Possible function of the “Perun Axes”

In this article we shall focus on Early Middle Ages axe miniatures, so called “Perun’s Axe”, which have recently come to a great attention from reenactors and neo-Pagans. We will attempt to outline key sources of information and will reflect upon possible function of the symbol, which sure will bring a lot of controversy.

It is important to say right in the beginning that at least in 9th – 12th century, axe miniatures were used ranging from Ireland to Russia, and are thus not bound solely to Slavic lands as is often presented. Apparently, real-size local axe types were copied, and in the case when we find an axe miniature that does not follow a shape of local weapon, we can speculate about movement of people or import of goods. In general, the miniatures were made of copper alloy (“bronze”), amber, silver, iron, tin alloys, lead and bone. The label “Perun’s Axe” is, as will be described, based on interpretation from 1960s, which does not reflect the current research. For that reason, we will stick to the term “axe miniature.”

Axe miniatures research has gone through a century of interpretations, which brought various views on the topic. The whole issue suffers from insufficient cataloging and lack of cooperation between East European, Scandinavian and West European researchers, which caused creation of detached catalogues, which do not reflect one another. Currently, the best source for East European axe miniatures are catalogues by P. Kucypera, P. Pranke a S. Wadyl (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011), which count 154 specimens from 10th – 13th century. Scandinavian and West European miniatures were collected by Bo Jensen (Jensen 2010), with 44 items in total. Since publication of these catalogues, there were many new finds, some of which were made public on this website (Vlasatý 2018aVlasatý 2018b).

Axe miniatures finds in Eastern, Northern and Western Europe.
Source: Jensen 2010: 44; Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 33, Map nr. 3.

East European axe miniatures, which we will reference in this article, can be divided into the following categories (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 11–26, 29):

  • Makarov type I miniatures (74 specimen), dated to turn of 11th century – end of 12th century
  • Miniatures similar to Makarov type I (21 specimen), dated to 2nd half of 11th century – turn of 13th century
  • Makarov type II miniatures (30 specimen), dated to beginning of 11th century – 1st half of 12th century
  • Atypical miniatures (29 specimen)

Functions

A major group of similar items brought the interest of several researchers towards interpretation. There are already a number of conclusions, of which the most used are:

  • amulets meant to be worn discretely by their owner (Jensen 2010: 43–45; Koktvedgaard Zeitzen 1997: 3, 17; Beck – Jahnkuhn 1973: 567–568)
  • items connected to deity of thunder (Darkevič 1961Kulakov 1993)
  • gifts to boys during the ritual of first haircut (Paulsen 1939: 159; Panasiewicz – Wołoszyn 2002: 261)
  • items connected to members of Old-Russian druzhina (Makarov 1992: 48–51; Wołoszyn 2006: 591–593)
  • items connected to cult of St. Olav (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: 116)
  • child toys (Shetelig 1912aPaulsen 1939: 159; Nadolski 1953: 390)

There is no doubt of the pendant function of some of the miniatures, as they are provided with rings or whole chains – though this is only the case of three miniatures (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: 36). It is evident that even some other axe miniatures had that function as they are very small and have a tiny eyelet. Axe-shaped pendants are known in Europe from as far as antiquity (eg. Tejral 1982: 131). At least in one case, an Early Middle Ages axe miniature is hung on a small clothing pin (Paulsen 1956: Abb. 98g) – this is very interesting detail in connection to a clothing pin from Daugmale, which also has an axe-shaped formation attached (Paulsen 1956: Abb. 99d). At least two axes without eyelets, found in female graves, were placed on chests along with other amulets and beads, forming necklaces.

Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: Tabl. VII:9, VIII:3, XIV:6; Paulsen 1956: Abb. 98g

The ties to Thunder deity, most often Perun, is mostly based on an ornament that can be found on the miniatures. This interpretation is problematic nonetheless and even has its critics, who call for caution (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 43). The decoration basically only suggests that the miniatures might have had a decorative purpose, which is also indicated by the chosen material. Many a time it seems that the decoration only copies an ornament used on real-size axes.

Real-size axes (upper row) in comparison with their miniatures, 10th – 12th century.
Source: Atgāzis 1998; Paulsen 1956; Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011.
See higher resolution.

But the similarities to the real-size axes are way farther than just in decoration. The edge of these miniatures has an extensive sharpness, like the real axes would. At least in 10 cases (that is around 7%), the miniatures were mounted on wooden hafts, of which only fragments survived (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: cat. 13, 21, 48, 51, 57, 65, 120, 124, 135, 152). Another two detector finds from Belarus and Ukraine were published by Koršun (Koršun 2012: cat. D-6, D-44). One find is currently for sale on eBay (eBay 2019), the other on Mešok (Mešok 2019) and Violity (Violity 2019) portals. Three questionable items can be found on Arkaim server (Arkaim 2019). At least in one case, the axehead is secured by an iron wedge (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: cat. 21, tabl. III: 3). It seems possible that a higher number of the axe miniatures had a wooden haft, but only a few survived to present day.

Fragments of wooden hafts.
Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: Tabl. II:1, III:3, IV:8, V:1,6, VI:3, XI:1,5, XIV:3; Koršun 2012: 152, 160, kat. D-6, D-44; eBay 2019; Mešok 2019; Violity 2019Arkaim 2019.

More than half of all miniatures were found in hillforts, in hillfort areas or settlements. Quite a large number comes from situations without any context. It is important to note that 11 miniatures come from graves (male graves in 5 cases, female graves in 2 cases). In total, 7 are from child graves. Most often the miniature was placed at right hip, on legs, and in the case of women, also on chest (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 30).

Axe miniatures found in graves.
Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011.

Based on the presence of axe hafts, the authors of newest catalogue suggest that such items were not meant to be worn as necklaces and were rather worn at belt (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 37). In the case of some child graves, we would not be far from truth if we suggested that the miniature played a role of symbolic representation of a real axe. Miniature axes with hafts can also be found in other European regions – some were meant for wearing as a necklace, some lacked the loophole and were more suitable for carrying in a pouch.

Miniature axes with hafts.

From left: iron axe miniature from Estonia (source: Edvards Puciriuss), soapstone form from Ribe, Denmark (source: The Northern Emporium project), amber axes from Ribe, Denmark (found in 2018 and 1990/1, source: The Northern Emporium project), bronze miniature from Haithabu, Germany (Elsner 2004: 79), bronze miniature from Mülheim, Germany (Koch 1970), bronze miniature from Menzlin, Germany (Schoknecht 1977).

As one can see, the listed axe miniatures make a disparate group – they are made of various materials, in a different way and are also of different shape. East European miniatures on the other hand form quite unified groups and only vary in detail. If we consider the detector finds as well, we have hundreds of miniature axes to deal with and can speak of a spread phenomenon in terms of quantity, time and geography. The idea of majority of these axes serving as offering to the dead or as a necklace is not supported in the case of grave finds, which only represent less than 10% of all officially researched specimen. We would thus like to add a few interpretations to the already listed ones, in order to attempt to make sense of the axe miniature’s purpose.


Other interpretations suggested by the author

The fact that the miniatures can be found all over Eastern Europe in the span of several centuries is a warning sign suggesting the axe could be a favoured item with practical and decorative function. We attempt to explain the frequency of finds by three additional interpretations other than a pendant or symbolic offering.

Selection of cloak pins from Western, Northern and Eastern Europe.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml, 
grafikacajthaml.cz.

 

Cloak pins
The axe miniatures with hafts can be compared to 30 bone and 5 bronze cloak/hair pins from Western and Northern Europe. Lets examine this analogy further. From Netherlands we know of over 20 finds of axe-shaped bone pins (Roes 1963: 67–69, Pl. LIV: 1–9). From UK, we know of at least 6 other Early Middle Ages bone pins (MacGregor 1985: 118, Fig. 64). Haithabu in Germany provided us with yet another 3 bone pins (Schwarz-Mackensen 1976: 27, Abb. 7: 2–3; Schietzel 2014: 355). One specimen is also known from Århus, Denmark (Roesdahl et al. 2014: 285).

Axe-shaped bone pins.
Source: Roes 1963: Pl. LIV: 1–9; MacGregor 1985: Fig. 64: 15–17, 22; Schwarz-Mackensen 1976: Abb. 7: 2–3.

Metal variants of axe-shaped pins are quite rare, yet they do exist. One piece was found in Aggersborg, Denmark (Roesdahl et al. 2014: 283–285). Also from Denmark we know of another pin, found in Avnsøgård (Pedersen 2014: 239, Fig. 7.5). Third find is an axe from Islandbridge, Ireland (Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 157–158, III. 90). Fourth specimen was found in Svingesæter, Norway (Shetelig 1912b: 206, Fig. 482). Fifth axe miniature comes from Bjåland, Norway (Petersen 1951: 338, Fig. 184).

Axe-shaped metal pins.
Source: Roesdahl et al. 2014: 283; Pedersen 2014: Fig. 7.5; Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 158, III. 90; Shetelig 1912b: Fig. 482; Petersen 1951: Fig. 184.

Despite the lack of valid proofs due to incompleteness of East European axe miniatures with hafts, there are several arguments supporting this interpretation:

  • almost 40 analogies from Europe and the use of axe-like formations or miniatures on some cloak pins of Eastern Europe
  • practical and useful construction which has been experimentally proved
  • aesthetical badge showing a social status
  • the pins do not deviate by either shape or material from other Early Middle Ages cloak pins with long needle
  • a tradition of using Scandinavian pins with a ring and pins with miniature weathervane in Eastern Europe (Chvoščinskaja 2004Schmidt 2005)
  • specifically broken hafts right below the miniature axe head
  • placement in graves on the right side of the body does not rule out usage as a cloak pin, as many of North- and East European pins were worn this way (Thunmark-Nylén 1984: 11, Abb. 2.3; Lehtosalo-Hilander 2000: 206–207; Stepanova 2009: Rys. 19, 194) and the whole axe miniature from Nikolskoje III was “wrapped in cloth” (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 88, kat. 56).

Experiment: bronze cast of miniature axe (production: Wulflund) with a wooden pin, which fixates the cloth. We tried several ways of fastening the strap, where two-point fixation on the pin proved to be the most useful.

I have presented this theory to Pawel Kucypera, author of an East European axe miniatures catalogue, who commented the experiment as follows: „I cannot rule out this possibility. The idea to compare axe miniatures with the cloak pins is interesting, but it is not possible to research this concept any further.” We thus have to wait for more miniature finds, that might confirm or dismiss this interpretation.

Reconstruction of axe-head sheath found in Schleswig, Germany. Author: Stephan Meinhardt.

 

Wedge fixating a sheath to an axe-head
While this is improbable due to lack of relevant excavation situation, it cannot be ruled out that some of the miniatures with a haft could had functioned as a wedge for fixating a sheath to the axe-head. From Early Middle Ages Europe, we only know of a single such wedge, specifically from Haithabu, Germany (HbH.432.002; Westphal 2007: 55, Taf. 30:3), which was inserted to the inner side of sheath from the axe-side. Though there are even other sheaths suggesting the usage of a wedge. Specifically, we speak of sheath from Novgorod, which has holes on its tongue-like protrusions corresponding with holes of East European axes (Kainov – Singh 2016). We can thus assume that the holes found in axe heads served as a simple way of fastening the sheath, which was then plugged from side. Such an uniform solution would require a vast number of wedges, which would explain the presence of miniature axes throughout time and place. The axe-miniature shape is also appropriate for this purpose. Furthermore, as the sheath from Schleswig suggests, which is decorated by two axe engravings, it was not perceived as an issue in the past mentality if the sheath was decorated by another axe (Saggau 2006: 264; Abb. 44:13, Abb. 45). It was suggested in past that the miniatures might have had a sheath of their own, which would then be fastened to the miniature axe thanks to the hole (Makarov 1992: 37; Panasiewicz – Wołoszyn 2002: 251). This suggestion has not yet been confirmed though.

Early Middle Ages axe sheathes with suggested ways of fastening.
Source: Westphal 2007: Taf. 30:3; Kainov – Singh 2016: Rys. 2.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml, grafikacajthaml.cz.

Votive gift during colonisation
In 11th century we have witnessed major changes in Old Russian settlement towards previously uncolonized areas. Old settlements ceased to exist, resulting in creation of dense network of small cities and villages in castle areas. Thanks to their newly gained economical and political potential, these aimed for independence and attempted to break out of the Kievan rule (Kotyčev 2016: 246–248). The epoch is sometimes called as “era of small cities” (эпоха малых городов) copies the usage of axe miniatures in Eastern Europe.

From other parts of Europe, we know that the Early Middle Ages axe as a tool played a major symbolic role in the cultivation of land, and it was not uncommon that when a new land was being settled, the settlers would light a bonfire or would bury an axe in the ground as a symbolism for bringing order (Starý – Kozák 2010: 44–45). Furthermore, axes had been buried as early as late Neolithic era to define estate boundaries with the purpose of protecting it from disruption (Rønne 2008).

We should not forget that majority of the axes were found around small cities, settlements or villages. The phenomenon of miniature axes in Eastern Europe can thus be connected to inner colonisation and the transformation of estate structure of 11th – 13th century.


Conclusion

In this article we took a deeper look into the phenomenon of miniature East European axes, in order to bring it closer to re-enactment community. We have discussed a great deal on the possible functions of the item. Our suggestion is that the geographical and time-related expansion reflects its practical use. We assume the following functions:

  1. Female necklaces, cloak pins
  2. Symbolic offering from the parent to her/his deceased child
  3. Votive placement in ground during colonisation of new land

These functions can thus suggest that the miniature axes played important roles in the life of their owner, a role that could change in the time and contect:

  • Demarcation of cultural space, bringing an order to chaotic environment
  • Bringing luck and good faith (preservation of good health and mental condition, protection from danger)
  • Decoration
  • Representation of a real axe

Let us conclude the article here. Thank you for your time spent reading it and we look forward any and all feedback.


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The Length of Early Medieval Belts

There are some “truths” in reenactment that are not questioned even though they should be. These are called “reenactorism” and engaged by both newbies and veterans. In this article we will show one of these, the myth of a long belt in Early medieval Europe, following the work done by German reenactor Christopher Kunz.

It is fully evident from the preserved material that there was a number of approaches to belt wearing in the Early Middle ages. These approaches originated alongside cultural environment and local development, social ranking, gender and usage method. The assumption of using a uniform belt type with the same width and length is wrong. On the initiative of beginning reenactors who often raise questions about belt length, in this article we will try to map the legth of men’s leather belts according to iconography and finds in burial complexes.

Fig. 1: Grave no. 59 from the Haithabu-Flachgräberfeld burial site
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 308, Taf. 10.


Simple belt with a short end (up to approx. 20 cm)

This form best resembles present belts, which are manufactured approximately 15 cm longer than the waistline. In seven graves from Birka, Sweden (488, 750, 761, 918, 949, 1030, 1076) the buckles are no more than 10 cm far from each other (Arbman 1943) and similar positions could be found throughout Europe – we can mention Great Moravian (i.e. Kalousek 1973: 33, Fig. 13) or Danish graves (Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 301, Taf. 3). There are no belts with hanging strap-ends in Early medieval iconography, which is rather schematic than detailed. Belts are scarcely visible in painted iconography as they usually seem to be overlapped by pleated upper tunics, which can be interpreted as an element of fashion. As a result the belt looks like a narrow horizontal line.

There is a certain contradiction between some burial positions and strap-end decor, where some of Early medieval belts had strap-ends that hung down when threaded through the buckle. The most graphic evidence comes from depictions of people and animals which can be seen on the strap-ends and placed lengthwise. In some cases, there are figures of naked men depicted on the strap-ends, which could imply that the hanging end could reach down to the genitals and symbolically represent or emphasize them (Thomas 2000: Fig. 3.16, 3.27). In the listing below we will attempt to suggest several manners of tying these belts.

Fig. 2: A selection of painted iconography of 9-11th century depicting a belt hidden in tunic pleats.
From the left: British Lib. MS Arundel 60, 4r, 11th century; BNF Lat. 1, 423r, 9th century; British Lib. MS Stowe 944, 6r, 11th century; XIV.A.13, 29v, 11th century
.

Fig. 3: Strap-ends depicting a naked man.
Thomas 2000: Fig. 3.16, 3.27.


Fig. 4: A rare depiction of hanging strap-end in Western Europe iconography. Manuscript: Latin 1141, Fol. 14, 9th century.

  • Loose end
    The simplest form is represented by a belt worn in its nearly maximal length. The end is then short enough not to obstruct manual labour and because it copies the belt, it can be hidden in a pleated tunic. Depictions of loose belt ends can be quite typically observed in 13th and 14th century. Moreover, we know a belt from Early medieval Latvia which had a metal ring at its end, used to grapple on a buckle tongue. The very same method was is also known from Čingul mound, Ukraine, from 13th century (Отрощенко – Рассамакин 1983: 78).

Fig. 5: Reconstruction of belts from 400-700 AD in Zollernalb region, Germany.
Schmitt 2005: Abb. 15.

Fig. 6: Reconstruction of Haithabu type belts.
Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 140, Abb. 61.

  • Tucked behind the belt
    Another simple way of wearing a belt is tucking its end behind the already fastened part of the belt. We have at least one piece of evidence of this wearing from Anglo-Saxon England, where a belt passed through the buckle, flipped back and end tucked behind itself was documented (Watson 2006: 6-8). This forms a perpendicular line on the belt and keeps the face side of strap-end exposed. In case of pleated tunic covering the belt it can be easily adjusted to form a line.


Fig. 7: Strap-end being flipped back after going through the buckle and tucked behind the already fastened belt. Shrublands Quarry, Watson 2006: Fig. 6.

  • Tucked in a slider
    Metal belt sliders are very scarce in terms of archeological material. One of this kind was found within Gokstad Barrow (C10439) and adjusted to fit a strap-end from the same grave (Nicolaysen 1882: 49, Pl: X:11). Another slider was presumably found in Birka grave no. 478 (Abrman 1943: 138) and three more made of sheet bronze were apparently found in Kopparvik, Gotland (Toplak 2016: 126). According to sliders usually appearing in relation to spurs or garters where they are 2-3 centimeters wide (i.e. Andersen 1993: 48, 69; Thomas 2000: 268; Skre 2011: 72-74), we can assume that if the sliders were used with belts more, we would be able to detect them more easily. It is possible that they corroded over time, that organic sliders were used too or that they will be found during a more detailed research. Generally we can assume that the sliders were used in cases where the buckles did not include holding plates – in opposite cases the holding plates would not be visible after using the slider.

Fig. 8: Reconstruction of the belt from grave no. 478 at Birka.
Abrman 1943: 138, Abb. 83.

Fig. 9: Attempt for a reconstruction of the belt from Birka grave no. 949 applying a leather slider.
Author: Sippe Guntursson.

  • Puncturing two holes
    A relatively elegant reenactor’s solution is to puncture two consecutive holes and tuck the belt behind its buckle. All the belt’s components therefore remain visible. This solution was documented in case of at least two archeological finds from Britain and Belgium, 6th-7th century. (De Smaele et al. in pressWatson 2002: 3). The same system is known from Early medieval Latvia. In case of pleated tunic covering the belt it can be easily adjusted to form a line.

Fig. 10: Puncturing two holes that enables threading the strap-end behind a buckle.
Author: Erik Panknin.

  • Attaching by a thong
    Another aesthetical, yet undocumented manner of attaching a belt is adding a thong which holds the buckle’s tongue while the strap-end continues further behind the buckle. We have no evidence for this manner.

Fig. 11: Fixing the buckle with a thong attached to the belt. An unfounded hypothesis.
Author: L’Atelier de Micky.

  • Tucking into a buckle slot
    Buckles having a rectangular slot aside from the typical loop are very common in Eastern-European regions. After fastening the belt using the loop’s tongue, the strap-end could be tucked into this slot and hanged downwards. In case of pleated tunic covering the belt it can be easily adjusted to form a line.


Fig. 12: Reconstruction of the belt from Berezovec barrow.
Степанова 2009: 250, рис. 18.

  • Knot on a belt
    The most frequent solution among reenactors is undoubtedly a knot performed like this: after going through the buckle, the strap-end is tucked behind the belt from below and then passed through the resulting loop. This means achieving a perpendicular line on the belt and keeping the strap-end’s face side visible. This knot-tying, although with much shorter belt than standardly used in today’s reenactment, could be found in France during the Merovingian age (France-Lanlord 1961). With a high probability, the same solution was found in a grave from St Michael’s Church graveyard in Workington, England. Knots were often worn in 13th and 14th century.

Fig. 13: Reconstruction of a Merovingian belt from St. Quentin.
France-Lanlord 1961.


Composite belt with a long end

Some of the Eastern-European Early medieval decorated belts are manufactured in a more complex way, having one or more longer ends. In case of a belt constructed to have more ends, one of these ends – usually the shorter one – is designed to be fixed by the buckle, while the others are either tagged on or formed by the outer layer of two-layered belt. Long ends of these costly belts are designed for double wrapping, tucking into a slider or behind the belt. The length of the ends is not standardized, however we are unable to find any belt that would reach below its owner’s crotch when completely tied. While looking for parallels, we can notice that a belt compounded this way has many similarities to tassels on horse harnesses. Apparently, the belts were worn by riders or emerged from such a tradition, then maintained the position of wealthy status even after being adopted by neighbouring non-nomadic cultures. At last we can state that longer belts were designed mainly to hold more decoration and to allow the owner to handle the length more flexibly, whether for practical or aesthetical reasons.

Fig. 14: Composite belts with long ends.
A, b – belts from Gnezdovo (Мурашева 2000: рис. 109, 113), c – belts from Nové Zámky (Čilinská 1966: Abb. 19), d – belt from Hemse (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: Abb. III:9:3), e – reconstruction of belt tying from Káros, Hungary (Petkes – Sudár 2014).


Conclusion

The topic of belt lenght in reenactment is definitely a controversional one as it touches every male reenactor. Belts are sometimes costly and even a hint, originally meant as constructive critic, can easily cause negative emotions. There is no need for them though, as there is probably no reenactor who has never worn a long belt. We suppose that this reenactorism, used in practice for more than 30 years over the whole world, is caused by these factors:

  • unwillingness to perform one’s own research leading to imitation of a generally accepted model
  • bad access to sources or their misintepretation
  • easily obtainable and cheap, yet historically inaccurate belts sold on the internet in standard length of about 160 cm
  • unwillingness to talk about the problem by both organizers and attendants

In this article, we demonstrated that historical belts often did not have any hanging ends and that the maximum length where the end would reach was the crotch, which could have a symbolic meaning. Any of the aforementioned manners of attaching should not be incompatible with the sources we have at our disposal, however as we already mentioned, both the length and style of wearing followed local traditions. Western Europe therefore preferred delicately hidden belts while in Eastern Europe, the richly decorated belts were worn on public display.


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