The following text is a presentation of the collection of analyzed axe shafts, which we have been working on continuously since 2016. We have included in the catalog only axes with the specified material and originating from archaeological finds from the period from 100 BC to 1600 AD from the territory of Europe. In total, we managed to collect 329 finds, which we divide into the periods 100 BC – 500 AD, 500 AD – 1200 AD, and 1200 AD – 1600 AD. The list does not include adzes, the handles of which are also analyzed in some cases (Szabó et al. 1985: 34-5).
Although some researchers have previously addressed this topic (e.g. Kotowicz 2018: 139-142; Luňák 2018: 60-65; Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013: 290-1; Stoumann 2009: 317), our work differs from them in its geographical and chronological scope. At the end of our work, we will compare the findings with the results of other researchers and outline similarities and differences. Despite our best efforts, we assume that the collected material represents only a small sample of the total amount of axe shafts that have been discovered and have not yet been systematically examined. Therefore, we will be grateful for any information or finds that we may have missed.
One of the analyzed axes from Mikulčice. Source: Poláček et al. 2000: Abb. 27.2.
Roman Period and Late Antiquity
From the period 100 BC to 500 AD, we collected at least 106 shafts from the territory of today’s Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovakia. The numbers are significantly affected by the large bog hoards from Denmark and northern Germany. The most numerous seem to be maloideae (32 ex.), ash (25 ex.), oak (7 ex.), hazel (7 ex.), beech (3 ex.), holly (1 ex.) and maple (1 ex.). At least thirty shafts from Thorsberg were made of beech or ash, but today they are no longer identifiable. Conifers are not listed.
Early Middle Ages
We have collected at least 211 specimens from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom from the period 500 to 1200 AD. The following tree species are represented: hornbeam (63 ex.), maple (47 ex.), oak (22 ex.), ash (22 ex.), alder (7 ex.), maloideae (6 ex.), holly (5 ex.), prunus (5 ex.), beech (4 ex.), elm (4 ex.), birch (3 ex.), hazel (3 ex.), poplar (2 ex.), spruce (1 ex.), willow (1 ex.) and boxwood (1 ex.). In ten cases, the wood of an unknown deciduous tree was used, in one case, an unknown conifer. As the list shows, conifers belong to the minority materials and are represented by two finds. The high numbers of this period are due to the extensive collections from Lednica in Poland and Mikulčice in Moravia, which together number over a hundred analyzed axe shafts.
Finds of uncertain materials or provenance were not included in the list. This refers to the two complete shafts found in Oseberg, which are made “of soft wood” (Brøgger – Schetelig 1928: 162). A pine shaft was supposed to be found in one of the Great Moravian graves from Moravia (Opravil 2000: 175), but the grave is not specified and a double check of the list of graves suggests that this may be a mistake. Early medieval dogwood and maple shafts were reportedly found in the North Caucasus, but specific graves or localities were never given (Kaminskij 1991: 110; Kaminsky 1996: 99). The axe from the Latvian site Dārzkopības (A 10824:2), whose handle was made of an unspecified ring-porous material, is also missing in the list (Creutz 2003: 517). We did not even include the miniature axe from Bašnice, whose shaft was most probably made of hawthorn (Rokoská 2022: 66).
High and Late Middle Ages
From the period 1200 to 1600 AD, we collected only 12 analyzed axes from Europe. The lower number is due both to our primary focus on the earlier period of the Middle Ages, and to the non-grave deposition of axes and the absence of large hoard in water. The collected material comes from the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. The most represented material is ash (5 ex.), while oak, hornbeam, elm and alder are represented by only one piece each. We also find one spruce shaft and one oak/ash/elm shaft.
In total, it was possible to collect several hundred analyzed shafts from a total of fifteen European countries. These numbers indicate that there is a huge number of shafts analyzed. It is very likely that the finds collected by us represent a mere selection and that there is no pan-European systematization in this field.
The range of materials shows that there was no single material that was exclusively used. In contrast, manufacturers seem to have preferred certain woods that met the mechanical properties and were locally available. Of course, the composition of the vegetation varied in different parts of Europe. If we look at the ten most popular tree species in order, they are hornbeam, ash, maple, maloideae, oak, hazel, alder, beech, holly and elm. All these tree species appear in at least two of the monitored periods, but it is important to mention that the high frequency of hornbeam is due to the extraordinary presence in Lednica Lake, and the relatively high numbers of maloideae can be attributed to the presence in rich Danish bog hoards. The most versatile woods appearing in all three periods across many countries seem to be oak, ash and maple. In any case, the most used materials are the wood of deciduous trees.
It is no less interesting to observe the marginally represented tree species that appear randomly: birch, prunus, spruce, poplar, willow, boxwood. These woods appear at most in units of pieces and lack long-term continuity. We can understand the mentioned materials as an improvisation and a products of necessity, made in places where more suitable woods were not available. A good example is the use of birch in Iceland, where essentially no other tree species grew (Zori et al. 2013: 160). From the lists, we can notice that conifers are almost completely absent – apart from two spruce shafts, we can mention that even the handle of Ötzi’s axe was made of yew (Egg – Spindler 2009: 120).
One of the most extensive works to date dealing with the topic of shaft materials is the book “Topory średniewieczne z Ostrowa Lednickiego i Giecza” (Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013), which processes a huge collection of 82 analyzed shafts from Lednica Lake. The work is of the opinion that special attention was paid to the mechanical properties of wood when choosing the material of the shaft. The wood had to be easy to work with, resistant to bending and not have inhomogeneous structures or defects, which is why hard woods such as oak, ash, elm and hornbeam were preferred instead of soft woods such as linden or poplar. The research also showed regional differences in the choice of material, with certain types of wood being preferred in specific areas – hornbeam was dominantly used in Poland, for example. Based on our comparison, the opinion that oak as a shaft material began to be used only in the later Middle Ages can be considered inaccurate. The idea that maple or elm shafts can be considered imports in Poland also raises doubts.
Three of the analyzed axes from Lednica Lake. Source: Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2013: Tabl. XC.
Kotowicz (2018: 139-142) in his work “Early Medieval Axes from Territory of Poland” agrees with the aforementioned in the sense that hard types of wood (oak, ash, elm, hornbeam) were preferred, but at the same time softer types (maple, linden, alder and poplar) were not completely neglected. He considers the wood of deciduous trees to be the dominant material, especially diffuse-porous types (hornbeam, maple, hazel, alder, poplar) and ring-porous types (oak, ash, elm). Kotowicz brings up the idea that the choice of type of wood for the shaft may have depended on the type of axe and its weight, thus also its function, while for war axes it may have been desirable for the shaft to be made of very strong materials that were not easy to damage.
Haneca and Deforce (2020) collected 33 analyzed shafts and claim hard wood species with high density were preferred, usually ash, hornbeam, apple and holly, but there are finds of maple, hazel, prunus and oak. The authors believe that some materials (prunus, holly) were deliberately chosen for visual qualities (colours).
An interesting extension of the discussion is Rosenberg’s work (2018: 55), which compares archaeological finds with the reality of the recent history. Respondents from the ranks of carpenters whom Rosenberg contacted recommended maple for the production of woodcutting axes. The Czech technical standard ČSN 22 5101 (“Axes. Technical regulations”) offers three alternatives: beech, oak and ash. Weingartl (1940: 93) recommends making solid shafts from ash, acacia, hornbeam and hazel; the same author states that a beech shaft burns in the hand while working and an oaken shaft is heavy. Černý (1923: 80) recommends elm. Finally, other ethnographic materials prefer an alder shaft, which does not chafe the hand during long work (Łaszkiewicz – Michalak 2007: 114). It is clear from this comparison that there is significant overlap between the dominant materials of European shafts in the ancient past and those used in recent centuries. The only new material that began to be used for the shaft production on the European continent in the modern era is acacia.
This work would never have been created without the excellent work of colleagues Kristof Haneca, Piotr Kotowicz and Petr Luňák, who together collected more than a hundred analyzed pieces and stimulated our interest in the study. We owe them a huge thank for that. We also thank reenactors Andreas Hansen, Martin Hanus and Richard Rosenberg for their help in collecting material.
We hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact us or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support our work, please, fund our project on Patreon, Buymeacoffee or Paypal.
Belcredi, Ludvík (2022). Hrad Skály. Svědek let 1380-1440 vydal své tajemství. Archeologický výzkum hradu Skály 1994-2014, Brno.
Brøgger, A. W. – Schetelig, Haakon (1928). Osebergfunnet II, Oslo.
Budinský-Krička, Vojtech (1959). Slovanské mohyly v Skalici, Bratislava.
Creutz, Kristina (2003). Tension and tradition. A study of late Iron Age spearheads around the Baltic Sea, Stockholm: Stockholms universitet.
Černý, Josef (1923). Těžení lesa. Příručka pro lesní hajné, jakož i všechny ty, kdož zajímají se o lesy, Brno.
Dierendonck, R. M. et al. (1993). The Valkenburg Excavations 1985-1988: Introduction and Detail Studies, Amersfoort.
Egg, Markus – Spindler, Konrad (2009). Kleidung und Ausrüstung der Kupferzeitlichen Gletschermumie aus den Ötztaler Alpen, Mainz.
Engelhardt, Conrad (1863). Thorsbjerg Mosefund. Thorsberg Mose ved Sønder-Brarup i Angel, Kjöbenhavn.
Gjerpe, L. E. (2005). Gravene: en kort gjennomgang. In: Gjerpe, Lars Erik (ed.). Gravfeltet på Gulli. E18-prosjektet Vestfold. Bind I. Varia 60, 24-104.
Haneca, Kristof – Deforce, Koen (2020). Wood use in early medieval weapon production. In: Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 12:9.
Heindel, Ingo (1992). Äxte des 8. bis 14. Jahrhunderts im westslawischen Siedlungsgebiet zwischen Elbe/ Saale und Oder/ Neisse. In: Zeitschrift für Archäologie 26, 17-56.
Hochmanová-Vávrová, Věra (1962). Velkomoravské pohřebiště ve Starém Městě „Na valách“. Výzkum v letech 1957–1959. In: ČMMZ, vědy společenské XLVII, 201–270.
Holst, M. H. et al. (2018). Direct evidence of a large Northern European Roman period martial event and postbattle corpse manipulation. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115(23), 5920–5925.
Holst, Sandie – Nielsen, P. O. (2020). Excavating Nydam. Archaeology, Palaeoecology and Preservation. The National Museum’s Research Project 1989-99, Copenhagen.
Kaminskij 1991 = Каминский, В. Н. (1991). Вооружение племен аланской культуры Северного Кавказа I–XIII вв., Владикавказ.
Kaminsky, V. N. (1996). Early medieval weapons in the north Caucasus – A preliminary review. In: Oxford Journal of Archaeology 15, 95-105.
Kotowicz, P. N. (2018). Early Medieval Axes from Territory of Poland, Kraków.
Kouřil, Pavel (2004). Raně středověký bojovnický hrob z Hradce nad Moravicí. In: Slovenská archeológia LII, 55–74.
Kouřil, Pavel – Tymonová, Markéta (2013). Slovanský kostrový mohylník ve Stěbořicích, Brno.
Lau, Nina et al. (2022). Poprad-Matejovce. Ein Kammergrab des 4. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. im Zipser Land. Band 1, Fundkatalog, Tafeln und Pläne, Nitra – Schleswig.
Luňák, Petr (2018). Velkomoravské sekery, Brno: Masarykova univerzita.
Łaszkiewicz, Tadeusz – Michalak, Arkadiusz (2007). Broń i oporządzenie jeździeckie z badań i nadzorów archeologicznych na terenie Międzyrzecza. In: Acta Militaria Mediaevalia III, 99-176.
Makarov – Krasnikova 2022 = Макаров, Н. А. – Красникова, А. М. (2022). Суздальская знать погребения с оружием и всадническим // Российская археология, No 4, 110–120.
Nicolaysen, Nicolay (1882). Langskibet fra Gokstad ved Sandefjord = The Viking-ship discovered at Gokstad in Norway, Kristiania.
Niemi, A. R. (2022). Gravfunn på Hov gård. Sikringsundersøkelse av grav fra merovingertid på Gimsøya, Vågan kommune, Tromsø.
Opravil, Emanuel (2000). Holz aus frühmittelalterlichen Gräberfeldern in Mähren. In: In: Poláček, Lumír (ed.). Studien zum Burgwall von Mikulčice IV, Brno, 171-176.
Paterson, Caroline et al. (2014). Shadows in the sand : excavation of a Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria, Lancaster.
Pauli Jensen, Xenia – Nørbach, L. Ch. (2009). Illerup Ådal 13. Die Bögen, Pfeile und Äxte, Aarhus.
Poláček, Lumír et al. (2000). Holzfunde aus Mikulčice. In: Poláček, Lumír (ed.). Studien zum Burgwall von Mikulčice IV, Brno, 177–302.
Preidel, Helmut (1938). Das Begräbnis eines wikingischen Kriegers in Saaz, Böhmen. In: Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 68, 88-98.
Roesdahl, Else (1978). Otte vikingetidsgrave i Sdr. Onsild. In: Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie1976, København, 22-51.
Rokoská, Petra (2022). An early medieval decorated bearded battle axe head from Bašnice. In: Acta Militaria Mediaevalia XVIII, 65–73.
Rosenberg, Richard (2018). Vztah mezi vlastnostmi dřeva a porážením vybraných druhů dřevin sekyrou, Praha : Česká zemědělská univerzita v Praze.
Rosenberg, Richard (2021). Středověká sekyra s topůrkem z Kolovratského paláce v Praze. Příspěvek k funkční interpretaci jednoho nástroje. In: Staletá Praha 37/2, 140-154.
Rundkvist, Martin (2003). Barshalder 1. A cemetery in Grötlingbo and Fide parishes, Gotland, Sweden, c. AD 1-1100, Stockholm.
Sankiewicz, Paweł – Wyrwa, A. M. (2013). Topory średniowieczne z Ostrowa Lednickiego i Giecza, Lednica.
Stoumann, Ingrid (2009). Ryttergraven fra Grimstrup : og andre vikingetidsgrave ved Esbjerg, Ribe.
Szabó, Mátyás et al. (1985). Die Holzfunde aus der frühgeschichtlichen Wurt Elisenhof. In: Elisenhof 5, Die Ergebnisse der Ausgrabung der frühgeschichthchen Marschensiedlung beim Elisenhof in Eiderstedt 1957/58 und 1961/64, Frankfurt am Main – Bern – New York, 1-218.
Szücsi, Frigyes (2014). Avar kori balták, bárdok, szeekerecék és fokosok. Baltafélék a 6-8. századi Kárpát-medencében. In: Alba Regia 42, 113-186.
Tomková, Kateřina (2012). Levý Hradec v zrcadle archeologických výzkumů, Pohřebiště Díl I, Praha.
Toporov – Toporova 2007 = Торопов, С. Е. – Торопова, Е. В. (2007). Боевой топор XIV века с Пятницкого раскопа в Старой Руссе // Археология и история Пскова и Псковской земли. Семинар имени академика В. В. Седова, Псков, 235-245.
Weingartl, Václav (1940). Příručka k práci dřevorubce, Praha.
Vike, Vegard (2016). «Det er ikke gull alt som glimrer» – bredøkser med messingbeslått skaft fra sen vikingtid. In: VIKING – Norsk arkeologisk årbok LXXIX, Oslo, 95–116.
Vince, A. G. (1991). Aspects of Saxo-Norman London: 2, Finds and Environmental Evidence, London.
Zori, Davide et al. (2013). Feasting in Viking Age Iceland: sustaining a chiefly political economy in a marginal environment. In: Antiquity 87, 150-165.