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Catalog of 8th-12th century perforated axes



This article is an extension of the work Axes with perforated blades, which was published on this website in July 2020 (Vlasatý 2020a). The reason for revisiting this material is both to inform the reenactor community and academic interest, which aims to:

  • carry out a review of all European axes with deliberately created holes on the blade from the 8th-12th century and the literature related to these finds.

  • to organize objects by country of origin, types of axes and shape of holes, which allows for the declaration of general judgments and facilitates the search for parallels.

  • propose a range of functions of perforations in axes.

At the outset, we must mention that the detection of perforations encounters a number of problems. It is natural that axes are not given the same focus in literature as swords or fancy jewellery, and thus they are inadvertently overlooked. In the field of axes, battle axes are the most popular, while work axes are put aside. A positive determination of an intentionally created hole is conditioned by the cleaning of the axes or their X-ray images. In the case of finds of an older date, in which there is a high probability of insufficiently detailed publication, these elements are easily overlooked, being covered with dirt, rust and organic layers. Kirpičnikov (1966: 29) draws attention to this fact. Some axes have the blade corroded through, which is the case of the find from the River Robe in Ireland (Bøe 1940: 90, Fig. 61; Kotowicz 2018: 36). Some finds indicate holes in the blades, but the documentation does not specify whether this is the result of corrosion or intentional perforation (Blomqvist – Mårtensson 1963: Fig. 172; Paulsen 1956: Fig. 12b).

We have only collected certain and verifiable finds with evidence of a purposely created hole in our catalog. Altogether, we collected 359 axes with one circular perforation and 23 axes with a non-circular hole or multiple circular holes. It is certainly only a fraction of all axes produced and found, especially if we take into account the fact that it may be 1-5% of all originally produced pieces. Axes originating from detector activities and auction houses were not included in the catalog due to lack of context and credibility.

Example of axes with one circular perforation.
Source: Kostjukevič – Mahalinski 2021; Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Tab. 260.4.

Affiliation to typology (one circular perforation)

A single circular perforation appears in axes that follow different manufacturing and user strategies. A thorough revision shows that the most important parameters that vary are the form of the butt (simple, cap-shaped, tapered hammer-shaped, mushroom-shaped) and the blade (without a beard, with a beard). Four variants with eight sub-variants are thus singled out:

1. Axes with a simple butt

Axes with an indistinct butt, which is simply rounded or edged

1.1. With beardless blade

A subvariant whose blade is not equipped with a beard. This is not the usual subvariant, and we rightly have to ask whether in some cases these are errors caused by bad documentation or damage to the object. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz’s combination types IA.5.1 (e.g. hillfort Val close to Lutsk, see Terskij 2011: Fig. 2.3), IIB.5.1 (e.g. Sieradz, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 616) and IIIA.5.1 (e.g. grave 32 from Laptau/Muromskoje, see Širouchov 2012: Fig. 108.5).

Graphic examples of axes with a simple butt, without a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

1.2. With bearded blade

A subvariant whose blade is equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IB.5.2 (e.g. Lutomiersk, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no 277), IIA.5.2 (e.g. Czekanów, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 92), IIB.5.2 (e.g. grave 6 from Vidlicy, viz Ravdonikas 1934: Tab. VI.3) and IIB.5.4 (e.g. Jeżów, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 185). Some shapes correspond to Kirpičnikov type VI.

Graphic examples of axes with a simple butt, with a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

2. Axes with a cap-shaped butt

Axes with a butt in the shape of a cap. This form of hammer is called “Helmdach” in German literature (Paulsen 1956: 27), “cap” in English (Kotowicz 2018: Fig. 8) and “удлиненный вырезной обух” in Russian (Kirpičnikov 1966).

2.1. With beardless blade

A subvariant whose blade is not equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IB.1.19 (e.g. settlement find from Horodyšče, see Kirpičnikov 1966: Cat. no. 494, Tab. XV.9), IB.5.19 (e.g. Novgorod, see Plavinskij 2014: Fig. 8.7), IIB.5.19 (e.g. Stradów, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. n. 644) and IIIA.5.19 (e.g. grave 337 from Laiviai, see Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: Fig. 16.1). Some shapes correspond to Kirpičnikov type III.

Graphic examples of axes with a cap-shaped butt, without a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

2.2. With bearded blade

A subvariant whose blade is equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IIB.4.8 (e.g. Bnin-Kórnik, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 20), IIB.5.8 (e.g. Końskie, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 201), IIB.3.14 (e.g. unknown site, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 845), IA.1.20a (e.g. Warder, see Struve 1972), IB.1.20 (e.g. Brzeg, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 50), IIB.1.20 (e.g. Czarna Wielka, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 83), IIB.5.20 (e.g. Czarna Wielka, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 75), IIIB.5.20 (e.g. Grodzisk, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 159) and IIIA.5.20a (e.g. grave find from Laptau/Muromskoje, see Kulakov 2016: Fig. 2). Most of the shapes correspond to Kirpičnikov type IV.

Graphic examples of axes with a cap-shaped butt, with a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

3. Axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt

Axes with a butt in the shape of a tapered hammer. Depending on the overall shape, an axe with this form is called “Hammeraxt” or “Doppelaxt” in German literature (Hallinder 1986; Paulsen 1956: 35), while “чекан” in Russian (Kirpičnikov 1966).

3.1. With beardless blade

A subvariant whose blade is not equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IB.1.29 (e.g. grave 6 from Petrovskoje, see Zozulja 2007: Fig. 13.2), IB.6.31 (e.g. Gulbišče, see Kainov 2012: 103) and IIIA.6.31 (e.g. Łubowo, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 286). Some shapes correspond to Kirpičnikov type I.

Graphic examples of axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt, without a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

3.2. With bearded blade

A subvariant whose blade is equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IB.5.30 (e.g. grave 16 from Szirák-Dagenfeld-birtok, see Szücsi 2014: 161, Tab. 2.2), IIIA.6.30 (e.g. oviciniy of Provadija, see Jotov 2004: Cat. no. 586, Tab. L), IA.6.32a (e.g. grave 121 from Panovo, see Alichova 1969: Tabl. 17.12), IIB.6.32 (např. site Galično), and IIIB.6.32a (e.g. grave 2/1937 from Streda nad Bodrogom, see Nevizánsky – Košta 2012: Fig. 17.3). Some shapes correspond to variants of Kirpičnikov types I and II, IB.5.30 is comparable to the Great Moravian bearded axes of type IV.Ac according to Bartošková (Bartošková 1986: Fig. 1).

Graphic examples of axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt, with a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

4. Axes with a mushroom-shaped butt

Axes with an extending hammer-shaped butt, usually tipped with a mushroom. An axe with this form is called “Hammeraxt” in German literature (Hallinder 1986; Paulsen 1956: 35), and “чекан” in Russian (Kirpičnikov 1966).

4.1. With beardless blade

A subvariant whose blade is not equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IB.6.33 (e.g. Korzybie Duże, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 214) and IIB.6.33 (e.g. vicinity of Chorol, see Puhovolok 2006). Some shapes correspond to Kirpičnikov type I.

Graphic examples of axes with a mushroom-shaped butt, without a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

4.2. With bearded blade

A subvariant whose blade is equipped with a beard. The subvariant occurs in Kotowicz combination types IB.5.34 (e.g. grave 786 from Mikulčice, see Kouřil 2006: Fig. 4.6), IIIB.5.34 (e.g. Ostrów Lednicki, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat no. 480), IA.6.34 (e.g. grave 76, Gars – Thunau, see Nowotny 2018: Tab. 18.11), IB.6.34 (e.g. Szarów, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 654), IIB.6.34 (e.g. Karwowo-Orszymowice, see Kotowicz 2018: Cat. no. 192) and IIIA.6.34 (e.g. Ljutibrod, see Jotov 2004: Cat. no. 585, Tab. L). Some shapes correspond to Kirpičnikov type I, some are close to Kirpičnikov type II, and others correspond in shape to Great Moravian bearded axes.

Graphic examples of axes with a mushroom-shaped butt, with a beard. Source: Kotowicz 2018.

Affiliation to typology (non-circular perforations or multiple circular holes)

Let us also give a short comment to the axes with non-circular perforations or multiple circular holes. These are manifested in the axes of the above-described groups 1 (axes with a simple butt), 3 (axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt) and 4 (axes with a mushroom-shaped butt). They are conspicuously absent from group 2 axes (axes with a cap-shaped hammer).

Axes with multiple circular holes make up the minority of this corpus, they are always equipped with beards and almost always have the letter T shape. Non-circular perforations, usually rectangular or triangular, on the contrary make up the majority of the corpus and are used dominantly in axes without beards. A prominent group are the so-called cross axes from the territory of today’s Denmark, Poland and Sweden, which correspond to Petersen type M and whose center is cut in the shape of a cross.

Distribution of axes with multiple circular holes (red) and non-circular holes (blue).

Spatial distribution

If we take all axe perforations as a whole, we must state that it is a geographically limited phenomenon. The western border of the area runs from Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark) through Central Europe (northern Germany, the western border of Poland, Moravia, Austria, Hungary) to Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. The eastern border is formed in the north by the system of Lake Onega, Lake Beloye and Lake Kubenskoye, and subsequently determined by the Volga basin. The southern border can be defined as the states bordering the northern part of the Black Sea (Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Ukraine), while the northernmost occurrence is represented by finds from Sweden, Finland and the surroundings of Lake Ladoga.

If we can talk about concentrations that can be caused by the state of research in a number of regions, we can point to the eastern part of the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad Oblast), a large part of Poland (Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Mazovia), the Pannonian Basin, Bulgaria, the northern part of Ukraine, Krasnodar Krai, the Smolensk region, the strip from Novgorod to Ladoga region and the area from Yaroslavl through Vladimir to Mordovia.

The geographies of perforated axes with cap-shaped butts, which never have multiple circular holes or non-circular holes, deserve a comment. These are almost exclusively concentrated in the countries around the Baltic Sea (Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Russia, Sweden), Belarus, northern Ukraine, Bulgaria and the upper and middle Volga region. Perforated axes with this morphology are exceptionally used in the Pannonian basin, are completely absent in southern Ukraine and southern Russia, and are almost non-existent on the eastern bank of the Volga. This contrasts with the axes using hammer-like butts (groups 3 and 4) found in these areas. In connection with this, it is worth mentioning the fact that miniatures of axes of Makarov types I and II, made of a copper alloy and often perforated, show an almost identical distribution (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: Map 3; Menšikov 2017: Fig. 1), which was vividly illustrated by Roslund (2016). This only confirms that the area of occurrence of perforated axes with a cap-shaped butt is even more narrowly limited.

Geographical distribution of miniature axes of Makarov types I and II.
Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: Map 3.

We must not fail to mention that the spatial distribution of perforated axes largely copies another phenomenon of the 10th-13th centuries – axes and hammers made of antler and bone, which we described elsewhere on this website (Vlasatý 2023). Some pieces mimic the metal variants better or worse in shape, while others have very crude shapes and only remotely resemble axes, and others are more similar to hammers. Some maintain a sharpened edge, but the greater number have a blunt edge that is 1-2 cm wide. They vary in total length between approx. 6-19 cm, with a large part ranging around 12-15 cm in length. They almost never have perforations. Over half of the collected finds are decorated; the decor varies from a simple braid to an all-over decoration. At present we cannot answer whether there is any connection between these groups of objects, but both groups illustrate well the symbolic world behind the production of axes. In the case of organic axes and hammers, the distribution remarkably overlaps with the area in which moose is found (Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine), since according to the available information, moose antler was the preferred material for production of this type of items.

Bone and antler axes and hammers.
Blue colour = whalebone; green colour = bone; yellow colour = antler; gray colour = unknown.


Perforation of axes can be understood as a chronologically widespread phenomenon. The oldest specimens in our collection are Avar axes from the territory of present-day Hungary and Austria, which can be dated to the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries (Szücsi 2014: 152, 153, 158). Finds from the Perm region are dated to the same period (Goldina 2012: 54, 58). It is typical for such early axes to have a tapered or widened hammer-shaped butt and to have a non-circular hole (a triangular hole in the blade without a beard) or multiple circular holes (the axe is T-shaped with a double-sided beard and the holes are located on the beards).

The oldest examples of single circular openings date from the 8th-9th centuries, when we record them in the Krasnodar Krai (Kočkarov 2008: 66-7, 70) and Hungary (Szücsi 2014: 157, 161). Both finds from Mikulčice can be dated with relative certainty to the 9th or early 10th century (Luňák 2018: 150-153; Poláček et al. 2021: 194). Old Hungarian axes can be dated to the 10th century (Kovács 1980-1981: 249; Nevizánsky – Košta 2012). The axe from Broby was found in the context of the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 10th century (Nicklasson 2007). We can place the axe from Gulbišče in the 3rd quarter of the 10th century (Kainov 2012: 103). The common denominator of all the axes mentioned so far is the fact that they have a tapered hammer-shaped butt, a mushroom-shaped butt and an in rare cases simple butt.

Perforated axes applying a cap-shaped butt, which make up almost 70% of the catalog, are demonstrably first to appear in the second half of the 10th century, as evidenced by Old Rus axes from Gnězdovo and Šestovica (Kainov 2019a: 145-6). In the same period, they spread explosively into the area of present-day Belarus (Plavinskij 2014) and Poland (Kotowicz 2018). A good chronological anchor is also represented by the axe from Black Mound, which was dated using exact methods between 980 and 1025 (Kainov 2019b; Lušin 2019; Šišlina et al. 2017; Vasjuta 2016). Similar axes appear in Latvian graves in a similar period – around the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries (Atgāzis 2019: 113-4). The largest concentration undoubtedly belongs to the period of the 11th and 12th centuries (Kirpičnikov 1966: Fig. 6; Kotowicz 2018: 35-6), which is best demonstrated by the set of eleven perforated axes from Lake Lednice (Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013). Two perforated axes with a cap-shaped butt from Novgorod come from well-dated layers of the 11th and first half of the 12th century (Artěmjev 1994). Grave 404 from Luistari, which contains an identically shaped axe, is dated on the basis of a coin to the first half of the twelfth century (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982: 53). Perforated miniatures of axes with cap-shaped butts can also be dated to the late 10th-12th century (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011).

During 11th-12th century, circular perforations appear more often in axes with a simple butt, especially in Kirpičnikov type VI. In general, it can be said that perforated axes with a narrowing hammer-shaped butt or a mushroom-shaped butt stop appearing towards the developed 11th and 12th centuries, and apparently the youngest specimen is the find from Horodyšče, which Kirpičnikov dates to the 12th-13th centuries (Kirpičnikov 1966: Cat. no. 459). We do not have much evidence for the use of a single circular perforation after the middle of the 12th century, and probably the best is the axe from Bnin-Kórnik, which is stratigraphically dated to the first half of the 13th century, but it may be a secondary context from an older deposit (Kotowicz 2018: 36). The tradition of one non-circular perforation is finished by the axe from the Falköping Museum (Paulsen 1956: 64, Fig. 25d), the axe from Borovan (Jotov 2004: Cat. no. 584) and a group of cross axes , which we can assign to the period from the 2nd half of the 10th century to 11th century (Kotowicz 2018; Stoumann 2009: 198-9). However, we must add that it was restored in Central European axes of the 14th century (e.g. Głosek 1996: Tab. VII-VIII, XV, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, XXXIII). The youngest axes with multiple circular perforations are those from Timerevo and an unknown Bulgarian site, which can be expected to be dated to the 10th century, the 11th century at the latest (Jotov – Pavlova 2004: Cat. no. 65; Kirpičnikov 1966: Cat. no. 36) .

The axe from Skärvsta. Source: Roslund 2016: Fig. 1.


Before we begin to interpret the possible functions, let’s do a short recap to help us sort out the essential facts. A review of perforated axes from present-day Poland showed that the vast majority came from grave situations (Kotowicz 2018), which also applies to other regions. This fact indicates that perforated axes were understood as weapons. The shapes of the perforated axes are indicative of war axes, the only rare exception being the axe from Turaidas Pūteļi (Atgāzis 2019: Fig. 72.6). This is not a very common phenomenon – in Old Rus axes holes are found in only 15% of war axes (Kirpičnikov 1966: 29), while in Polish axes the number is even lower and reaches roughly 6.6% (Kotowicz 2018). It clearly follows that perforations are not an automatic accompanying feature and represent a certain superstructure or privilege.

Perforations take the form of one circular hole, a non-circular hole or several circular holes. Axes with one circular or slightly oval perforation make up 93% of the total in our collection. Their diameters usually vary between 0.1-0.6 cm. In the case of axes with a cap-shaped butt, the holes are always located in the middle of the height of the blade and almost always at the level of the beard or in its immediate vicinity. The holes in axes with a different form of butt often correspond to the same description, but they change their size and location much more willingly – in some cases they even have a diameter close to 1 cm (e.g. Kouřil 2006: Fig. 4.6) and are located directly at the beard (Kočkarov 2008: Tab XXXI.7) or at the edge (e.g. Artěmjev 1994: Fig. 1.1). Less than 5% of the axes in our catalog have one non-circular hole. These are either extensive cutouts of a large part of the blade, which form a cruciform or floral ornament, or a smaller triangular, rectangular or cruciform perforation. As mentioned above, this group of perforations is not found in axes with cap-shaped butts. Multiple circular holes are the least represented category (1.7%), which is most evident in T-shaped axes where the holes are located on the beards.

Fastening the case

One of the most popular theories about the function of the perforations is that which interprets the holes as a way of attaching sheaths. Apparently, the oldest author of this idea is Medvěděv (1958: 288), subsequently it was briefly mentioned by Aleškovskij (1960: 77), Atgāzis (1964: 121; 2019: 135), Kirpičnikov (1966: 29), Izmajlov (1997: 77) and Kočkarov (2008: 65). Much wider space was devoted to the theory by Kotowicz (2008: 458; 2018: 35), who rather speaks against the idea that the holes would be used to fasten the sheaths. Only the increased interest in axe sheaths shed more light on the problem in recent years, and the attachment of sheaths to axes by means of the perforations examined here was clearly demonstrated.

The most important find is a juniper sheath discovered in the Troitskiy excavation site in Novgorod, which is dated between 1030-1040 (Kainov – Singh 2016). Its length is 13.2 cm, width 3.9 cm, thickness 1.1 cm, and the slit for the edge is 10 cm long, 0.5 cm wide and 3.4 cm deep. In the central part, on both sides of the sheath, there are tongue-like protrusions in which holes with a diameter of 0.35 cm are located. The spacing and placement of the holes corresponds well with the perforations on axes with the cap-shaped butt to which the sheath was pinned. The sheath is decorated with three lines on one side. The cradle-like curvature ensures good copying of the edge. A fascinating detail is the fact that the twisted ends of the sheath rest on the edges of the blade on both sides, from which we can conclude that the protrusions on the beard and rarely also on the upper sides of the blades (Šmidt 1957: Tab. XIX.5) could in some cases serve as sheath stops (other times the protrusions are located too far from the blade, their function was probably different, e.g. better fixation on the wearer’s belt and decoration). This phenomenon is clearly visible on some T-shaped axes with beards on both sides (e.g. Yotov 2016: Fig. 10.11), even on axes from other parts of Europe that lack perforations (Colardelle – Verdel 1993: Fig. 149.1). Therefore, the presence of an opening at beard level seems a logical solution.

The sheath for Kirpichnikov type IV axe, found in Novgorod. Kainov – Singh 2016.

Another similarly constructed sheath comes from Sigtuna (F8800), where it was found during excavations in 1999 by Anders Wikström (Kitzler Åhfeldt 2011Söderberg 2017: 69). It is a 18.2 cm long and 3.7–4 cm wide object, which is broken apart at the slit level. Before destruction and disposal, the sheath was repaired with two iron plates and two rivets. The slit for storing the axe is approximately 13 cm long and 1-1.8 cm deep. Due to its incompleteness, it is difficult to comment on the width of the slit and the thickness of the entire sheath: the slit may have been about 1 cm wide, and the sheath reaches a thickness of 2-2 cm in the middle, while it tapers to about 1 cm towards the ends, and the frontal ridge is about 0,8 cm. In the central part there is a hole, probably for a leather thong. The case is decorated with a palmette ornament in Pr3 style according to Gräslund, which allows it to be dated to around 1050-80. The stratigraphy of the find dates the case to roughly 1055-1075. Based on the density of annual rings and black knots, Anders Söderberg believes that the material used was juniper (personal correspondence with Anders Söderberg). The hole is made at an angle and too close to the supposed blade, so we cannot say unequivocally whether it is a sheath for a perforated axe or it rather is a shath similar to the Haithabu find (HbH.432.013) which has a hole located directly in the slit for the edge and which was apparently attached in a different way (Westphal 2007: 172, Tab. 31).

The decorated wooden axe sheath from Sigtuna. Source: Kitzler Åhfeldt 2011: Fig. 18, 19.

Another axe sheath, this time made of sheet metal, appeared at the Violity auction in March-April 2018, together with an axe belonging to Kotowicz type IIB.5.20 or Kirpičnikov type IV. Kainov dates the axe more closely to the 1st half of 11th century (personal discussion with Sergei Kainov). The axe came from a detector find made in an unspecified place in Ukraine. According to the seller, the axe was found at a depth of 40 cm below the ground. It was constructed of one piece of sheet that was symmetrically bent around the blade. In the bent state, the protector takes the form of an anchor; it tapers toward the corners and forms an elongated protrusion in the center. The protrusion is extended to the center of the blade where the axe hole was located. There, the protector is shaped into a trefoil decoration with a central hole. The protector was easily pinned through holes to the axe body. The protector is currently in a private collection, and judging by the photos provided, it is broken into two fragments. Therefore, its credibility cannot be further verified. The axe was not included in the catalog presented below.

Photograph of a detector find from Ukraine and its graphic rendering.
Source: Sergej Kainov, Tomáš Cajthaml.

The system we described above was also found in one Kirpičnikov type IV axe discovered by a detector in the Ukrainian territory and can be dated to the 11th century (personal discussion with Sergej Kainov). The axe has a hole in the blade that is filled with a metal pin with an eyelet at the end. A chain consisting of two rings is then attached to the eyelet, the purpose of which, according to Sergej Kainov, is to facilitate the pulling out of the pin. The credibility of this find cannot be verified due to the way it was discovered, and therefore it was not included in the catalog. In the light of these newly published finds, it is also appropriate to mention older and poorly published finds. We are primarily talking about an “iron nail” that was supposed to be inserted into the axe hole from grave 208 from the Latvian site Pildas Nukši (CVVM 65445) (Atgāzis 1964: 121; 2019: 135, 145; Šnore – Zaids 1957: 93). Artūrs Tomsons has verified this axe for us, and according to him, the axe is without a hole and without any indication of a nail, thus suggesting that commentators have misjudged the axe before conservation. Medvěděv (1958: 288) and Aleškovskij (1960: 77) provide similar fragmentary data in their texts. The use of wooden pins and leather cords is also evident in other types of early medieval axe sheaths, as shown by finds from Haithabu (Westphal 2007: Tab. 30.1–6) and Schleswig (Hilberg 2022: 186, Fig. 107, 110; Saggau 2006: 264).

The pin preserved in a Kirpichnikov type IV axe. Found in Ukraine. The archive of Sergei Kainov.

T-shaped axes with multiple holes are another good argument to support the sheath theory. The holes in these axes are placed in symmetrical positions on the beards. In the case of the axes from grave 38 from Gyód-Máriahegy and the axe from grave 9 from Pécs – Köztemető, the holes are located on the extended protrustions of the beards (Kiss 1977: Pl. VII.38.6, LXXXVI.4–5). One can well imagine that this unconventional design could have served to fix the sheaths easier.

With the above, it is important to note that at least 280 perforated axes (79%) of our catalog are equipped with a beard. These two phenomena are so closely related and it is necessary to ask why this concurrence occurs and whether perforation does not bring some practical advantage when tying cases on bearded axes. In the case of axes with a symmetrical and very long edge, this could indeed have been the case, but since we stated earlier that perforations form a minority in the total volume of axes with a cap-shaped butts, other possibilities must also be considered. The most important one is probably the fact that perforations are found in a group of the most decorated axes, i.e. perforations are apparently significantly related to decoration (Kotowicz 2018: 35; Paulsen 1956: 34). In the case of overlaying with two metals, which is susceptible to any contact, the decoration is concentrated outside the area covered by the sheaths (see Makarov – Zaiceva – Krasnikova 2013), while the more stable decorations of stamped (LA 1974: Tab. 47.22) and inlaid nature (Kulakov 2016: Fig. 2) is also placed even in the area theoretically covered by the sheaths. It can be assumed that the sheaths aimed to keep the axe sharp and rust-free at the cost of minimal maintenance, prevent cuts to the wearer, protect the decoration from damage, and could be easily removed/mounted or pierced if needed. At the moment, together with the pieces discussed above, we know at least 25 organic sheaths and 3 metal sheaths for axes or similar objects from the 9th-12th century Europe (Vlasatý 2015; 2020b).

sheath suspension axes

Suggested variants of suspension of wooden sheaths.

Other practical functions

The second common theory justifies perforations as a way of hanging an axe at home or on the go. One of the main promoters of this explanation was Nadolski (1954: 38), who took the position that the holes could have been used for hanging on a nail in the wall or for tying the axe to the saddle, rather than for fixing it to the warrior’s belt. Kirpičnikov (1966: 29) considers the possibility that the holes were used for hanging on a saddle or a wall as possible. At the same time, he suggests that a pin could have been driven into the hole to prevent the weapon from penetrating deeply, which we must evaluate as the author’s imagination. Kočkarov (2008: 65) expresses himself in the same spirit. Izmajlov is a supporter of the idea that the holes were used to attach to the waist of the wearer (Izmajlov 1997: 77). Kotowicz mentions the theory, but does not elaborate on it (Kotowicz 2008: 457). The following theories have long been discussed among reenactors, which we rank from the most relevant to the least likely: perforation serves to reduce the area intended for grinding and polishing, perforation serves to reduce the weight of the product, perforation serves to fix it to the shaft in case of a fall (see also Mongajt 1955: 106), the perforation is used to catch the weapons of opponents.

There is one more interesting theory in the literature that interprets the holes as a way to transport multiple axes together in a bundle. The oldest information about this possibility can be found in the catalog of the Riga exhibition from 1896, where several axes from the site of Allatzkiwwi (today’s Alatskivi in Estonia) are mentioned, where the author suggests tying them with a strap through the holes (Katalog 1896: LXXI, 110). With the exception of Paulsen (1956: 34) and Atgāzis (1964: 121), no one paid attention to this possibility until Peets (2003: 268-9) suggested, independently of earlier authors, that circular perforations may refer to production or sale practice of tying axes by the dozen.

Peets’ proposal for fixing a bundle of axes. Source: Peets 2003: Fig. 117.


As mentioned above, single circular perforations are often incorporated into a more complex decoration that is stamped, inlaid or overlaid. This has led many authors to believe that even the openings themselves represent decoration. Paulsen (1956: 33-4) understood holes as decorations or production marks and their potential magical dimension was described by Darkevič (1961). The biggest current proponent of this theory is Kotowicz (2018: 35-6). We can agree with him that circular perforations larger than 0.6 cm and all non-circular openings may have been given a decorative quality.

As Kotowicz notes, some holes may have originally been filled with contrasting material and he gives at least three examples of this solution. One of them is an axe with a plain butt and beard from Nowogród, Poland, the blade of which is decorated in the center with a 0.6-0.7 cm wide hole lined with an inlay of contrasting metal (Kotowicz 2018: Fig. 7.4; Cat. no. 343). The second example comes from a mound from the Pidhirci locality in western Ukraine, where an axe with a hammer-like butt without a beard is equipped with a large hole lined with a copper alloy and additionally decorated with a inlay of the same material in the eye area (Liwoch 2005: Fig. 20; 2018: 40, Fig. 27.3, 55.5). The last specimen is a bearded axe with a cap-shaped butt, which was found in the site of Gorodišče and whose blade is inlaid with a non-ferrous contrasting material in the shape of an isosceles cross (Kirpičnikov 1966: Cat. no. 275; Spicyn 1905: Fig. 391). Our own search brought another discovery of beardless axe with a hammer-like butt, which has a small circular insert of a copper alloy in the blade – this find comes from the Daugmale hillfort (Atgāzis 2019: Tab. 14.5). When looking for axes that may have originally been inlaid with contrast material, the best candidates are therefore those pieces that have a non-circular hole or a hole larger than 0.6 cm in diameter, probably also axes with hammer-like butts, i.e. the find from Gulbišče, for example, see (Kainov 2012: 103). It is not clear at this point whether the smaller circular holes of bearded axes were also filled, but it is important to note that the miniatures of these axes leave the hole open, which also applies to perforated axes and flails made from antler and bone.

Axes with inlaid marks made of contrasting material.
Source: Kotowicz 2018: Fig. 7.4; Liwoch 2005: Fot. 20.

Non-circular holes provide additional clues. In the case of Petersen type M cross axes, we can expect that the main strategy was to cut the blade in such a way that a cross motif was created, which carried a clearly legible symbolism. If we examine smaller elongated perforations, we must understand them in the context of a wider package of perforated weapons, among which we can include spearheads (Husár 2014; von Hessen 1971; Will 2007) and arrows (e.g. Jotov 2004: Cat. no. 135, 278). The fact that we are dealing here with the same phenomenon applied to several types of high-end weapons is best evidenced by the spear from grave IX from the Gîmbaş site (Husár 2014: Tab. XLV.3) and the axes from grave 157 of the Nevolino cemetery (Goldina 2012: Tab. 73.2, 191.1) and from the Krasnodar Museum (Vlasatý 2020c), which share an identical method of perforation: an elongated hole accompanied by a circular hole. It is likely that in the period of 7th-11th century it was a fashion that was spread in the area from the Pannonian Basin through the Black Sea region to the Urals. In the case of spears and arrows, in the past the perforations were attributed to the possibility of binding organic material (e.g. flags, flammable material) (e.g. Holeščák 2015: 303), which was rejected, at least in the case of spears (Will 2007: 188-9). The most likely scenario seems to be that the perforations were not used in any practical way and expressed well-mastered craftsmanship, which together with the unusual appearance communicated the owner’s mobility and charisma. For axes with an elongated hole, this reading is also supported by finds of axes that do not have a completely perforated blade, but a deep triangular depression is found in the blade: these finds come from the territory of southeastern Ukraine and southern Russia, specifically from the sites Kočetok (Degtjar 1984: Fig. 2.2; Kryhanov 2012: Fig. 35.2; Vladimirov 2017: Fig. 14.3), Verchnij Saltiv (Kryhanov 2012: Fig. 34.4; Šramko 1962: Fig. 105.1), Sucha Homilša (Holubev 2017: Fig. 3.3) and the Krasnodar Krai.

Axes with a depression in the blade.
Source: Degtjar 1984: Fig. 2.2; Holubev 2017: Fig. 3.3; catalog Goskatalog.

Controversy about the functionality or decorativeness of perforations also surrounds Polish axes from the 14th century, which are always equipped with perforations in the shape of a trefoil with a protruding triangular tip (e.g. Głosek 1996: Tab. VII-VIII, XV, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, XXXIII; Marek 2008: Fig. 183-4). Głosek (1996: 68) is a supporter of the view that the holes were used for hanging, pulling nails and decoration, but Marek (2004: 51-2) contests his conclusions, saying that trefoil-shaped openwork decorations also appear on sword hilts from the 15th century and on the halberd blades from the end of the 16th century, and he connects the cross shape on the axes with Christian symbolism.


Perforated axes are an extensive phenomenon, recorded in Central, Northern and especially Eastern Europe in the period of 8th-12th century. In general, this does not seem to be a uniform tradition, and in fact there are two mainstreams and theoretically more secondary streams. The oldest examples of holes in the blades are associated with axes with hammer-like butts, in which perforations are used in two ways – either two holes are used on a wide T-shaped axe to fix the sheath, or on a narrow axe there is an elongated hole with an apparently decorative function. This tradition dates back to the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries and can be traced in a strip from today’s Hungary through the Black Sea to the Volga Basin. In 8th-9th century, the first separate circular perforations appear in axes with hammer-shaped butts, which persist in these types until the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries. From the second half of the 10th to the middle of the 12th century, axes with a cap-shaped butts and one circular hole in the center of the height of the blade took over the baton in the field of perforations. These tend to appear somewhat further north than the previous group (especially in Belarus, Poland, the Baltic republics, western Russia, northern and western Ukraine). The main function of the holes in this group was undoubtedly to fix the organic sheath, but we do not rule out that some larger holes could have been filled with contrast material.

The relationship between these groups is not entirely clear. In his work, Paulsen (1956: 33) suggested that the concept of a single circular perforation placed halfway up the height of the blade was introduced to the group of axes with a cap-shaped butt by axes with hammer-shaped butts. We cannot exclude this possibility for at least two reasons. Firstly, the fact that the two groups overlap significantly in space explains the absence of perforations in groups of similarly designed axes in other regions of Europe (e.g. Hübener 1980: Fig. 22-26). And secondly, the influence could also concern the mushroom butt, which we find in types that usually do not have it. At the same time, it is just as possible that this is a native tradition that expanded explosively with the massive use of broad bearded axes. The question of perforated axes is notable, among other things, for the reason that it holds up a mirror to all European regions from which we do not know any holes in blades. Why don’t any other types of axes in Western Europe or Norway use perforations? Does the fundamental difference lie in the fact that western and northern Europe used bearded axes for war purposes much less frequently or not at all? We cannot answer these questions at the moment and future research should focus on them.

Catalog of axes with one circular perforation

Distribution of axes with one circular perforation.

1.1. – axes with a simple butt, without a beard (light green).
1.2 – axes with a simple butt, with a beard (orange).
2.1 – axes with a cap-shaped butt, without a beard (yellow).
2.2 – axes with a cap-shaped butt, with a beard (blue).
3.1 – axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt, without a beard (grey).
3.2 – axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt, with a beard (red).
4.1 – axes with a mushroom-shaped butt, without a beard (dark green).
4.2 – axes with a mushroom-shaped butt, with a beard (purple).



Belarusian expert Mikalai Plavinski, who deals with the militaria, told us that there is no good revision of Belarusian material. According to his opinion, there are 30-40 perforated axes from the region of Belarus.


Czech Republic

  • grave 786, Mikulčice (Kouřil 2006: Fig. 4.6).
  • unknown location, stored in the Army Museum in Prague, where it was received from a currently unknown source in 1925 (photo). The information was kindly shared by archaeologist Petr Čech.



Lehtosalo-Hilander (1982: 53) lists other possible Finnish pieces that remain unpublished.




The number of perforated axes in Latvia is surprisingly high. Unfortunately, there is no proper revision. It can be expected that the real number is significantly higher.


Medieval weapon expert Paulius Bugys states that perforated axes are not numerous on the territory of Lithuania, he knows of a maximum of five finds. The absence in quality catalogs confirms these words (Griciuvienė 2005; 2007; 2009).



Thanks to Kotowicz’s work (2014; 2018), Polish axe material is currently the best processed in all of Europe.


Romanian axes are not well reviewed and the only pieces known to us come from the historical region of Moldavia, published by Spinei (1985: 182) and Gáll (2021).


The largest number of perforated axes undoubtedly comes from the territory of today’s Russian Federation. More than 60 years ago, they were revised by Kirpičnikov (1966), whose list we modified and supplemented with new pieces. However, the real number of axes found may be many times higher.

Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast)




The list of Swedish axes can be considered complete thanks to good museum catalogs and publications.


The last revision for the territory of Ukraine was carried out by Kirpičnikov (1966) and there is no doubt that the real number of axes must be many times higher.

Catalog of axes with non-circular perforation or multiple circular holes

Distribution of axes with non-circular perforation or multiple circular holes.

1.1. – axes with a simple butt, without a beard (light green).
1.2 – axes with a simple butt, with a beard (orange).
3.1 – axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt, without a beard (grey).
3.2 – axes with a tapered hammer-shaped butt, with a beard (red).
4.1 – axes with a mushroom-shaped butt, without a beard (dark green).
4.2 – axes with a mushroom-shaped butt, with a beard (purple).


Czech Republic








The article would not have been possible without the help of colleagues and researchers who assisted in the collection of artifacts and published literature, namely Vyacheslav Baranov (Archaeological Institute of NANU, Kyiv), Paulius Bugys (University of Klaipėda), Michal Holeščák (SAV Nitra), Kristián Jócsik (University of Nitra), Sergej Kainov (State Historical Museum, Moscow), Piotr Kotowicz (Historical Museum, Sanok), Marika Mägi (Tallinn University), Mikalai Plavinski (University of Warsaw), Jurij Puhovolok (Archaeological Institute of NANU, Kyiv), Gustav Solberg (University of Copenhagen), Frigyes Szücsi (Museum of King St. Stephen, Székesfehérvár), Alexandra Ščedrina (Lomonosov University, Moksva), Artūrs Tomsons ( and Sergej Vladimirov (Divnogorje Museum). Thank you all very much for your help!

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