Axes with perforated blades


Reconstruction of a cross axe. Author: Jakub Zbránek.

In the vortex of battle, we often encounter axes that have an atypical appearance – the center of the blade is cut and in some cases filled with a cross-like or hammer-like protrusion. This popular shape of axes has repeatedly provoked debates about authenticity, so we decided to gather known information into one summary article, the value of which may prove in the future with increasing material.

We will not include axes with one round hole in this article. Single round perforation is a common feature of 10th-13th century Central and Eastern European axes and its meaning can be reduced to two interpretations – the suspension hole for a sheath and decoration originally filled with a contrast metal (Kotowicz 2018: 35-6; Vlasatý 2015Vlasatý 2020b).


The catalog collects a total of 15 European Early Medieval axes, which have more significantly perforated blades. Typologically, they belong to axes of Petersen types L / M, double axes, hammer axes and T-shaped axes.

  • Ludvigshave, Denmark
    A cross axe of L/M type found in a mound discovered at the end of the 19th century. In the literature, the place is also known as Pederstrup. Axe length 21.9 cm, axe width 18 cm. At present, the axe is stored in the Danish National Museum with inventory number C9115.
    Literature: Brøndsted 1936: 181182, fig. 92:2; Paulsen 1956: 67, fig. 25:c; Pedersen 2014: 31, 74, Find list 2; Roesdahl – Wilson 2000: 279, no. 194.

The axe from Ludvigshave. Source:

  • Sortehøj, Denmark
    A cross axe of L/M type found in a mound discovered in 1831. In the literature, the place is also known as Gjersing. Axe length 18 cm, axe width 17.5 cm. At present, the axe is stored in the Danish National Museum with inventory number NM2866.
    Literature: Brøndsted 1936: 121, fig. 63; Pedersen 2014: Find list 2.

The axe from Sortehøj. Source:

  • Unknown place, central Jutland, Denmark 
    A cross axe of L/M type found in an unknown context Axe length 23 cm, axe width 22 cm. The neck and the butt are inlayed with copper alloy strips. At present, the axe is stored in the Silkeborg Museum.
    Literature: Schiørring 1978.

The axe from Silkeborg Museum. Source: Silkeborg Museum.

  • Närke, Sweden
    A cross axe of L/M type found in a damaged grave. Axe length 17.5 cm, axe width 16 cm. At present, the axe is stored in the State Historical Museum in Stockholm with catalog number SHM 10243.
    Literature: Hansson 1983: 7, 27; Paulsen 1956: 67, fig. 25:b.

The axe from Närke. Source: ATA, Riksantikvarieämbetet Stockholm.

  • Stentugu, Hejde, Gotland, Sweden
    A cross axe of L/M type, found as a stray find in 1931. Axe length 15.5 cm, axe width 14 cm. At present, the axe is stored in Visby Museum with catalog number GF C 7642.
    Literature: Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 260:5; 2000: 376; 2006: 312.

The axe from Stentugu. Source: Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 260:5.

  • Unknown place, vicinity of Płock, Poland
    A cross axe of Kotowicz type IIIA.5.1, probably originating from a damaged grave. The blade of the axe is equipped with a small cross-shaped perforation. Axe length 17 cm, axe width 15.9 cm. At present, the axe is stored in Płock Museum with catalog number VD/128.
    LiteratureKotowicz 2013: 51, Fig. 11; Kotowicz 2014: 201-2, Tabl. CLIV.1.

The axe from Płocku. Source: Kotowicz 2013: Fig. 11.

  • Unknown place, northeastern Bulgaria
    One of the double axes of Jotov type 4B from northeastern Bulgaria is equipped with four holes arranged in a cross. No further information is known.
    : Jotov 2004: кат. No 582, обр. 51, табло L.

The axe from northeastern Bulgaria. Source: Jotov 2004: кат. No 582, обр. 51, табло L.

  • Unknown place, Russia
    The Krasnodar Museum in Russia houses an Early Medieval double axe, the blade of which is perforated. The axe has small dimensions. No further information is known.
    : Vlasatý 2020a.

The axe from Krasnodar Museum.
Source: Краснодарский государственный историко-археологический музей-заповедник им. Е.Д.Фелицына.

  • Bilär, Russia
    A double axe with a perforated blade was found in the center of Volga Bulgaria. No further information is known.
    : Izmailov 1997: 77-80, рис. 45.1.

The axe from Bilär. Source: Izmailov 1997: 77-80, рис. 45.1.

  • Moldovanovka, Russia
    A double axe with a perforated blade measuring 19.5 × 3.8 cm.
    : Kočkarov 2006: 20, 22, Прил. 1, Табл. II.

The axe from Moldovanovka. Source: Kočkarov 2006: Табл. II.

  • Demenki, Russia
    A double axe with a perforated blade measuring 18.1 × 3.6 cm, found in grave no. 18 in Demenki, Perm, in 1953.
    : Danič 2015: 112, 117, рис. 11. 57.

The axe from Demenki. Source: Danič 2015: рис. 11.57.

  • Unknown place, southern Ukraine
    A double axe with a perforated blade was found during illegal detector activity in 2015 and sold to a private collector. The axe was allegedly found in the grave along with another military, while the attached helmet was a fake.
    : unpublished.

The axe that was illegally digged in southern Ukraine.

  • Unknown place, Sweden
    A hammer axe of Kotowicz type IA.6.33 with perforations that forms palmette-shape decoration. The dimensions of the axe are about 10-11 cm × 4.5-5.5 cm. The current state of the find is unknown, the last place of storage was the Falköping Museum.
    : Paulsen 1956: 40, 64, Abb. 25d; Vlasatý 2020a.

The axe from Falköping Museum. Source: Paulsen 1956: Abb. 25d; Vlasatý 2020a.

  • Mikulčice, Czech Republic
    The 1994 grave hid a remarkable T-shaped axe (ref. No. 341/90), which had a triangular hole in the blade and a twisted neck. The axe burned down during a fire in the Mikulčice deposit in 2007.
    Luňák 2010: 50, Obr. 22.

Sekera z Mikulčic. Source: Luňák 2010: Obr. 22.

  • Borovan, Bulgaria
    One of the Jotov type 5A axes from the Borovan locality is equipped with a rectangular hole. No further information is known.
    Jotov 2004: кат. No 584, табло L.

The axe from Borovan. Source: Jotov 2004: кат. No 584, табло L.

Cross axes

A cross axe (Danish korsøkse) is a designation for a small group of Petersen axes of the L/M type, whose blades are perforated to form a cross. The types can be generally dated to approximately 950–1050 (Petersen 1919: 46–47), while cross axes were dated more accurately to the second half of the 10th century (Paulsen 1956: 67). So far, six pieces of these axes are known – three come from Denmark, two from Sweden and one from Poland. The distribution is therefore spread in the Baltic region. In terms of the frequency of these axes, they represent a marginal topic in the corpus of Scandinavian weapons, and even within the L/M types they cannot make up more than 1% of the total. It would be difficult to find a more eloquent statistic than Kotowicz’s analysis, which shows that only 0.45% of all Polish axes from the period 6th – 1st half of the 13th century were somehow decorated with a cross (Kotowicz 2013: 41).

The scientific literature pays surprisingly little attention to these axes. This is partly due to the fact that the finds are of an older date, which limits the possibilities of interpretation. Therefore, it is appropriate to list the literature that concerns this phenomenon. The website of the Danish National Museum reads:

Research indicates that such axes were robust enough for practical use. However, it is more likely that they were reserved for ceremonial purposes. The owners of these cross axes were not necessarily Christian, but the axes reflect the strong Christian currents that existed in this part of the Viking period.


In the book “From Viking to Crusader: Scandinavia and Europe 800-1200” (Roesdahl – Wilson 2000: 279, no. 194) we find the same information and learn that axes “could have been used for ceremonial purposes, as were axes inlaid with silver and gold [eg axes from Mamten or Trelleborg].” We also read that such “perforated axes are unusual in Scandinavian times in Viking Period.” Finally, the book informs us that “during Christian missions, weapons were rarely buried in graves, but even at the end of the 10th century, the ax could have been a symbol of the warrior class.”

In her study “Materiel kultur, identitet og kommunikation” (Pedersen 2008: 15–16), Anne Pedersen considers that “the practical function of cross axes has been subordinated to symbolic significance“, and also deals with their distribution:

Due to the relatively uniform shape of the axes and their geographical distribution, it can be argued that they were a symbol that was used and understood in a broader context in a large area of Scandinavia. We can also assume that the few men who owned such an axe were part of a closer community, and the axe was thus a symbol of loyalty that was not limited to local space.


Reconstructed scene of the runestone DR 282. Possible appearance of a Varangian. Taken from Ewing 2006: 112.

This is in line with Piotr Kotowicz’s study “The Sign of the Cross on the Early Medieval Axes – A Symbol of Power, Magic or Religion?“. He puts perforated axes into the broader context of axes decorated with crosses and shows that this is a northern European phenomenon of 6th to mid-13th century and that there was more frequent storage of axes with the dead after the Christianization of Scandinavia, which is also reflected by perforated axes (Kotowicz 2013: 42). Kotowicz understand cross axes as strictly Viking phenomenon. However, he does not state that the deposit of axes ended up in Scandinavia during the 11th century. This increase of axes in graves is truly remarkable and, according to Kotowicz, is related to the fact that the axe has become a symbol of the warrior profession, which can be compared to the Varagian Guard (sometimes referred to in period sources as pelekophori, literally “axe carriers”), in which Petersen’s type L/M axes were used for various ceremonies and saluting the monarch:

Guardsmen were holding them in the right hand, leaning the blade against the left wrist. When the Emperor came, they brought up the axes to lean them on their right shoulders. During the time of the name-day of the Emperor the Varangians saluted him and banged their axes, which emitted rhythmical sound.” (Kotowicz 2013: 52)

The distribution of axes along the Baltic Sea and the timing support this theory. Kotowicz also suggests that the use of perforated axes may be related to the cult of St. Olaf (Kotowicz 2013: 53). However, due to its use in the second half of the 10th century, we cannot agree with that. In addition to the above information, we can add that the hole in the blade certainly offered interesting options for attaching the case protecting the blade.

A Byzantine ivory plate depicting a man, apparently a member of Varangian Guard, with a two-handed axe and a sword. The axehead seems to be perforated. Dated around the year 1000.

Here we will finish this article. Thank you for your time and we look forward to any feedback. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


Brøndsted, Johannes (1936). Danish inhumation graves of the Viking Age. In: Acta Archaeologica VII: 81–228.

Danič 2015 = Данич А.В. (2015). Классификация средневековых топоров Пермского Предуралья // Труды КАЭЭ. Вып. X. Пермь. С. 71–124

Ewing, Thor (2006). Viking Clothing, Stroud.

Hansson, Pär (1983). Jägarbacken (Borrarbacken). Ett gravfält från yngre järnålder, Örebro.

Izmailov 1997 = Измайлов, И. Л. (1997). Вооружение и военное дело населения Волжской Булгарии X – начала XIII вв, Казань.

Jotov 2004 = Йотов, Валери (2004). Въоръжението и снаряжението от Българското средновековие VII— XI в., Варна.

Kočkarov 2006 = Кочкаров, У. Ю. (2006). Боевые топоры Северо-Западного Предкавказья VIII-XIV вв. // –археология Кавказа [online]. [cit. 2020-06-29].

Kotowicz, Piotr N. (2013). The Sign of the Cross on the Early Medieval Axes – A Symbol of Power, Magic or Religion? In: MAREK, Lech. Weapons Brings Peace? Warfare in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Wratislavia Antiqua 18, Wrocław: 41–55, online.

Kotowicz, Piotr N. (2014). Topory wczesnośredniowieczne z ziem polskich : Katalog źródeł, Rzeszów.

Kotowicz, Piotr N. (2018). Early Medieval Axes from Territory of Poland, Kraków.

Luňák, Petr (2010). Výzdoba velkomoravských železných předmětů, Brno: Masarykova univerzita [diplomová práce].

Paulsen, Peter (1956). Axt und Kreuz in Nord- und Osteuropa, Bonn.

Pedersen, Anne (2008). Materiel kultur, identitet og kommunikation. In: Roesdahl, Else – Schjødt, Jens P. Beretning fra syvogtyvende tværfaglige vikingesymposium, 7–26.

Pedersen, Anne (2014). Dead Warriors in Living Memory. A study of weapon and equestrian burials in Viking-age Denmark, AD 800-1000, Publications from the National Museum. Studies in Archaeology & History Vol. 20:1 2. (Catalogue), Copenhagen.

Petersen, Jan (1919). De Norske Vikingsverd, Kristiania.

Roesdahl, Else – Wilson, David M. (2000). From Viking to Crusader: Scandinavia and Europe 800-1200, Uddevalla.

Schiørring, Ole (1978). Korset i øksen. In: Skalk 1978/6: 2829.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena (1998). Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands II : Typentafeln, Stockholm.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena (2006). Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands III: 1–2 : Text, Stockholm.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena (2000). Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands IV:1–3 : Katalog, Stockholm.

Vlasatý, Tomáš (2015). Axe sheaths. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2020-06-29]. Available at:

Vlasatý, Tomáš (2020a). The Axe from “Falköping Museum”. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2020-06-29]. Available at:

Vlasatý, Tomáš (2020b). Metal Axe Sheaths. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2020-06-29]. Available at:

Soukromá sekera z Kaliningradu

Na konci července roku 2019 mne oslovil dánský sběratel, který chtěl před koupí zkonzultovat několik kusů raně středověkých seker. Sekeru, kterou níže popisujeme, zakoupil na moje doporučení od soukromého sběratele z Německa, neboť u ní dle mého soudu byla nejmenší pravděpodobnost padělku. Pokud by se jednalo o padělek, byl by mimořádně dobře zpracován, a náklady na výrobu by se zřejmě pohybovaly výše, než byla dražební cena. Sekera mi byla v srpnu téhož roku propůjčena na zdokumentování, za což majiteli srdečně děkuji!


Zběžný popis artefaktu

Do rukou se nám dostává mimořádně dobře zachovalá hlava sekery, kterou lze přiřadit k Petersenovu typu M (Petersen 1919: 46-47), konkrétněji k jeho podtypu M1 (Atgāzis 1997: 56), nejpřesněji Kotowiczovu typu IIIA.5.3 (Kotowicz 2018: 85-87), jde tedy o širokou hlavu sekery, která má násadovou část opatřenou trny po obou stranách a která má z vrchního pohledu plochý tlouk, z bočního pohledu rovný tlouk a čepel netvarovanou do brady. Jde o velmi známý a v minulosti oblíbený typ bojové obouruční sekery, rozšířený od Irska po Rusko v období 10.-14. století. Dle slov sběratele artefakt pochází z mnichovské soukromé sbírky, do které se dostal po náhodném objevu v 80. letech 20. století v Kaliningradu. Na základě znalosti původu a analogií lze tuto sekeru datovat do 11. či 12. století (Atgāzis 1997: 56). V baltském prostředí se jedná o populární militárii, kterou známe u Lotyšska (250 exemplářů, Atgāzis 1997: 53), Estonska (nejméně 18 exemplářů, Atgāzis 1997: 1. att), Litvy (nejméně 13 exemplářů, Atgāzis 1997: 1. att) a Kaliningradské oblasti (nejméně 8 exemplářů, Kazakevičius 1996: 234).

Předmět působí kompaktním dojmem, pouze špice trnů jsou zkřehlé a hrozí jejich odlomení. Povrch předmětu, včetně vrchní i spodní strany, je zvrásněný vyrezlými důlky. Plocha čepele a vnitřní strana násadového otvoru vykazuje známky rzi. Na několika místech násadového otvoru se zřejmě nacházejí otisky dřeva, které mělo dlouhá vlákna a jeví se jako pravděpodobné, že se jedná o dřevo listnatého stromu. Je přinejmenším patrné, že na pohledových stranách byla sekera důkladně očištěna, a je možné, že byla ošetřena lakem. Pouhým okem nelze ze současné podoby odvodit proces přesný výroby, je nicméně pravděpodobné, že předmět byl vyroben z železného a lépe kujného ingotu, na jehož přední hranu byl navařen plát oceli, z něhož byl vyformován břit a který je patrný jak díky charakteristickému zvýšenému profilu na čepeli, tak zkorodovanému břitu. Problematickým bodem je proces výroby násadového otvoru, které mohlo být vytvořeno jak rozseknutím, proražením nebo obtočením (Kotowicz 2018 : 25-27). Můj osobní názor, zakládající se na velmi špatně viditelných vrstvách na horní a spodní straně krčku, asymetrické tloušťce stěn násadového oka a slabé tendenci čepele vybíhat mimo osu danou středem tlouku a břitem, je takový, že oko bylo vytvořeno obtočením, tedy Kotowiczovou variantou 5 (Kotowicz 2018: 27).

Hlava sekery v současné chvíli váží 333 (332.84) g. Délka od středu tlouku do středu břitu činí 160 mm (délka od středu tlouku po horní roh břitu 173 mm; délka od středu tlouku po spodní roh břitu 160 mm), šířka břitu je 175 mm, délka břitu 181 mm. Minimální výška krčku je 23 mm, tloušťka krčku na hranici násadového otvoru je 16.5 mm. Maximální tloušťka sekery na úrovni násadového otvoru činí 28 mm, odkud se svažuje na 25.5 mm na tlouku. Výška násadového otvoru s trny je 39-41 mm. Výška tlouku činí 20.5 mm. Velikost násadového otvoru, který je zhruba kapkovitého otvoru, je zhruba 25.7 × 21 mm; na vnitřní straně je patrný otisk dřeva. Méně dominantní horní trny se zužují až na tloušťku cca 2.5 mm, výraznější spodní trny se zřejmě zužovaly do ostrých špicí, ze kterých dnes zbývají zakulacené vršky o tloušťce 1.5-2 mm. Nejtenčí bod čepele má tloušťku 2.6 mm, avšak tloušťku pod 3 mm si čepel udržuje na 45 mm z celkové délky čepele 138 mm (délka od hranice násadového otvoru po horní roh). Šířka navařeného břitu je zhruba 17-31 mm (nejméně uprostřed břitu, nejvíce na rozích), maximální tloušťka 7.5 mm, která se plynule snižuje do ostří s plochým výbrusem, které má i dnes tloušťku pod 1 mm.

Přináležitost k podtypu M1 soudíme na základě zařaditelnosti do baltského souboru: podtyp M1 má šířku krčku 20-25 mm, šířku tlouku 20-25 mm a tloušťku tlouku až 7 mm, na rozdíl od podtypu M2 (šířka krčku 25-35 mm) a M3 (šířka krčku 35-50 mm) (Atgāzis 1997: 56). Vložený břit je však typičtější pro sekery podtypu M2, a tak se nabízí možnost širší datace. Svými parametry sekera dobře zapadá mezi baltské protějšky. Baltské sekery jsou dlouhé 125–235 mm a široké 12–22.5 cm (Kazakevičius 1996: 233), zatímco polské sekery jsou dlouhé 136–210 mm a široké 110-206 mm (Kotowicz 2014) a ruské jsou 170-220 mm dlouhé a 130-200 mm široké (Kirpičnikov 1966: 39). Co se týče váhy, 333 gramů neodpovídá původnímu stavu, kdy sekera mohla být i o třetinu těžší. Baltské sekery málokdy váží nad 500-600 gramů, a jsou spíše lehčí, okolo 400 gramů (Atgāzis 1997: 55). Podobně jsou na tom také ruské (200–450 gramů; Kirpičnikov 1966: 39) nebo polské sekery (100–450 gramů; Kotowicz 2014). S toporem, které vzhledem k malým rozměrům násadového otvoru muselo být velmi tenké a tudíž lehké, vážila celá zbraň jistě pod 1 kg. Toporo mohlo být zhruba do 110-120 cm vysoké, a sekera na něj zřejmě nebyla nasazována zespoda, nýbrž svrchu, jak je u seker tohoto typu obvyklé, a tak toporo bylo těsně pod hlavou poněkud širší. Jedná se o skvěle zkonstruovanou zbraň, u které je materiál dokonale a účelně rozprostřen, takže nemá ani jeden přebytečný gram a kvalitní materiál na břitu je nesen méně kvalitním zbytkem. Zejména v této konstrukci můžeme spatřovat důvod, proč se zbraň udržela čtyři staletí v užívání.

Baltské analogie z lokalit Palanga, Vilkumuiža, Pasilciems.
Zdroj: Kazakevičius 1996: Rys. 1.

Rentgenové snímky a jejich vyhodnocení

Na počátku září téhož roku byla sekera představena Ing. Jiřímu Hoškovi Ph.D. z Archeologického ústavu AV ČR, který v současné době platí za největší českou kapacitu na poli středověké metalurgie. V rámci našeho setkání jsme provedli zběžné ohledání i rentgenové snímkování. Pan Hošek se v popisu shoduje, a nedomnívá se, že by se jednalo o falzum. Dle jeho slov splňuje parametry raně středověkých seker.

Rentgenové snímky byly pořízeny přístrojem Comet MXR-225HP/11. Zaměřili jsme se na oblast násadového oka a břitu, kde jsme očekávali známky svědčící o svárech. Jedinou známku po sváru jsme však zaznamenali pouze v oblasti násadového otvoru, což potvrzuje předpoklad, že oko bylo vytvořeno obtočením, nikoli probitím. Z boku po tomto sváru nejsou stopy, a žádné další náznaky svárů se neobjevují ani na břitu. Pan Hošek se domnívá, že břit zcela jistě je navařený. Důvodů, proč se sváry neukazují, může být několik – jak pan Hošek poznamenává, sváry samy o sobě nelze rentgenem detekovat, pouze linie příměsí, kterými lépe prostupuje záření. Fakt, že takové linie nejsou u dotyčné sekery patrné, může být dáno kombinací kvalitního zpracování, dobrým stupněm zachovalosti a geometrií sváru, který není veden v linii. Dodává, že pokud by bylo použito výpočetního tomografu či invazivních metod, výsledek by mohl být lépe patrný.

Kromě sváru v oblasti oka jsme si povšimli ještě dvou zajímavostí – v horní části čepele jsme objevili prasklinu, která se táhne od jamky na horní hraně, vytvořené zřejmě tvrdým úderem. Druhou zajímavostí je fakt, že spodní hrot má oproti ose tvořené prostředkem tlouku a vrchních rohem sklon zahýbat do vrtule. Zdá se rovněž, že násadový otvor je z bočního pohledu mírně kónický.

Za milé přijetí a odbornou konzultaci děkuji Ing. Jiřímu Hoškovi Ph.D.


Pevně věřím, že jste si čtení tohoto článku užili. Pokud máte poznámku nebo dotaz, neváhejte mi napsat nebo se ozvat níže v komentářích. Pokud se Vám líbí obsah těchto stránek a chtěli byste podpořit jejich další fungování, podpořte, prosím, náš projekt na Patreonu nebo Paypalu.


Atgāzis 1997 = Atgāzis, Māris (1997). Āvas cirvji Latvijā // Archeologija un etnogrāfija XIX. Riga: 53-63.

Atgāzis 1998 = Atgāzis, Māris (1998). Tuvcīņas ieroči senajā Latvijā 10.-13.gadsimtā. Doktorská práce, Latvijas Universitāte.

Kazakevičius 1996 = Kazakevičius, Vytautas (1996). Topory bojowe typu M. Chronologia i pochodzenia na źiemiach Bałtów. In: Słowiańszczyzna w Europie średniowiecznej, Wrocław: 233–241.

Kirpičnikov 1966 Кирпичников А. Н. (1966). Древнерусское оружие. Вып. 2: Копья, сулицы, боевые топоры, булавы, кистени IX – XIII вв, Москва.

Kotowicz 2014 = Kotowicz, Piotr N. (2014). Topory wczesnośredniowieczne z ziem polskich : Katalog źródeł, Rzeszów.

Kotowicz 2018 = Kotowicz, Piotr N. (2018). Early Medieval Axes from Territory of Poland, Kraków.

Petersen 1919 = Petersen, Jan (1919). De Norske Vikingesverd: En Typologisk-Kronologisk Studie Over Vikingetidens Vaaben. Kristiania.

Two-handed axes


For all my reenactment career (ca. 10 years), I encounter so-called Dane axes, two-handed axes used in second lines on the battlefields. These weapons are very popular and terrifying and the same time. What the most problematic part of fighting with this kind of weapon is the fact that modern warriors tend to implement their own ideas of what works on modern battlefields and they avoid of those ideas, which are, in their opinion, not functional. Historical background of this weapon is put aside, when the weapon is replicated and used; simply because modern rules of fighting are different and historical background is unknown or unattractive to many warriors.

There are many kinds of early medieval axes that could be considered as two-handed; however, there is no strict line between one-handed and two-handed axes and we can only judge by our common sense. This short overview will discuss two main types of two-handed axes that were used in Scandinavia; this time, we disregard Byzantian axes, Baltic axes of Kirpičnikov type IV etc., however, they can be added in the case of interest. I am absolutely aware of the fact that some reenactors and modern warriors will disagree with the result of this article. In such a case, please feel free to write your comments below and to bring your evidence.


A replica of the type M, made by Petr Floriánek, carried by Petr Váka. Courtesy: Radka Opočenská.


In this chapter, axeheads, shafts and methods of fixing will be discussed.

Petersen’s axe typology.

Axehead (Petersen type M)

When talking about a “Dane axe”, we actually refer to axeheads of Petersen type M. The type M was introduced around ca. 950 and it was so popular it was used from England to Russia until 13th century (Petersen 1919: 46–47). The type was developed from older types of Scandinavian axes (like F, G, H), due to the need for bigger war axes that occured in 10th century in big part of Europe. One of the reasons can be associated with the fact that protective parts of war gear were used more often; Petersen type M should be seen as a reaction to usage of maille and helmets, or better, to the centralisation of power.

Petersen type M is defined as an iron broad axehead with expanded, wedge-shaped and very thin (usually 2–5 mm) blade and projecting lugs on either side of the head. Axes of type M from Birka are 20–22 cm long, 16–18 cm broad and they weigh 385–770 grams (Vlasatý 2016). 12 axes of type M from Danish graves are ca. 13–24.6 cm long and ca. 10–21.7 cm broad (Pedersen 2014: 131–134, Find list 2). Three Icelandic Petersen type M axes are 16–24 cm long and ca. 13–22 cm broad (Eldjárn 2000: 69, 346). Russian axes belonging to the type M are 17–22 cm long, 13–20 cm broad and they weigh 200–450 grams (Kirpičnikov 1966: 39). Baltic axes of the same type are 12.5–23.5 cm long and 12–22.5 cm broad (Kazakevičius 1996: 233). 13 Polish axes of type M (IIIA.5.1 and IIIA.5.3 according to Kotowicz) are 13.6–21 cm long, 11–20.6 cm broad and they weigh 200–450 grams (Kotowicz 2014). The given weight of axes is only partial; many axes are rusted, but the original weight can be counted from the amount of iron material that remained in axes to the present days. Vike (2016: 96–97) speaks about six Norwegian axes (13.2–21.3 cm long and 15.3–25.3 cm broad) that weigh 273–603 grams in current state, and the author calculates that original axes could weigh 600–800 grams. It has to be said that Petersen type M is a superbly well designed weapon, in which the material is perfectly and purposefully distributed.

The most massive example I am aware of comes from Wetrowo, Kaliningrad Region. The size of the axe, which is now deposited in Berlin, is quite impressive – 23 cm in length and 33 cm in width. Another big axe was found in the River Thames (see here); it is 24.4 cm long, 28 cm broad and it weighs 966 grams. It is needed to point out that such big axes are very rare. It has to be said that there are at least three phases in the evolution of the type M; the older versions are smaller and have narrower necks, while the more recent are bigger and more massive (see the chart). M1 subtype has 20-25 mm high neck, while M2 subtype has 25-35 mm high neck and M3 subtype has 35-50 mm high neck (Atgāzis 1997: 56). The type M is often mistaken for Petersen type L, which was developed at the same time (Petersen 1919: 45–46). Generally speaking, the type L is shorter (ca. 11–20,5 cm) and narrower (ca. 6.5–17 cm). Nevertheless, some bigger examples of the type L (like B 9694) can be easily mistaken, since they have average sizes of the type M. It is true that the line between types L and M is very narrow sometimes (and artificial!), but both types have their own specific nuances, when it comes to proportions (as well as the symmetry and thickness) of the blade, the neck and the eye.


The scheme of an inhumation grave from Köpingsvik, 11th century. Taken from Svanberg 2003: 75, Fig. 30.

It has to be mentioned that “In the 10th cent. in the northern part of our continent, especially after Christianisation, the number of axes in graves increases significantly. They often belonged to persons of lower social position. As a rule, they were the only military equipment of the dead” (Kotowicz 2013: 51-52). Piotr Kotowicz (2011: 52) pointed that axes became “a symbol of the warrior’s profession” by that time. It is true that most of axeheads are found alone in graves; on the other hand, I was able to collect at least 19 Scandinavian graves that contain axehead of type M together with another type of weapon or riding equipment (the list is here) – the spearhead is the most common second weapon (13), as well as shield boss (9), sword (7), the second axe (3), weapon knife (2) and arrows (2). In these graves, riding equipment occur in 11 cases. What is more, two Gotlandic axes of Petersen type M were put to graves with men wearing lamellar armours (Snäckgärde, SHM 484, see this article). That’s why I tend to say that Petersen type M axeheads are indicators of the high status, or at least warrior status.

A considerable number of Petersen type M axeheads are decorated. The decoration (often consisting of a cross) can be distinguished into five types:

  1. engraved ornaments. The axe from Blichowo (Kotowicz 2013: 44, Fig. 4; see here) has the butt carved with a Greek cross.
  2. punched dots and grooves. This type can be seen on one axe from the River Thames (Paulsen 1956: 87, Abb. 32; see here). Vertical pairs of grooves can (or could) be seen on axes from Kongsgården (Rygh 558; C 3210; see here) and Lednica (Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013: cat. no. 81; grooves are now invisible, see here).
  3. inlay. The axe from Hultsjö (SHM 737; see here) is inlayed with ornaments (including cross) in silver. The same method can seen on the axe from Skensta (SHM 6814; Paulsen 1956: 112, Abb. 48; see here) or the axe from Gislevold (C33109; see here). This method of decoration seems to be particularly popular in Finland, with at least three examples inlayed with silver found in Posio (KM 24379; Paulsen 1956: 116, Abb. 50, see here), Humikkala (KM 8656:H47:5; Paulsen 1956: 117, Abb. 51; see here) and Köyliö (Kotowicz 2013: 49, Fig. 9; see here).
  4. overlay. The famous axehead from Botnham (Ts 11937; see here) is decorated with Ringerike ornament in gold. The grid to which gold was hammered is still visible.
  5. The last kind of decoration is special and it covers so-called “axes with crosses” – axes with blades decorated in their inner parts with incised Latin crosses (and sometimes with grooves as well). There are 5 Scandinavian finds of the type with open blades, the list can be seen here; all of them are dated to the second half of the 10th century. Another example comes from the vicinity of Plock, Poland (Kotowicz 2013: 51, Fig. 11; see here).

Examples of decoration. From left: the axes from Thames, Skensta, Hultsjö, Bothamn and Närke. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 163.

There are at least two Swedish axes (Nässja, SHM 5237; Tåby, SHM 6126) that prove the mixing of Scandinavian and Eastern traditions. These two axes have Petersen type M blades, but instead of projecting lugs, they have an egg-shaped or rounded middle piece (sides the eye for the shaft) and a projecting butt with round or square cross-section. The closest analogy of Swedish pieces comes from Turaidas Pūteļi, Latvia (Atgāzis 1998: 71. att.,3). Axes like these show how variable this kind of weapon is, combining two functional elements into one piece.

Schematic pictures of both methods.

The axehead could be made by at least two methods. On the beginning of both methods, there was an iron ingot or a welded billet containing iron plates of different quality. The material could be folded several times for better quality. Afterwards, the body of the axehead was shaped. The first method, the easier one, is about forging the rough shape, splitting the frontal part, inserting the high-carbon steel blade and punching the eye for the shaft in the end. The second method lies in forging the rough shape in unwrapped (opened) symmetrical or asymmetrical shape – without the need to punch the eye for the shaft – and welding the frontal part, splitting the frontal part and inserting the high-carbon steel blade. On some examples, the ridge formed by inserted blade is very visible. In both cases, some finishing touches might be needed, as well as decoration, polishing, sharpening etc.

Very good example of the first method can be seen in the video below:

Axehead (Lunow type)

In my recent article “Axes from Birka“, I discussed a very interesting type of axehead, so-called Lunow type. The type is characteristic with its massive and long T-shaped blade, sometimes with four projecting lugs on either side of the head and a small butt.


The distribution of Lunow type. Taken from Michalak – Kotowicz 2014: 112. Fig. 5.

Michalak and Kotowicz (2014: 112) register 22 finds of this type, coming from what is now Denmark, Germany, Poland, Russia and Sweden. It seems that the centre of this type was situated in Greater Poland, Brandenburg and Pomerania. They can be dated to ca. 940–1050 AD. Sizes varies between 13–21.4 cm × 13–29 cm. The best known examples were found in Lunow, Brandenburg an der Havel and Poznań-Dębiec. However, this type seems to be quite popular in Scandinavia; there are 9 examples, mainly from Denmark and Sweden, including axes from Birka (SHM 35245:95), Haithabu (two examples), Over Hornbæk (grave BPW), Rosenlund (grave KR), Suderbys (SHM 11128), Lindholm Høje (grave 2149), Ulbjerg and Lund. The examples from Birka and Lund are very similar to the best known specimens from Poland and Germany; they are decorated with silver and copper inlays as well, the rest consists of typologically similar axes. I would like to suggest that examples from Dolmer and Trelleborg should be included among the rest as well, as they belong to the same tradition. The full list of Scandinavian finds with sizes can be seen here. Similarly to some axes of Petersen type M, the example from Rosenlund was found together with a sword, a spearhead, a shield-boss, stirrups and spurs.


Some axes of Lunow type 1 – Poznań-Dębiec (Luboń), Poland; 2 – Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany; 3 – Lunow, Germany; 4 – Lund, Sweden; 5 – Birka, Sweden; 6 – Over Hornbæk, Denmark; 7 – Lindholm Høje, Denmark; 8 – Haithabu, Germany; 9 – Suderbys, Gotland, Sweden; 10 – Rosenlund, Denmark.


The question of shafts is problematic, since there are not so many complete examples from the period and those that survived are not well known. Let’s begin with the length.

Sankiewicz and Wyrwa (2013: 7778) made probably the most comprehensive list of complete axe shafts from early, high and late medieval Europe. From their list and some other finds these authors were probably not aware of, a very interesting result arises:

  • 2460 cm: 16 examples (20.78 %)
  • 6090 cm: 51 examples (66.24 %)
  • 90+ cm: 10 examples (12.98 %)

The length of 6090 cm (mainly 7080 cm) is the most common and both aforementioned and many other researchers consider this length to be a standard; Kirpičnikov (1966: 28) suggests 80 cm to be an average length, as well as Mäntylä (2005: 110) gives the length of 7090 cm and Kotowicz (2008: 447) writes that shafts varied between 60 and 80 cm. They agree on the statement that longer shafts should be seen as two-handed. In our simplified list, there are 9 examples of shafts longer than 90 cm, consisting of shafts from Staré Město grave 163/51 (94 cm; 9th century), Behren-Lübchin (94 cm; 12th century), Lednica no. 85 (97 cm; 9501050 AD), Novyja Valosavičy (100 cm; the end of 10th century – the beginning of 11th century), Lednica no. 84 (107.5 cm; 11th century), Kirkkomäki (108 cm; 11th or 12th century), Pahošča (110 cm; the end of 10th century – the beginning of 11th century), Vorma (111 cm; 13th century), Břeclav (115 cm; 9th or 10th century, see here) and Stóri-Moshvoll (around 120 cm; 9th or 10th century). What is more, three Petersen type M axes found in Lough Corrib probably had shorter shafts, around 80 cm, as well as other finds, axes from the River Robe and the River Shannon (see here). As will be mentioned in following chapters, these lengths are most likely typical for two-handed shafts of battle axes.

Some axes with shafts: 1 – Vorma, 2 – Lednica (no. 84), 3 – Kirkkomäki, 4 – Lough Corrib.

Vike (2016: 107–108) points out that Slavic tradition used shafts simply made of young trees of various shapes, but Scandinavian tradition consisted of shafts made by splitting of massive log. Thanks to this method, shafts were (relatively) straight and hard. In spring and summer 2016, I made a research on what species of wood were used to construct shafts in Middle Age Europe (the result can be seen here – this research is not complete!). The result is that combination of hard and light wood growing in the vicinity of the site was the desired quality of the shaft material. Evergreen wood species were used very rarely (only 1 example). The most common species are hornbeam (61 examples; 28.37 %), maple (44 examples; 20.47 %), ash (36 examples; 16.74 %) and oak (19 examples; 8.84 %). Hornbeam was particularly popular in Poland, while maple seems to be universal in whole Europe.


Shafts of Slavic (number 1) and Scandinavian traditions (number 2). Taken from Vike 2016: 108, Fig. 14.


Cross section of shaft fragments of axes from Lundehall and Langeid.

Shafts of three Petersen type M axes from Lough Corrib were made of cherry wood, as well as the fragment of wood found with type M axe from Langeid. The shaft of axe from Vorma is made of spruce. Shafts of axes from Lednica are made of hornbeam (no. 85) and maple (no. 84). The most common wood species found in Viking Age Scandinavia as materials of axe shafts are maple (6 examples: 2× Barshalder, 2 × Sønder Onsild, 1 × Grimstrup, 1× Træhede), birch (4 examples: 2× Oseberg, 1 × Reykjavík, 1 × Sønder Onsild), linden (2 examples: Gulli), alder (1 example: Fyrkat), elm (1 example: Nyrbo), oak (1 example: Gulli), beech (1 example: Haithabu) and cherry (1 example: Langeid).

The eye usually has an oval, egg (droplet) shaped or round cross section. Sizes of eyes varies between ca. 24.2 cm × 24.2 cm (Polish: 2.4–4.2 cm × 2–2.8 cm, Russian: 3.5 × 2–2.5 cm, Baltic: 3 × 2–4,22 cm). From my experience, most shafts have droplet shaped cross section and preserved fragments of shafts prove it.

Due to state of preservation, the most of decorative elements of shafts consist of metal. There are only two kinds of such a decoration, including:

  • plate ferrules in the upper part of the shaft. The meaning of such a ferrule is obvious – it makes the axe firmer in the strained part and makes the axe to look more splendid. The problem was recently described by Vegard Vike (2016).
    • made of iron. An iron ferrule was found with the Petersen type E axe from Hemse (Hemse annex; SHM 5645; see here), but is now missing. Another one was found with Petersen type M in a 11th century grave in Bilczewo, Poland (see here). For more Polish, Russian and Hungarian analogies from different periods, see Kotowicz (2008: 451453).
    • made of brass/bronze. Six examples of this decoration were found in Norway (C 24243, C 25583, C 27132, C 29866, C 57235, C 58882see here). The ferrule of axe from Langeid is made of rectangular plate that is 0.5 mm thick; the plate is nailed to shaft with 12 brass nails (11 mm long, 2.5 mm thick). It has to be mentioned that a slight layer of wood under the ferrule was removed, so there is no visible step between the undecorated part of shaft and the decorated one. At least two Norwegian ferrules (C 27132, C 29866) have four projections in the lower part peeping under the axehead. Another eight examples come from Gotland (SHM 484 Gr. 4, SHM 4815, SHM 7785:93aSHM 8064:196SHM 14855, SHM 14885, SHM 19273, SHM 22297). There are three more finds discovered in the River Thames, one of them is ornated with rich motives and has 9 projections in the lower part (see here). Another example of brass ferrule comes from Klincovka, Kaliningrad Region (see here, I am indebted to Piotr Kotowicz for this information). There are at least two finds of decorated shaft wrapping of brass plate from 10th century Latgalian graves in Lithuania (see here and here, Kotowicz 2008: 452453).
    • made of silver. A very nice example comes from Kalihnovščina, Nothern Russia (see here). The ferrule is placed below the axehead and ends in four cross-shaped projections in the lower part.
  • a butt or a ferrule on the bottom part of the shaft. The only find of the butt comes from Barshalder (SHM 27778: 11, see here). It is also said that a metal ferrule or a ring that was located on the bottom of the shaft was found in one of mounds in Berufjord, Iceland (Eldjárn 2000: 348).

Dominant types of brass/bronze fitted shafts. Taken from Vike 2016: 105, Fig. 12.

However, the shafts were decorated by carvings as well, but such a decoration is much less likely to survive. An example of a carved shaft is one of axes from Rybitwy-Ostrów Lednicki (Kotowicz 2014: Cat. no. 586). Shafts were also decorated by runic inscriptions that we can detect in Scandinavia in the period 200-1500 AD.

The map covers axeheads (metal and stone) and shafts with runic inscriptions in the period 200-1600 AD.

Fixing of the axehead to the shaft

There are two major methods, how axeheads were fixed. The first one is mounting the axe head from the tapered bottom. This method could be combined with a kind of securing of the axehead, for example with leather. The second method lies in mounting from the upper end of the shaft and securing the axehead with a wooden or metal wedge or nail. Both methods were used in the Viking Age Europe; for example, the first one can be seen on one of Oseberg axes and on many axes from Lednica and Mikulčice. Since the upper end has to be thicker and forms so-called forskapti (for example axes from the River Robe and the River Shannon), the first method can be easily recognized. Axes with shafts decorated with ferrules were mounted from the upper end, but the wedges do not occur in their case; some metal fitting could serve as external wedges. Even though wedges are not common, we can find some evidence for both wooden and metal wedges. Three axes from Lough Corrib were secured with wooden wedges, as was probably the axe from Hallingby (C 25583). Petersen type M axe from Ballinderry Crannóg was secured with a wooden wedge and a metal nail (see here). Petersen type M axes from Velo Vestre (C 24243) and Hunninge (SHM 19273) are also secured with metal spikes. One axe from Lednica (no. 102; Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013: 204205; see here) is secured with a metal wedge. The recently found axe from Hårup, Denmark, was secured with one big nail that goes through the eye (see here). Pedersen (2014: Pl. 4, 21, 32, 57) shows at least 4 more Danish axes secured with metal wedges, including the axe from Trelleborg.


Three main methods of fixing of the axehead to the shaft, Taken from Vike 2016: 109, Fig. 15.


sheath suspension axes

Suggested variants of suspension of wooden sheaths. Made by Tomáš Vlasatý and Tomáš Cajthaml.

In one of my previous article, I mapped all finds of Viking Age axe sheaths (see here). To sum up, there are 13 finds of wooden sheaths from Haithabu, 2 finds from Schleswig, 2 finds from Norway, 2 finds from Dublin, two Norwegian finds and 1 from Novgorod. They belong to two types and are made of alder, beech, birch, juniper, oak, pine, spruce, yew and willow wood. Moreover, there is an antler sheath found in Sigtuna. In our context, the most interesting sheaths come from Schleswig; one sheath is decorated with two pictures of two-handed axes, one of them belonging to the Petersen type M. Thus, the function of this object is clear. The second sheath from Schleswig could belong to an axe with 235 mm long edge. There is no doubt that sheaths like these served to protect blades from blunting and rust.

Literary sources

Sagas and chronicles contain some pieces of information that can be useful for comparing with what we know from archaeology. The most importantly, we can learn how two-handed axes were called, used and perceived.

It should be said in the first place that Old Norse people did not call these axes “Dane axes”. Petersen type M axes, together with axes of type F, belong to a broader term breiðøx. Literary sources work carelessly with terms, so it is sometimes hard to say which passage refer to two-handed axe. Terms like þunnsleginn øx (“axe that is hammered thin”), háskeptr øx (“long-handled axe”) or simple “big axe” are small clues that can refer to two-handed axes. Let’s have a look on The Saga of the Sworn Brothers (Fóstbræðra saga), where we can find typical passages:

Þorgeirr had a broad axe, a mighty weapon, keen-edged and sharp, with which he had sent many a man to dine [in Valhalla].” (ch. 3)

Bjarni forged a broad axe for Þormóðr, according to his will. The axe was hammered right down to the cutting edge, had no weal to obstruct it and was thus extremely sharp.”  (ch. 23)

Even though Þorgeirr’s axe is a mighty broad axe, he uses it as a one-handed weapon in fight (for example ch. 8). As the result, to be sure we refer to two-handed weapons, we have to pick passages about breiðøxar that are held on both hands; even this approach can be wrong, because warriors, in case they had no shields, used weapons with both hands (see for example here or here). In such a way, only two axes in sagas can be named as two-handed – Hel, the axe of Óláfr Haraldsson (Saint Óláfr) and his son Magnús the Good, and Rimmugýgr, the axe of Skarphéðinn Njálsson.

Literary sources are far from being much descriptive. They contain information only about owning, carrying and fighting with what we could call two-handed axes. As we can see, axes have their own names and are owned by famous people. It corresponds nicely with what we can see from their occurrence in warrior graves and their decoration – Petersen type M axes are markers of the high rank, of a status similar to “hero”, “champion”, “professional warrior”. With no doubt, axes of this type were owned and used by noblemen and their hirðir (“retinues”).

One of the most interesting passages from Old Norse sources can be searched in Saga of Magnus the Good (Magnús saga góða), where King Magnús, just before the battle of Hlýrskógheiðr (1043), throws away his own chain-mail and runs to the array of enemy, starting the battle with two-handed axe Hel (tha axe that used to belong to his father) in his hands. I believe this mention corresponds to depicted fighting scenes that incude two-handed axes:

Then King Magnús stood up, and ordered the war trumpets to sound, and at that moment the Víndland army advanced from the south across the river against him; on which the whole of the king’s army stood up, and advanced against the heathens. King Magnús threw off from him his coat of ring-mail, and had a red silk shirt outside over his clothes, and had in his hands the battle-axe called Hel, which had belonged to King Óláf. King Magnús ran on before all his men to the enemy’s army, and instantly hewed down with both hands every man who came against him. So says Árnórr jarlaskáld:

‘The unsluggish ruler stormed forth with broad axe, and cast off his byrnie; a sword-clash [BATTLE] arose around the ruler of the Hǫrðar [NORWEGIAN KING = Magnús], as the prince clenched both hands around the shaft, and the shaping guardian of heaven [= God] allotted earth; Hel clove pallid skulls.‘’” (ch. 29)

At least two English sources mention “the apologetic gift” of earl Godwin of Wessex given to Harðaknútr, the last Danish king of England, in 1040. The gift consisted of a ship of 80 warriors equipped with gilded “Dane” axes:

Each of them had a gilded helmet on the had, a Danish axe on left shoulder and a spear in right hand.” (William of Malmesbury : Gesta regum Anglorum, II, § 188)

Also, each of them had a chain-mail, a partially gilded helmet, a sword with gilded handle by the waist and a Danish axe, decorated with gold and silver, hanging on the left shoulder. In the left hand, each of them had a shield, whose bosses and rivets were gilded as well, and they had spears in their right hands, the one, which is called atagar in English language.” (Florence of Worcester : The Chronicle)


Axe-bearers from pictures stones from Tängelgårda I and Alskog Tjängvide I, Gotland.

It should be streesed that these are the oldest mentions of the Latin term “Danish axe” (securis Danica), together with the passage from De Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi (ch. 21), written by Hermannus The Archdeacon in late 11th century (“According to Danish fashion, Osgod Clapa had armrings on both hands and gilded axe was hanging on his shoulder.“). It is accepted (see for example DeVries 1999: 217) that Petersen type M came to England during the Conquest of Knútr the Great, and two-handed axes could be weapons of his troops called þingmenn. This elite retinue survived until 1066, as an be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry and skaldic poetry, and these troops were understood as very tough opponents by Norwegians in 1066 (see Úlfr stallari : Lausavísa). DeVries (1999: 217) thinks that English warriors used Petersen type M axes more commonly than Scandinavians. However, the Scandinavian origin of this weapon was still understood, as it was called “Danish axe”. In his major work The History of The English (Historia Anglorum), Henry of Huntingdon, 12th century historian, mentioned the popular story of Norwegian warrior, who killed more than 40 chosen Englishmen with the axe during the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066):

Here a single Norwegian, whose name ought to have been preserved, took post on the bridge, and hewing down more than forty of the English with a battle-axe, his country’s weapon, stayed the advance of the whole English army till the ninth hour. At last some one came under the bridge in the boat, and thrust a spear into him, through the chinks of the flooring.” (Historia Anglorum, VI, §27; trans. Forester 1853: 209)

The same story, but with slightly different details, can be found in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version C) and Deeds of the Kings of the English (Gesta regum Anglorum) of William of Malmesbury (see here). Even though details vary – in other versions of the story, the axe and the number of slained opponents are missing, the Norwegian is equipped with a chain-mail and the way of his death is different as well – these passages are important proof of the skill of owners of these axes. I have to add that the popular theory that the Norwegian was a berserkr is rather a result of modern creativity.

“Danish axes” occur several times in high medieval sources, mostly in connection with King Stephen of England (Battle of Lincoln 1141; he allegedly fought with the axe until it was broken) and Richard the Lionheart (Battle of Jaffa 1192). Also, they are included in Old French romans in the form hasche Danoise (“Danish axe”).


Irishmen equipped with two handed axes. Topographia Hibernica, Royal MS 13 B VIII, folio 28r.

What is insteresting is the fact that literary sources can show how axes were carried. In connection to “Danish axes”, Latin sources from England contain the phrase in humero dependente (“hanging on the shoulder”), in humero sinistro (“on the left shoulder”) and in sinistro humero pendentem (“hanging on the left shoulder”). In Old Norse literature, there is a quite nice parallel to this phrase, hann hafði øxi um ǫxl (“he had axe across the shoulder”) – one occurrence of the phrase is connected with Skarphéðinn Njálsson, the owner of two-handed axe Rimmugýgr (“Skarphéðinn was foremost. He was in a blue cape, and had a targe, and his axe aloft on his shoulder“; Njáls saga, ch. 92). The aforementioned quote from Florence’s Chronicle is important as well – we can see that warriors could have many weapons, including hanging axes, and could change them. The design of hanging device is unknown and to learn more, experiments are needed. The picture from Hunnestad Monument, a picture from Dynna stone and the pendant from Klahammar show a warrior with his two-handed axe on the right shoulder. Similarly, Varangian guardsmen greeted the Emperor by axes raised on right shoulders:

Guardsmen were holding them in the right hand, leaning the blade against the left wrist. When the Emperor came, they brought up the axes to lean them on their right shoulders. During the time of the name-day of the Emperor, the Varangians saluted him and banged their axes, which emitted rhythmical sound.” (Kotowicz 2013: 52)

Scandinavian depictions of two-handed axes carried on the right shoulder.
Source: Dynna stone, Klahammar pendant, Hunnestad Monument.

Slavic axes called taparøxar (from Slavic topor, “axe”, and Old Norse øx, “axe”) are mentioned in sagas and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version A) sometimes. In sagas (Ljósvetninga saga, Njáls saga, Vatnsdœla saga), they occur as prestigious objects among Norwegian-Icelandic elite. The shape is not know, nor the length of the shaft; however, I believe that Lunow type or Russian types of one-handed axes (like Kirpičnikov types I, II, III) are possible. I think the best mention of the axe comes from Ljósvetninga saga (ch. 2), where it occurs as a gift of jarl Hákon, the ruler of Norway in ca. 970995:

Jarl [Hákon] said he [Sǫlmundr] should first deliver his gifts, a Russian hat to Guðmundr the Mighty and taparøx to Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði.


A replica of the axe from Langeid, made by Vegard Vike and Anders Helseth Nilsson.

In literary sources, axeheads and shafts are frequently decorated. We already mentioned English sources, where axeheads are gilded. In sagas, what is interesting is the fact that axes decorated with gold are mentioned as gifts from specific rulers (Haraldr hárfagri, jarl Hákon, Sigurðr Hloðvirsson, Haraldr harðráði) and are given to important Icelanders. It seems that mentions like these are oral formulas – for example, both Þorkell from Vatnsdœla saga (ch. 43) and Þorstein from Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar (ch. 1) receive øx gullrekna (“gilded axe / axe inlayed with gold”) from Sigurðr Hloðvirsson, jarl of Orkney, and in an analogical manner, both Brandr from Brands þáttr ǫrva (ch. 1) and Halli from Sneglu-Halla þáttr (ch. 10) get in possession of øx gullrekna thanks to generous Haraldr harðráði. My point is that the quantity of mentions is not so important, since it rather reflects features of orally-derived prose of high and late medieval Iceland. If we study material like this in order to get relevant information about weapons, we should focus on what parts of weapons are decorated and what is the context. To sum up, saga literature mentions axeheads decorated with gold (gullrekinn and gullbúin) and shafts covered with silver or iron wrappings (vaf) or plates (spengðr). The “fore-haft” (the part above the axehead) of the axe, that was given to Sneglu-Halli, was decorated with “a big silver knob [silfrhólkr] with a precious stone on it” (Sneglu-Halla þáttr, ch. 10). Let’s say that gold, silver and any other kind of decoration is mentioned as an indicator of the maximum richness and the status, and such a decorated gift is a proof of king’s favour, which gives the importance to the receiver of a gift, the character of the story, and his descendants.

Before we move forward to the next chapter, the last thing – the terrifying aspect of axes – has to be mentioned. Unlike swords, axes are named after Norns, troll-women and monsters etc. in poetry (for example Norn skjaldar, “the norn of the shield”, or brynflagð, “the troll-woman of the chain-mail”, and so on). One of the most illustrative mention I know comes from Halldórr ókristni’s Eiríkrflokkr (st. 7), it says: “slender monsters of the land of Þriði [ÞRIÐI = ÓÐINN, LAND OF ÓÐINN = SHIELD, MONSTERS OF THE SHIELD = AXES] yawned with iron-mouths at people“. In literary sources, axes are often synonyms of awe, brutality or hard power (“Even though we are not lawmen, we will solve the suit with axe butts” says Þorsteinn in my favourite sentence in Vatnsdœla saga, ch. 37). No wonder, because axes are very destructive tools and weapons, designed for chopping and they can not be easily blocked. On the other hand, facing to these deadly weapons is the feature of a brave man.

Depictions (pictorial evidence)

In this chapter, I divided the pictorial evidence between four groups from different areas and periods. Only those axes that resemble Petersen type M were included. Groups are:

  • Bayeux Tapestry. This group contains no less than 20 axes.
  • Scandinavian pictures. This group contains at least 5 axes.
  • Another (Byzantine and Russian pictures). This group contains only 5 depicted axes.
  • High Middle Ages pictures. 12 axes were selected to this group.

To sum up, 42 axes were included. 39 of them are depicted together with men. We can distinguish two basic forms:

  1. standard axes, with the length varying between 3 and 4 feet (91122 cm). Sankiewicz and Wyrwa (2013: 76) suggested the length of approximately 3 feet and 6 inches (107 cm). Axes of this length are usually depicted in the fight. 36 depicted axes belong to this form.
  2. above-standard axes, with very long shafts reaching to the head of the wielder. Edge and Paddock (1988: 31) calculated the length to 4 or 5 feet (122152 cm). The axe depicted on Byzantine ivory plaque seems to be even longer. The context suggests they were used as symbols during ceremonies; these symbols are important for stressing the crucial persons in the piece of art and their sizes could be disproportionally enlarged. On the other hand, axeheads are not enlarged, so we can assume these symbolic axes did in fact have long shafts. 6 depicted axes belong to this form.

Axes of the first form seem to be weapons of renowned warriors. As the rule, wielders of axes are tall. In 23 cases, warriors with axes wear a better form of body protection (chain-mails, scale armours, gambesons) or noble clothing. Similarly, in 25 cases, warriors have helmets. Together with axes, 11 swords and 8 shields are depicted, what is in agreement with aforementioned statements (warriors could have many weapons […] and could change them). One axeman holds a blowing horn. Two depicted men from pictorial evidence are described as Leofwine Godwinson and King Stephen of England. On the contrary, five axes are shown in hands of men not dressed in armour; two of them seem to be peasants, not warriors.

A considerable number of warriors (12) hold the axe in the left-hand forward grip; however, we can find some men with the right-hand forward grip (8). It is speculative whether the artists wanted to show the real fighting techniques or the perspective of period style was more important. To avoid any misleading result, let’s say that the owners knew how to use these axes in the most effective way and probably changed the grip in order to gain the advantage.

Regarding the second form of two-handed axes, we can try to count all the contexts of their usage. Harold Godwinson is depicted to hold his axe during the meeting with messengres of Duke William. In two cases, axes are used during a meeting of King Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. Another two axes are shown when Harold Godwinson is offered the English crown. In all five cases from Bayeux Tapestry, long two-handed axes are connected with the English ruling power, King Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson. The maker of the Tapestry probably wanted to stress their nationality and status by giving them the typical weapon (on the contrary, Normans are always depicted with swords as symbols). Finally, the sixth axe is depicted on a small Byzantine ivory plaque, dated to the 10th or 11th century (see here). The plaque shows a man in underpants, holding the axe in the right hand and (Petersen type X) sword in the left hand. The axehead seems to have the similar design to what we previously called “open blade”. A similar design is shown at the miniature axe from Avnsøgård, Denmark. In my article “Axes with crosses“, I agreed with Kotowicz (2008: 447-448, Note 16), who put these “open bladed” axes in connection with pelekophori (“axe-bearers”), Varangian guards. It seems probable this kind of axe served for ceremonial greeting of the Emperor, as mentioned above.

The most of depicted axes of both types seem to be top-mounted, since the shafts are thicker in the lower part. At least three (high medieval) pictures shows bottom-mounted axes. No visible decoration of both axehead and shafts is visible; the colour of axeheads can be interpreted in many ways. The bronze axe amulet from Haithabu shows the shaft with a large knob (the curved bottom end of the shaft).

A note for reenactors

A replica of the type M, made by Scott Roush.

We can clearly see that original two-handed axes were used in completely different way than modern versions. The most visible difference is the length of the shaft, causing the need to fight in the first line with the lacking protection of limbs (gloves). Modern versions of two-handed axes are based on 6 aforementioned axes with very long shafts, which are not shown to be used on the battlefield. Such an approach is an ignorance of the majority (34) axes and archaeological material. In the real fight, two-handed axes require a lot of free space, so they have to be placed in the first line or on the side of the formation. The sharp axe is almost unstoppable, destroying both shields and bodies. The placing in the first line and the shorter shaft have to be compensated by quality armour that reduces the risk of mortal wounds. However, there are no period gloves able to give the protection against sharp weapons. From my experience, I can say that a man with a 110 cm long axe has to be enormously movable, in order to be safe and effective. If we are talking about the real fight, stopping in front of the enemy line is the worst idea, the best option is to run forward and attack. A combination of two-handed axe and a shield passively hanging in front of the warrior, which is a common trend today, is ineffective in the real fight (it can be pierced with a spear anytime), slows down the warrior and has no real support in historical sources (on the Bayeux Tapestry, warriors had shields on their backs). The act of deploying two-handed axes always has a great morale impact on both sides, and probably occured in special cases. As a result, warriors with two-handed axes, leaders, and their retinues belonged to the heaviest armoured infantry and the most skilled troops that occured on late Viking Age and high medieval battlefields.


A replica of the type M, made by Ronan Jehanno.

To be fair, modern versions (with 2.5 metres being the maximum length I have seen) are perfect weapons for a modern way of fight and its rules. In the “Eastern style”, rules are set to be “dead” after the first proper hit into the areas covered with armour – the system that is illogical from the historical perspective. Long two-handed axes are good for this purpose, as well as the hooking of shields and weapons. That’s why we should draw a very clear line between what is period and what is modern. However, when we make compromises, I tend to advise the length of the axe that reaches to the chest or the chin of the wielder. Such a length allows the wielder perfect control of the weapon. In any case, the length should be referential, not standardized to the particular number.

I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon.



The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle = The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Edited and tranlated by Michael Swanton, New York 1996.

Florence of Worcester : The Chronicle = The chronicle of Florence of Worcester with the two continuations; comprising annals of English history, from the departure of the Romans to the reign of Edward I. Translated by Thomas Forester, London 1854. Online. Latin version can be reached here.

Henry of Huntingdon : The History of the English (Historia Anglorum) = The chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. Edoted and traslated by Thomas Forester, London 1853. Online. Latin version can be reached here.

Hermannus The Archdeacon : Miracles of St. Edmund (De Miraculis Sancti Eadmundi) = Hermanni archidiaconi liber der miraculis sancti Eadmundi. Edited by Thomas Arnold. In: Memorials of St Edmund’s Abbey, vol. 1, London, 1890, 26-92. Online.

William of Malmesbury : Deeds of the Kings of the English (Gesta regum Anglorum) = William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the kings of England. Translated by John Allen Giles, London 1847. OnlineLatin version can be reached here.

Njal’s Saga (Njáls saga) = Njal’s Saga. Translated by Robert Cook. In: The Complete Sagas of Icelanders III Reykjavík, 1997 : 1–220. Icelandic version of the saga can be reached here.

The Saga of Magnús the Good (Magnús saga góða) = Sagan af Magnúsi góða. Edited by N. Linder an H. A. Haggson. In: Heimskringla Snorra Sturlusonar III, Uppsala 1872. Online.

The Saga of the Sworn Brothers (Fóstbræðra saga) = The Saga of the Sworn Brothers. Translated by Martin S. Regal. In: The Complete Sagas of Icelanders II, Reykjavík, 1997 : 329–402. Icelandic version of the saga can be reached here.

The Saga of the People of Ljósavatn (Ljósvetninga saga) = Ljósvetninga saga. Edited by Benedikt Sveinsson, Reykjavík 1921. Online.

The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal (Vatnsdœla saga) = Vatnsdœla saga. Edited by Einar Ól. Sveinsson. In: Íslenzk fornrit VIII, Reykjavík, 1939, 1–131. Icelandic version of the saga can be reached here.

The Saga of Þorsteinn Síðu-Hallssonar (Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar) = Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar. Ed. Jón Jóhannesson. In: Íslenzk fornrit XI, Reykjavík 1950. Icelandic version of the saga can be reached here.

The Tale of Brand the Generous (Brands þáttr ǫrva) = Brands þáttr ǫrva. Edited by Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarson. In: Íslenzk fornrit IV, Reykjavík 1935. Icelandic version of the story can be reached here.

The Tale of Sarcastic Halli (Sneglu-Halla þáttr) = Sneglu-Halla þáttr. Edited by Jónas Kristjánsson. In: Íslenzk fornrit IX, Reykjavík, 1956: 261–295. Icelandic version of the story can be reached here.


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A 14th century depiction of both handed axe from Novgorod. Taken from Paulsen 1956: 99, Abb. 39.