on tjimari and kandi knives were decorated with red ochre, eagle down feathers, or human hair. Exceptionally complex carvings were made into the ivory, bone, or wood handles of stone knives recovered from burials and ceremonial sites in Europe, Egypt, Western Asia, and Mesoamerica.
Early accounts of First Nations people in North America describe certain types of retouched flakes hafted for use in scraping the fat and connective tissue from animal hides. The handles tended to be short to match the hide-worker’s scraping gesture. The edge of the scraper was oriented at right-angles to the axis of the handle and the unifacially retouched surface faced up, away from the hide.
Hide workers in North America bound the scrapers in place with hide strips or string, and the antler handles used on the Great Plains tended to be L-shaped with the stone bound into a recess on the short leg. A similar design was used across the Arctic, but the stone part was often an edge-ground piece of slate rather than a retouched flake.
Stone scrapers continue to be used to process hides in Ethiopia. They are considered superior to iron tools for this because the stone is less likely to cut the hide. The stone scrapers are embedded into holes in opposite sides of the carved wood handle and secured with pitch.
Retouched flakes in Australia were often hafted for use. As in most parts of the world, retouched flakes in Australia are informally called ‘scrapers’ by archaeologists, but historical observations of Aboriginal people using these tools show that they were used as both scraping tools and cutting knives. The scraping and adzing tools were sometimes affixed with resin onto wood handles, but a blob of resin was often applied to the back edge of scraping and cutting tools. These were called tjimari by people in Central Australia, and they were still being made and used in the 1960s. As noted for hafted knives, this method of hafting dates to ca. 200,000 BP at the Campitello site in Italy.
Hafted Spear and Dart Points
Stone armatures were hafted on the end of spear shafts by ca. 500,000 BP at the Kathu Pan site in South Africa, as suggested by the impact fractures on many of the points. Hafted spear and dart points are well-documented from about 75,000 BP but, despite this exceptionally long history, spear and dart points with intact hafting rarely preserve in the archaeological record.
Historically, stone armatures were mounted on shafts either directly or via a foreshaft. A foreshaft is a short section of wood, bone, or ivory that fits inside a socket in the end of the main shaft. Various cane species were a popular material for main shafts because they are naturally hollow, allowing for insertion of the solid wood foreshaft. A hunter could carry multiple replacement foreshafts for each main shaft in their hunting kit.
Stone points were mounted into a slot in the end of the foreshaft, usually supplemented with plant resin and/or sinew lashing. Sinew was wrapped on while wet and, when dry, shrank tight around the point and shaft. Many stone points were notched or stemmed to provide purchase for the lashing. Resin was added over the lashing to strengthen the haft and to waterproof the sinew, which will grow loose when exposed to water. Archaeologists experimenting with North American-style notched obsidian points claimed that, aside for used in binding a point to a foreshaft, deep notches served to weaken the point so it would break off inside the prey animal.
In Australia, dart and spear points were affixed to main shafts without an intervening foreshaft. Shafts were rarely slotted, and the stone points were fastened using plant resin—particularly spinifex grass resin—or native bees wax. Fibre or hair string was sometimes incorporated into the resin to give it added strength. The hafting area was often decorated with ochre designs. The high-quality hafting adhesives available in Australia meant that notches for lashing were unnecessary.
Points made in the Kimberley region of Australia were designed to break from their shafts inside the target animal, hastening their death. Tiny quartz crystal dart points called nguni were encased in bees wax and were meant to detach inside their human victim upon impact.
Other Hafted Tools
Stone tools persisted long after the appearance of metal, and metals have been used to provide hafts to stone elements. One relatively common stone/metal composite tool was the strike-a-light, dating to Roman times and persisting through the 19th Century: the stone part of the fire-making kit was encased in soft lead to protect the fingers during use. The lead was sometimes decorated with gemstones. Gunflints were the essential element of flintlock muskets and rifles in the 18th and early 19th Century. Gunflints were fastened into the lock mechanisms with screw-driven jaws. The gunflint was wrapped with a sleeve of leather to ensure a secure purchase within the jaws.
Stones are hafted in a variety of ways in our modern society. A tiny flint in a cigarette lighter provides a spark when abraded by a steel wheel. More recent lighters are made using a crystal that, when compressed by pushing a button, creates an electric spark via the piezoelectric effect.
Tiny fragments of diamond or corundum (ruby and sapphire) are fastened to metal disks or drills to serve as cutting abrasives, a practice dating to the Sumerians. Jewellery is made by hafting carefully-shaped gemstones to precious-metal clamps or sockets, a tradition of great antiquity. Rubies or sapphires are hafted as bearings in designer watch movements, and the number of these tiny stone tools is an index of quality and precision. Quartz crystals are hafted for use in highly accurate timepieces because they resonate at a specific frequency when flexed by an electric charge.