In May 2019, an extraordinary militaria was found in the Czech Republic, which has not yet been published in print – an axe inlayed with silver, found in Hořice Region in eastern Bohemia. In this short article, we would like to comment on this find, put it in the context of the Central European arms tradition, and bring it to its digital form, which will better serve the public’s appreciation of this precious artifact.
The information available so far is not very detailed. We can safely say that the axe was found near Bašnice in the vicinity of Hořice between Jičín and Hradec Králové in May 2019. The exact location is kept secret by archaeologists because of the ongoing examination of the surroundings. It was found by a detectorist in an unplowed field near a forest at a depth of about 15 cm below ground level. As the axe did not seem very attractive to the detectorist, he left the object on a nearby stump where it was discovered by a colleague of the Museum of East Bohemia in Hradec Králové. He recognized the Early medieval axe in the artifact, and as soon as he took off a piece of corrosion, he discovered the silver decoration and reported the find. A probe was carried out on the spot that did not detect any signs of the burial ground, but archaeologists do not rule out the presence of a plowed grave.
From May to July, the axe was announced in Czech online media. The website of the Museum of East Bohemia in Hradec Králové (“New Find of the Inlayed Axe”, “The Secret of the Bird Axe”, “How the Unique Bird Axe was Conserved”) provided the best information about the discovery, conservation and exhibition. The object was also published on websites of main public medias – Czech Television („Hradečtí archeologové objevili unikátní sekeru. Je zdobená stříbrem“) and Czech Radio („Sekera ne za dva zlatý, ale nevyčíslitelné hodnoty. To je artefakt z 9. století zdobený stříbrem“, „Co už o sobě prozradila vzácná sekera z dob Velkomoravské říše? A kdy ji uvidí veřejnost?“, „Nález, který nemá v Česku obdoby. Na Královéhradecku našli sekeru z raného středověku“) – as well as private medias iDnes („Pole vydalo unikát, stříbrem zdobenou sekeru z dob Velké Moravy“), Deník N („Nálezce na Jičínsku objevil stříbrem zdobenou sekeru z dob Velké Moravy“), Novinky.cz („Archeologové našli unikátní, stříbrem zdobenou sekeru z dob Velké Moravy“), Lidovky.cz („Archeologové našli velkomoravskou sekeru, která v Česku nemá obdoby. Naleziště raději neprozradili“) and local newspapers Deník.cz („Jedinečný nález. Muž „zakopl” u lesa o vzácnou sekeru z dob Velké Moravy“), Hořice.org („Na Hořicku byla nalezena vzácná zdobená sekera z období Velké Moravy“), Hradecký deník („Muž „zakopl“ u lesa o vzácnou sekeru z dob Velké Moravy“), Jičínský deník („Bradatice z období Velké Moravy je unikátním nálezem“) and Hradecká drbna („V hradeckém kraji našli velkomoravskou sekeru, v ČR nemá obdoby“).
In the end of 2019, the conserved axe was exhibited in the museum, altogether with other Early medieval objects from eastern Bohemia. The exhibition was called “The Secret of the Bird Axe” and the objects were accompanied with quality description. The pictures from the exhibition can be seen here and were provided by Dominik Vencl
During the latter part of 2019, the axe was cleaned with an ultrasonic scalpel and micro sandblasting and was preserved (for details of the preservation see Museum of East Bohemia in Hradec Králové 2020). After cleaning, the original shape of the axe and its decoration became apparent.
The axe from Bašnice, which is assigned by local experts to vaguely defined “Great Moravian Bearded Axes”, is a well-preserved specimen of Kotowicz type IB.5.34 (Kotowicz 2018: 110-111), ie a narrow axehead with an asymmetrical beared-shaped blade, thorns on both sides and is equipped with a hammer-shaped butt with a button terminal. Kotowicz describes two basic variants of this type – the first has a flattened button and occures in the period from 8th to 10th century in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, while the second has a mushroom-like button and can be found in the period ofrm 7th to 10th century only in Central Europe (Kotowicz 2018: 110). There is no doubt that the axe from Bašnice belongs to the second variant with a mushroom-like button. This variant was used in Avar areas in the 7th-8th centuries, but it was domesticated in the Slavic environment a century later, so we can meet this variant in today’s Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland in the 9th and 10th centuries (Kotowicz 2018: 111). The closest shape analogy is represented by the axe from Barkowice Mokre, Poland, which is significant for the blade decorated with chopped geometric ornament and a mushroom-like button (Kotowicz 2014: 15-16, Tabl. II.2; Kotowicz 2018: Pl. XII. 4), but it differs by profiled neck of the hammer. Such a feature is the most common decorative element of axes of this type, but an axe from Bašnice lacks it. Other close analogies of our axe come from Bojná, Slovakia (Kouřil 2008: Fig. 3.7), Mikulčice, Moriavia (Kouřil 2006: Fig. 4.6-7), Stará Kouřim, Bohemia (Profantová 2005: Fig. 8C.3) and Niedźwiedź, Poland (Kotowicz 2014: 89, Tabl. LIII.5). It is important to stress that type IB.5.34 belong to a bigger group of bearded axes, in which type IB.5.30 is the most dominant. IB.5.30 is widespread from Poland to Albania, but the largest concentration – probably over 100 pieces – is closely related to the Great Moravian period in Moravia, Slovakia, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic (Hrubý 1955: 170; Kotowicz 2018: 104-109; Ruttkay 1976: 306). In other words, the shape of an axe from Bašnice indicates production in Great Moravia, Bohemia or Poland.
Top left: Barkowice Mokre (Kotowicz 2014: Tabl. II.2); Bojná (Kouřil 2008: Obr. 3.7); Mikulčice (Kouřil 2006: Obr. 4.7); Niedźwiedź (Kotowicz 2014: Tabl. LIII.5); Stará Kouřim (Profantová 2005: Obr. 8C.3); Mikulčice (Kouřil 2006: Obr. 4.6).
Mapping of type IB.5.34 axes with mushroom-shaped button from 9th-10th centuries.
What makes the axe special is decoration made with inlayed silver wire. The logic of inlay is that grooves are prepared on the surface of the object and filled with contrasting material in a certain motif. Unlike overlay, the grooves correspond to the motif. Both sides of the blade of the our axe are lined with simple lines, which are doubled on the edge side. The lines are crossed at regular intervals by clusters of perpendicular lines (5-7 pieces). A pair of birds with crosses is shown in the space delimited by the lines. Motifs are not symmetrical; on one side, the birds are complemented by additional lines of crossed clusters of lines. The thorns are decorated with vertical lines, which are crossed both by clusters of lines and a large cross with a tree pattern. The sides of the hammer are decorated with central lines with clusters of lines surrounding them. The top and bottom are decorated with triangles, which are either filled with silver (on the side of the blade) or left empty (on the side of the hammer). In May 2021, the axe was analyzed by Patrick Bárta, who tends to conclude that the decoration is a combination of inlay and overlay, while the background of a large part of the axe was overlaid with copper, which is visible only in some places and largely destructed today (Bárta 2021).
The symbolism of the bird appears in a number of elite objects created by Great Moravian and Přemyslid culture – belts, gombíks, knife handles, buckets, scabbards, axes, rings and decorative fittings (Vlasatý 2020). It was definitely a symbol with a positive meaning. It is very likely that the Great Moravian bird was incorporated into Christian symbolism, as indicated by liturgical vessels (Kavánová 2014), but it seems that its importance is not only linked to Christianity. Perhaps it could have a certain position in the dynastic myth or creation myth. Another possible explanation can be associated with the fact that humans have a significant prerequisite to associate with animals with which they are biobehaviorally similar; a bird could express a reflection of some desirable qualities for elites. Based on this symbolism, Bašnice axe can be connected with the cultural area of Great Moravia and early Přemyslid Bohemia.
The fact that the axe is inlaid with other metal is considered to be an unique unparalleled feature by the staff of the Hradec Králové Museum. It is true that beared axes of type IB.5.30 (with associated types IB.5.34 and IB.5.28) are rarely decorated, but at least one analogy exists. It is the axe from Bardy, Poland, which belongs to type IB.5.30 and which is inlayed with copper alloy wire on the thorns, neck and hammer (Kotowicz 2014: Tabl. II.1; Kotowicz 2018: 34-35). Even this axe is considered unique in Poland, and because of the absence of analogy, there has been speculation about Scandinavian influence, which we believe does not need to be discussed any longer (Kotowicz 2018: 35). The axe from Bašnice is 10.8 cm long, the blade is 3 cm wide and the eye is about 2 cm wide, which is significantly less than the usual for type IB.5.30 (usually 15-20 cm in length), but the axe from Bardy reaches similar dimensions (length 13.4 cm, blade width 4.6 cm, eye diameter 2.1 cm). It is also worth mentioning the length of thorns is 4.75 cm. According to Jiří Košta, curator of National Museum of Prague, the axe is therefore a miniature that was made for child burial. The same opinion shares expert Naďa Profantová that points to a small measures of IB.5.34 type axe from grave 79 from Stará Kouřimi (personal discussion with Naďa Profantová). Another decorated axe, but without applied precious metal, is the mentioned axe from Barkowice Mokre. Kotowicz suggests the possibility that the chopped grooves on some axes may have initially been filled with precious metal that rusted over time (Kotowicz 2018: 34), but we do not know if that was the case of the axe from Barkowice. The fact that both decorated axes are located in Poland, where the tradition of decorating axes was more established, may indicate the connection of the Great Moravian environment with the territory of today’s southern Poland, so we cannot exclude the possible Polish origin of Bašnice axe. Another decorated bearded axe is the axe from the grave 221 discovered in the Slovak locality Borovce; the whole surface of the axe was apparently decorated with a non-ferrous metal (Staššíková-Šťukovská – Brziak 1995). So far, only three Early medieval axes decorated with non-ferrous metal from the Czech Republic has been known – the axe-hammer from the grave 120 of Stará Kouřim, whose origin is placed in Khazar Khanate or today’s Iran (Macháček 2000), atypic broad-axe from the grave 1994 in Mikulčice that burnt during the deposit fire in 2007 (Luňák 2018: 79-80) and the axe from grave 22/05 from Klecany, which was decorated with two inlayed stripes of different copper-alloy wire (Profantová 2010: 72-74; 2015: Tab. 18.3, Fototab. 16.6).
The axe from Bašnice is the 65th axe found in the Czech area that can be dated to the period od 8th-10th century (Profantová 2019: Abb. 4). Based on its shape and decoration, the axe can be dated to the period 800-950 AD, the 9th century seems more likely if we take analogies into account. The axe from Barkowice Mokre can be dated to the first half of the 9th century (Kotowicz 2018: 111), while the axe from Bardy is dated to the prioed from the beginning of the 9th to the beginning of the 10th century (Kotowicz 2014: 15). The Great Moravian axes of type IB.5.30 and associated types date to the period before downfall of Great Moravia, that means to the period from the 9th to the beginning of the 10th century. In the Czech environment, where the axe was found, the symbolism of birds was still used in the first half of the 10th century, as it was in Poland (Vlasatý 2020).
In cooperation with Chilean industrial designer and reenactor Carlos Benavides, we have prepared a digital reconstruction of the Bašnice axe. Images of the reconstruction and video are offered for free distribution and can be downloaded via the following link:
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