Almost five years ago, we published the article “Organic axe sheaths of 9th-12th century” at this website, which mapped poorly described phenomenon of axe protections. The article has gained great popularity among reenactors around the world. The conclusion of the article was that we were able to find 24 axe sheaths made of alder, birch, pine, beech, oak, juniper, spindle, spruce, yew and willow wood and elk antler in the 9th-12th century. Wood and antler sheaths are often decorated and have different fastening methods that we have tried to digitally reconstruct.
Suggested variants of wooden sheaths. Bigger resolution here.
Metal axe sheaths of Roman age. Source: roman.military.history.
In light of new knowledge, it is my joyful duty to expand this list with three more unique specimens from Great Moravia and Ukraine. All of them are made of iron sheet that is bent around the blade and fastened. Let’s describe these objects in more detail.
- Grave 1689 in Mikulčice, identification number 646/85
The axe found in grave 1689 in Mikulčice, belonging to Kotowicz’s type IB.5.30 (Kotowicz 2018: 107-9), is provided with a metal protector of the blade (Luňák 2018: 104-107, 269, HFE 7/2a). The sheath is made of a piece of iron sheet with a thickness of about 1.5 mm. The sheet was originally triangular or trapezoidal in shape and was sharply bent over the cutting edge. On the left side, where it extends approximately 14 mm beyond the cutting edge and is roughly paralel to the cutting edge, it has been cut regularly and is only slightly corroded; it retains its original shape. On the right side, where the protector protrudes 28 mm beyond the cutting edge, it has an arcuate shape and is damaged. The original documentation shows that the right side protector protruded further into the blade, apparently in a pointed projection, where it was provided with two holes, one of which is still present to this day. These holes are most likely to be related to fixation and have analogies in the wooden sheaths from Sigtuna (Kitzler Åhfeldt 2011: 56) and Novgorod (Kainov – Singh 2016). A small flap extends from the top of the right side of the protector and forms a small cap that covers the gap between the two sides and prevents the movement. The cap is not present on the under side, which is the feature that can also be seen at Sigtuna antler sheath.
- Grave 15/57, Staré Město “Na Valách”
The axe found in grave 15/57 in Staré Město “Na Valách”, belonging to Kotowicz’s type IB.5.30 (Kotowicz 2018: 107-9), had a sharply bent metal plate over the blade, which is depicted in only one published picture (Hochmanová-Vávrová 1962: 204, Tab. XI; Luňák 2018: 105, 201). The protector is currently lost. Looking at the drawing, it appears that the protector could have a similar construction to the find from Mikulčice. In comparison with the current state, it is evident that the right side of the protector reached a level of about 2 cm from the blade and was relatively straight. The appearance of the left side and the method of attachment are unknown.
- Detector find, Ukraine
After publishing of this article, Russian expert Sergei Kainov informed us that he was aware of yet another metal protector of the Early Medieval axe and he provided us with all the available information. In March-April 2018, an axe belonging to Kotowicz type IIB.5.20 (Kotowicz 2018: 98-100) appeared at the Violity auction. It can be dated to 10th-12th century, or 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. The blade was covered with two fragments of a remarkable sheet metal protector. 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. This system is also well known from Novgorod (Kainov – Singh 2016). Currently, the protector is in a private collection.
Schematic drawing of the metal protector from Ukraine.
Made by Tomáš Cajthaml.
- Grave 109 in Hajdúszoboszló-Árkoshalom, Hungary
A possible candidate that requires personal verification is the find from grave 109 from the Old Hungarian site of Hajdúszoboszló-Árkoshalom (Nepper 2002a: 74; Nepper 2002b: Tab. 47.1). It is a metal object with a length of 8.5 cm, interpreted as a tool or weapon. Overall, it resembles a razor case, but with a more robust design. There is a notch on one of the sides where a blade could potentially have been inserted. The possible sheath was found at a distance of about 10 cm from the skull. In the same grave, the head of a small hatchet was found near the right thigh, which had originally been laid along the right leg; in other words, the hatchet and sheath were not found right next to each other and the sheath would have to be detached. Finally, the axe blade appears to be too wide and short to fit well into the sheath notch, and the only publication thus suggests the two objects are unrelated. We thank János Mesteller for letting us know about the find.
In Europe of 10th–12th century, we have at least 27 axe sheaths made of wood, antler and metal. During a personal discussion with scholar and veteran reenactor Petr Luňák, who processed the assemblage of Great Moravian axes, he showed me a series of photographs and literary references that suggested the use of wooden, leather and metal sheaths in Staré Město and Mikulčice. Unfortunately, these protectors are now destroyed and cannot be analyzed. It is also worth mentioning that the Great Moravian axes could be protected with strips of fabric (Kotowicz 2018: 151). In light of these finds, the problem of axe protectors seems to be far more complicated than it had seemed so far, and the lack of interest for this type of objects in 19th and 20th century played a major role.
The above-described type of metal sheath, specifically the find from Mikulčice, was copied by my friend and veteran reenactor Roman Král. His version uses only one hole located on the projection to fix the strap and the cap is not formed by folding the top edge of the right side, but is soldered. Roman’s intention was to make the upper part more solid so the protector fits tightly. Despite this change that pursues a practical purpose, it is a very tasteful work that illustrates how metal sheaths could look like in the Early Middle Ages.
Hochmanová-Vávrová, Věra (1962). Velkomoravské pohřebiště ve Starém Městě „Na valách“. Výzkum v letech 1957–1959. In: ČMMZ, vědy společenské XLVII, 201–270.
Kotowicz, Piotr N. (2018). Early Medieval Axes from Territory of Poland, Kraków.
Luňák, Petr (2018). Velkomoravské sekery, Brno: Masarykova univerzita [dissertation thesis].
Kainov – Singh 2016 = Каинов С.Ю., Сингх В.К. (2016). Деревянный чехол топора с Троицкого раскопа // Новгород и Новгородская земля. Вып. 30, 196–203.
Kitzler Åhfeldt, Laila (2011). Några träfynd i Sigtuna under runstenstid. In: Situne Dei, 49–60.