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Materials of medieval axe shafts

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 PatreonBuymeacoffee or Paypal.


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One Response

  1. Where did maple come from for medieval axes? There literally can be but one source, Vinland . The fact that Maple was used for axe handles plus the description in Eiriks saga Rauða about Þorfin Karlsefni selling a timber chest made of Vinland timber, to a merchant from Bremen. The merchant wanted to know the name of the timber. The saga tells us that Þorfinnur didn’t know it, but it was “Mössur” wrote the scribe two and a half centuries after the fact. This tells us that the scribe knew Vineland Timbers and had a name for them and so did his audience because else it would be nonsense to mention it. Velum (the material that the sagas were written on) was exceptionally expensive and scribes chose their words carefully to convey as much information as possible with minimum verbiage. Today we don’t know which timber Mössur referred to, but we know that Hickory and Maple were trees that grew in New England and Brunswick but were not found in Europe at this time.

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