5.2.2 axeheads (plus adze heads and chisels)

It has been estimated that around 4000 ground stone axeheads - and a far smaller number of adze-heads and chisels - have been found in Scotland, of which only around 130 are of flint (and those include examples where grinding is limited to the blade area). There being no known ground stone axeheads of Mesolithic date in Scotland, and very few indeed that have been found in post-Neolithic contexts, it is, therefore, assumed that the vast majority of these date to the Neolithic.

Most of the research on axeheads and related objects has been focused on addressing the question: 'Where did the stone originate?', and there is a history of provenancing research that extends back to the earliest stages of this field of study in the 1930s (with the work of the Petrology Committee of the South Western Group of Museums & Art Galleries: followed by the work of the Council for British Archaeology's Implement Petrology Committee (IPC) - now continuing its existence as the independent Implement Petrology Group (IPG): http://implementpetrology.org/). Much of this provenancing was by petrological thin-sectioning and the publication, in 1988, of the IPC's listing of petrologically-identified specimens from Scotland (and the rest of Britain: Clough and Cummins 1988) marked a watershed in our understanding of the movement of material.

Work by Roy Ritchie (the IPC Reporter for Scotland) on the stone extraction sites on Creag na Caillich, near Killin, Perth and Kinross (MacKie 1972; Ritchie and Scott 1988) and at the Beorgs of Uyea in Shetland (Ritchie 1968; 1992) paved the way for subsequent investigation of these source areas. The former site was excavated by Mark Edmonds et al., on behalf of National Museums Scotland, in 1989 (Edmonds et al. 1992), and the Beorgs of Uyea and other felsite sources in Shetland are currently the subject of field research by Torben Ballin, Gabriel Cooney and Will Megarry (Ballin 2011; Cooney et al.in print).

Projet Jade

Since 2006, Project JADE – a major international research project, led by Dr Pierre Pétrequin (CNRS and formerly of the University of Besançon) – has revolutionised our understanding of the c 30 axeheads of Alpine rock (i.e. jadeitite, eclogite and omphacitite) in Scotland – see boxed text. This project has focused not only on the (non-destructive) sourcing of the raw material, but also on axehead shape, on the chronology of different types of Alpine axehead, on the biography of individual axeheads, on contexts of deposition, and on the social and ideological significance of these very special axeheads across the whole of Europe (Pétrequin et al. 2008; 2012(with extensive bibliography); Sheridan et al. 2011; 2012).

The sourcing of flint axeheads has been more problematic, although morphology has offered clues, with the hoard of 'mint condition' flint axeheads (and other flint objects) from Auchenhoan, near Campbeltown, pointing strongly towards Co. Antrim as the source area (Saville 1999), while the presence of a handful of distinctively-shaped waisted 'Duggleby axeheads' and 'Seamer adze heads' (e.g. at Biggar Common: Johnston 1997) unequivocally point towards Yorkshire (as does the slightly earlier flint axehead found, together with a necklace of Whitby jet and amber beads, at 'Ardiffery', Cruden, Aberdeenshire: Kenworthy 1977; cf. Manby 1979 on Yorkshire flint axehead typology). The recent dating of human remains associated with a 'Duggleby adze' at the eponymous site (Gibson 2011) has confirmed that this particular object type belongs within the period 3300–3000 BC. Scottish flint seems only to have been used for a handful of flint axeheads, and the flint mines on the Buchan Ridge will not have been used for making axeheads, as the nodules are unsuitable for this purpose.

The source of the exquisite, often marbled flint used to make a distinctive kind of flint axehead – the All-Over-Polished variety – is unknown, although it is of the same kind as is found in Jutland, Denmark, and there has been much speculation in the past as to whether these are axeheads imported from Denmark. (Essentially, the Danish axeheads - dating to c 3600 BC - have broader side facets and none has the glassy polish as seen on the finest British examples and so, unless the latter represent material specially made for export, a Danish origin seems unlikely.) The markedly east coast distribution of AOP flint axeheads, extending as far as Folsetter in Orkney (where a slightly atypical example was found), suggests that wherever the source was- and the bed of flint runs under the North Sea from Denmark to eastern England - the axeheads had travelled by sea, along the coast. Research by Yvan Pailler on similarly-shaped (but in many cases less highly polished) flint axeheads in England - Pitts' 'Crudwell type' (Pitts 1996) has suggested that the large, highly polished examples are a subset of a larger production.

The result of all the provenancing studies is that it is clear that a considerable number of axeheads found in Scotland come from preferred sources – the term 'axe factory' is avoided since it has overtones of modern industrial production. Of these, the best-represented in Scotland is Great Langdale in Cumbria, whose tuff (named 'Group VI' in the IPC scheme) had been extracted and exchanged in the form of axeheads from the very beginning of the Neolithic (Edmonds 2011). Indeed, there is evidence (from Dumfries and Galloway) that some people may have travelled across the Solway Firth and acquired roughouts, as well as finished axeheads.

The axeheads acquired from this source over the course of the fourth (and early third?) millennium comprise both 'workaday' examples (many with characteristically faceted sides) and a larger, distinctively-shaped, probably special-purpose implement, 'the Cumbrian Club' the dating of which needs to be clarified, but is assumed to fall within the second half of the 4th millennium (Edmonds 2011). There is a very good chance that the exploitation of this greenish-grey rock, obtained by means of a perilous climb up a steep mountain, had been motivated by the desire to reproduce the 'magic mountain' experience of Alpine jadeitite exploitation (Pétrequin et al. 2008.

The same desire may have lain behind the exploitation of stone from other mountainous or otherwise 'liminal' sources, including Creag na Caillich, the source of calc-silicate hornfels (Group XXIV)and Tievebulliagh and Brockley (on Rathlin Island), Co. Antrim (the sources of porcellanite (Group IX). Research by the Irish Stone Axe Project (Cooney and Mandal 1998) has revealed that this stone was used for over half of all the c 22000 axeheads found in Ireland. The Scottish distribution of porcellanite axeheads from these two sources in north-east Ireland overlaps with that of Great Langdale axeheads but, as Jack Scott pointed out, the latter predominate in Dumfries and Galloway while the former are more common further to the north, thereby reflecting the predominant patterns of inter-area contact during the Neolithic. The presence of a few porcellanite roughouts in Scotland (Sheridan 1986) might indicate that some people were travelling to the source, rather than acquiring finished axe -heads from contacts in Co. Antrim. The distribution of porcellanite axeheads (Sheridan 1986; Sheridan et al. 1992) also reflects patterns of contacts and movements within Scotland, travelling northwards up the Atlantic façade and north-eastwards, up the Great Glen, to Aberdeenshire. There are even two examples from Shetland, and these could have arrived as part of the secondary expansion of 'the Neolithic' to Shetland from western Scotland during the 38th or 37th century BC. The Atlantic movement included one porcellanite axehead that was found, still set in its haft of rosaceous wood, at Shulishader on the Isle of Lewis, (Sheridan et al. 1992). The haft has been radiocarbon-dated to 4470±95 BP (OxA-3537, 3490–2910 cal BC at 2σ, calibrated using OxCal 4.1).

(left) Neolithic axe, with Antrim porcellanite axehead, from Shulishader, Lewis, © NMS
(right) The Shulishader axe. Drawing by Helen Jackson for NMS

The source on Creag na Caillich does not seem to have been as intensively used as Great Langdale or the porcellanite sources; fewer than 40 axeheads (plus at least two cushion maceheads) are known to have been made of this material, and the overall distribution is curiously scattered, with one example being found as far south as Buckinghamshire. Dating evidence is sparse, but a Middle to Late Neolithic date is suggested by the radiocarbon dates (Edmonds et al. 1992) and by the fact that it had been used to make cushion maceheads.

The axeheads and distinctive polished knives of Shetland, made using the visually-striking riebeckite (and other) felsite, are remarkable in several respects. As pointed out by Roy Ritchie (1992), the axeheads include many that exceed 140 mm in size, even though there will have been very few trees on Shetland. This is in stark contrast to the situation on Orkney, where the axeheads there tend to be diminutive. Only a handful of objects made of Shetland felsite left Shetland, and in one case, a knife that had been thought to come from 'Lanark' was found (by Noel Fojut) to have come from Lerwick: the label had been mis-read. A particularly valuable piece of evidence relating to the chronology of felsite exploitation has just been obtained for the Nationalmuseet's project, Farming on the Edge: this is a radiocarbon date of 4580 ± 35 BP (SUERC-37997, 3500–3110 cal BC at 2 δ, calibrated using OxCal 4.1) from Maloideae species charcoal associated with a hoard of felsite axeheads and knives found in a knoll at Modesty, Shetland; fragments of steatite vessels were also found (Kinghorn 1895). The field investigation planned by Cooney et al. (in press) should provide additional dating evidence.

A few other sources of stone were preferentially used in Scotland (see Ritchie and Scott 1988 for details), but only to a small extent. Other axeheads had been made using locally-available stone (including, in some cases, river cobbles); it should be relatively easy to establish a rough estimate of the percentage of Scottish axeheads made from such material.

Overall, the information already available indicates that axeheads from various sources were being exchanged around Scotland, some from a very early stage during the Neolithic (e.g. at Carzield, Dumfries and Galloway: Sheridan 2007) – when the establishment of networks of contacts between farming communities was an important way of maintaining community sustainability. The various models of 'down the line' (etc.) exchange developed in the 1970s (Clough and Cummins 1979) are now regarded as having taken insufficient cognisance of the social value of these objects, as well as any utilitarian value. A particular instance of this is the Alpine axeheads of semi-precious jadeitite and other Alpine rocks. These do not seem to have been 'exchange' items within a British and Irish context, but instead are more likely to have been brought over by the immigrant farming groups from northern France, as treasured (and supernaturally-charged) heirlooms, at some time between 4000 and 3800 BC (Sheridan 2007; Pétrequin et al. 2008). That some axeheads of other rocks had also been accorded a special social value is suggested by the large or otherwise distinctive axeheads – the Cumbrian clubs, the All-Over-Polished flint axeheads, the Yorkshire axeheads, and the Shetland felsite axeheads.  As the work of Projet JADE has shown, it would be limiting to regard these simply as symbols of power, although they could indeed have had that role; their significance may well have extended beyond that. One other aspect that reflects the importance attached to some axeheads is the fact that copies were made in different kinds of stone: several imitations of the 'Durrington type' Alpine axehead form are known from Scotland (especially in Aberdeenshire: <>Sheridan et al. 2011), and there is one instance known of where a Seamer axehead of flint was copied in Langdale tuff. It is clear that much remains to be discovered about the social significance of these objects.

The outstanding research questions facing stone axehead studies are as follows:

  1. The chronology of production and distribution needs to be clarified further for the 'preferred' sources, and in particular the currency of distinctive types of axehead (such as the Cumbrian club) needs to be placed on a firmer footing.
  2. More specifically, what is the date of AOP flint axeheads – the only type of axehead other than jadeitite axeheads to have received a glassy polish – and where were they made?
  3. While most axeheads seem to have been 'stray finds', can any patterns in deposition practices be discerned?
  4. What kind of additional information be gleaned from updating the IPG records for stone axeheads in Scotland – for instance, by collating information about axeheads (and fragments thereof) from excavations since 1988?
  5. There is a possibility to investigate the use of axe- and adze- heads through the study of patterns of damage, curation and re-use that could suggest how long individual examples had been used before discard? Do axeheads of a particular rock decline in length with distance from source - i.e. indicating that they were kept for longer (and thus re-sharpened more) than others made from more local rocks? (Roy Ritchie argued that this is not the case with porcellanite axeheads.)
  6. How widespread was the practice of imitating specific axeheads in other kinds of stone?
  7. How does our understanding of resource use, as based on the study of stone axeheads, compare with the picture obtained from studying other kinds of Scottish Neolithic resource use?
  8. How many of the axeheads known are actually either fakes (of which numbers are known to have been made during the 19th century) or recent ethnographic manuports? The work for Projet JADE, together with a recent case where a Shetland implement in a museum in England had been confused with a Polynesian example collected by Captain Cook, highlights the need for those who study and curate stone axeheads to develop their knowledge of material from elsewhere in the world and of fakes.