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Transportation of axes in the early medieval Europe


The method of transporting axes remains a mystery that attracts many people interested in the Early Middle Ages. It is surprising that this remarkable topic has received only minimal attention in the academic community, which gives us a good opportunity to explore the fine details that have so far been neglected. Existing work in the field often focuses only on the general typological aspects of axes, their decoration and historical context, but fails to provide a thorough insight into methods of transport.

This article is a summary of information that we have carefully collected and evaluated over the past years. For the most complete picture, it is necessary to examine other parts of the Middle Ages that have a more detailed source base. It is important to emphasize that our work will not solve the problem unequivocally and forever. The subject needs to be approached with an open mind, as each new find may have the potential to overwrite all previous knowledge. Therefore, we appreciate your feedback and notice of any other findings that have been overlooked. We hope that our work will serve as an inspiration for further research and discussion.

Research to date

Petr Luňák (2018: 100-104) probably paid the greatest attention to the transport of axes, who focused on the accompanying theoretical and practical questions when describing the Great Moravian corpus of axes. Luňák expresses uncertainty about how often and intensively axes were carried at all. He states that axes with longer handles were probably carried in the hand, a method the author says is suitable for short distances or in close combat, but not sustainable over the long term. One possibility that Luňák sees as a solution is to use an axe as a stick. Luňák believes that carrying behind the belt or hanging from a belt hanger is more suitable for an axe with a shorter shaft and offers the possibility of a quick draw at the cost of reduced mobility.

Kotowicz (2008: 458; 2018: 152-3) devotes surprisingly less space to the transport of axes and focuses almost exclusively on the discussion of circular perforations, which older authors identified as hangers, used to hang axes on the wall, on the wearer’s belt or on the saddle (Izmajlov 1997: 77; Kirpičnikov 1966: 29; Kočkarov 2008: 65; Nadolski 1954: 38). The thorough revision we made in the article Catalog of 8th-12th century perforated axes, however, prefers to interpret the holes as ways of fixing cases, decorative elements and, theoretically, also a method of binding and transporting multiple manufactured axes at once (see Peets 2003: 268-9). Kotowicz further states that the axe could have been carried behind a belt or in a leather axe frog (Kotowicz 2018: 152-3).

Other important monographs devoted to early medieval weaponry do not provide additional information (např. Falk 1914; Kirpičnikov 1966; Kolias 1988).

Own observation

Luňák repeatedly emphasizes that certain methods of transporting axes can cause injury or damage to clothing. These concerns are not to be taken lightly, as illustrated by the Íslendinga saga (ch. 144), which mentions an injury caused by an unsheathed axe. However, in order to minimize damage to the blade and prevent injuries associated with transport and storage, both organic (see Organic axe sheaths of 9th-12th century) and metal sheaths (Metal Axe Sheaths) were commonly used. The sheaths do not give the appearance of too strong products, and their design allows the owner, for example, in the event of a sudden attack, to pierce the sheath and not bother with removing it.

Another significant problem associated with carrying axes is the abrasion of the decoration. Some axes solve the problem by making the decoration one-sided (e.g. Profantová et al. 2010: Taf. 18), other axes could perhaps have been carried at such an angle or height that damage was reduced. At the same time, it is possible that the owners of the decorated axes had such enormous resources that they did not perceive the damage of the decoration as a significant loss.

One can agree with Luňák’s idea, which questions the frequent transport of axes. The transport of axes can be expected during military campaigns, which, however, did not take place all the time. Of course, in certain communities and professions the carrying of axes was more common, but it is quite possible that we as researchers are making the mistake of imagining early medieval people as users of tools that they carried with them all the time, even over long distances.

We can assume two main methods of transporting axes, which also apply to other weapons. They are:

  • a temporary stand-by solution that allows immediate draw. This method is suitable for short movements, battles and for situations where the axe is repeatedly used, for example in carpentry.

  • a longer-term solution that allows the axe to be fixed against falling and loss when moving over longer distances. This method assumes that the axe cannot be drawn immediately.

Temporary solutions

Carrying in hand

Axes carried in the hands can be seen both in iconography and in written sources. We can agree with Luňák that from these sources it seems that carrying in the hands is almost exclusively associated with axes longer than 80 cm.

One of the main positions is carrying on the shoulders. Typical axes carried in this way are battle axes of the Petersen types L-M. We can see them on the shoulders of a man on a runestone from Dynna, Norway (personal discussion with Vegard Vike) and a stone from Hunnestad (Ewing 2006: Fig. 73), as well as we read about them in various written sources of Old Norse (Falk 1914: 119), English (Hermann the Archdeacon 21; Florence of Worcester; William of Malmesbury II, § 188) and Byzantine provenance (Kolias 1988: 165-6). In iconographic sources, battle axes appear to be carried with their blade usually pointing forward, in the direction of walking. An exception may be, for example, a figurine from the Klahammar site (Svensson Hennius 2016). Similar scenes are depicted in medieval iconography up to the 15th century (see Rimer 2000: Fig. 10.17).

Early medieval iconography depicting the carrying of axes on the shoulders.
From left: stone from Dynna (personal discussion with Vegard Vike), figurine from Klahammar (Svensson Hennius 2016) and stone from Hunnestad (Ewing 2006: Fig. 73).

The iconography agrees with the opinion that some very long axes could have been used as sticks, i.e. by leaning on the ground, similar to shepherd’s axes (see Polonec 1963: 12). This refers to Petersen’s type M long axes, which appear in pictorial sources as well-recognizable symbols of warrior, noble status or geographical origin. Namely, it concerns two sources – the Bayeux Tapestry (tituli 25) and a Byzantine casket from Cologne (Wamers 2018).

Bayeux Tapestry, tituli 25. The axe indicates the Anglo-Saxon messanger and thus helps the observer in identifying the individual figures.

“Varangian warrior” on a Byzantine casket from Cologne.
Source: Wamers 2018: Abb. 1.

Tucked into the belt

A simple tucking behind a belt seems to have been used in the early middle ages. The method can be supported by several direct and less direct evidence. The most illustrative examples come from iconography. One is a scene from a Coptic manuscript New York, Morgan, MS M.613, f. 1ar, which was created after 867. This scene depicts a rider on horseback, wearing a belt with an axe or hammer-like object on the right side, which is slightly bent forward (Al-Sarraf 2002: Fig. XII-79). The head of the weapon is placed above the level of the belt. The second and probably the best iconographic source is the manuscript London, BL, Harley 2802, f. 190, dated to the 1170s. The axe is depicted in the initial T, which depicts a carpenter holding a tree trunk. A broad T-shaped carpenter’s axe on a relatively short handle is located behind the belt on the wearer’s right side, and its long blade is protected by a rectangular sheath. The belt does not seem to be tight, on the contrary, it is quite loose. The axe is not tilted, it is placed along the body and its head touches the belt. The axe blade does not rest against the torso and the blade instead points away from the wielder. A similar tucking behind the belt can also be indicated in pictorial sources of the 15th century (Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.1, f. 32).

Left: New York, Morgan, MS M.613, f. 1ar. Right: London, BL, Harley 2802, f. 190.

The indisputable physical evidence of the axe being tucked behind the belt, at least in a grave context, is the find from the Gotland site of Grötlingbo (SHM 21540:26) (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 310). The belt is well-preserved due to the presence of copper alloy lamellas and overlaps the fragmentarily preserved axe handle. The axe head does not directly touch the belt. The position of the axe behind the belt is unusual in graves; axes are usually placed along the legs. Therefore, the placement may not be random and may copy the normal way of wearing.

Axe from a grave from Grötlingbo. Source: Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 310.

The following variant is at the level of a working hypothesis, which needs to be confirmed or refuted in the future. A number of bearded axes close to Kirpičnikov’s type IV are equipped with a spur-like projection, which is located on the beards and which is directed towards the shaft (e.g. Atgāzis 2019: 119). This protrusion undoubtedly has a certain decorative role, but it can also fulfill a practical function. As the hole in the axe head is slightly angled so that the blade points slightly downwards, the spur-like projection and the shaft create an ideal closed corridor in which the belt can be fitted.

An example of an axe with a projection on the beard and tucked behind the belt.
Source: Plavinski 2013: 30. Photo by Skyler Desnoyers.

Axes that have decorations on only one (right) face can also be a good indicator. Unfortunately, there is no revision at the moment. One-sided decoration is recorded on the axe from grave 22/05 in Klecany (Profantová et al. 2015: 26), but this find is an exception and the decoration is normally found on both faces of axes. Another find of one-sided decoration is an axe from an unknown location, stored in the Jelgava History and Art Museum of Gedert Elias, inventory no. JVMM II 175.

From the iconography as well as the modest finds, it is evident that the axes could be worn behind the belt with the head touching the belt or being above it. If the tool is not to move freely and especially if the head is not to touch the belt, it is important that the belt is tightened very tightly.

Carrying in a hanger on the belt

Hangers, i.e. the extension of belts with a certain accessory holding the axe in place, were largely unknown in the academic literature until now. In the study of axe hangers, we are undoubtedly dealing with a miscellaneous group of variants, some of which were organic in nature and left no traces.

It is relatively typical for the early medieval period that the maximum number of objects is attached to the belt with the help of strings when the belt is fixed, i.e. that the belt is not put on together with objects that would have fixed, horizontally oriented loops that would have to be slid onto the belt (for good examples see Groenman-van Waateringe 1984: Taf. 20.6; Jerusalimskaja 2012: 257). Therefore, belt mounts similar to the drinking horn hangers popular in present days do not correspond very well to the early medieval idea of a hanger. If we apply this logic to axes, we can introduce two simple methods of a temporary nature. The first of them applies a leather sheath that covers the entire head of the axe and which is equipped with a leather strap, thanks to which it is possible to tie the sheath together with the axe to the belt. A variant is known from the high medieval Elbląg (Rybarczyk – Strzyż 2014). It is not impossible that a variation operating with a belt attachment could have been used in the early middle ages (see e.g. Groenman-van Waateringe 1984: Taf. 19.8-9).

The high medieval case from Elbląg, Poland.
Source: Rybarczyk – Strzyż 2014: Figs. 1, 3.

A recent fascinating find from Novgorod, dated to the end of the 13th or beginning of the 14th century, would also indicate this (Bogomolov 2023: 190). A hanger made of a strip of leather about 7 cm long and about 5 cm wide, the ends of which were stitched with a leather strap, was still attached to the fully preserved decorated shaft. The hanger was equipped with a leather cord, which could be used to tie the hanger with the axe to the belt. The axe could be easily removed from the hanger.

Remnant of the leather hanger from Novgorod. Source: Bogomolov 2023: 192.

A similar variant is the ingeniously simple use of a rectangular leather band with a longitudinal hole inside, which is simply wrapped around the belt and the shaft of an axe is inserted into the resulting hole (see video no. 1, video no. 2). This interpretation was made by researcher Gavin Archer on the basis of bands from York and London, which Mould (et al. 2003: 3401) interprets as “fastening and suspension bands”. A visually similar variant is depicted in the Christ before Pilate scene from a polyptych located in a parish church in Książnice Wielkie, Poland, created in 1491 (Kotowicz 2008: 458).

Application of a leather strap to hang the axe. Production: Roman Král.

Christ before Pilate, Książnice Wielkie church, year 1491.
Source: Kotowicz 2008: Obr. 4.5.

We can imagine the hanger as an inseparable part of the belt too. A remarkable functional hanger method was proposed by Salmin (2016: 468) based on a find from chamber grave 5 from Pskov, Russia. A copper alloy ring with a diameter of 41 × 36 mm and a wire thickness of 4 mm is corroded to the left face of the axe. The placement is rated as non-random due to the deep indentation. The author suggests that the ring connected two belts, with a small strap sewn to the back of the belt, which was passed through the ring on the outside of the belt, where it formed a loop for hanging the axe. We must rightly ask whether the rings could also fulfill these functions in the case of other grave finds.

Find from chamber grave 5 from Pskov. Source: Salmin 2016: 467.

Academic and lay researchers sometimes consider metal rings into which a shafts can be inserted to be only true axe hangers. Evidence of such a solution from the early middle ages, as far as we know at the moment, is lacking. However, we cannot fail to mention the realistic stained glass scene of the Resurrection of Christ, located in the cathedral in Ulm, which is dated to 1480 (Scholz 1994). Here, the kneeling figure is girded with a belt, which is equipped with a metal eye, into which a larger metal ring is suspended. A long axe without a sheath is then inserted into the ring.

Resurrection of Christ, Ulm Cathedral, 1480.
Source: Andrea Gössel, Corpus Vitrearum,

Carrying behind a shield

A not very well-known method of axe transport is a solution where the axe is placed behind the shield and is fixed with straps or is held together with the shield handle. The only visualization of this method is offered by the Bayeux tapestry (tituli 51), which depicts a warrior wearing a helmet, a mail, a sword at his waist, a spear in his right hand and a kite shield in his left hand. There is a Petersen type M long axe, peeking out from behind the shield at the left shoulder with the rest of the axe hidden behind the shield. It can be assumed that the shaft is fixed here with the help of straps or is held by the wearer. A not unlike scene is mentioned in the Fóstbrœðra saga (chap. 12), in which Þorgeirr wields a spear in his right hand and a shield with an axe in his left.

Bayeux Tapetry (left) and approximate reconstruction of the straps and a possible view behind the shield. Created by Diego Flores Cartes.

A more long-term solution

Transport in a chest

Another option for storage is offered by means of transport – ships and wagons. We can assume that the weapons were safely secured so that the crew of the vehicle was not injured and the weapon was not damaged. The humid environment was not good for the weapons and they needed to be kept as insulated as possible and well impregnated. It can also be expected that they were stored within the reach of the owner of the means of transport. Written, iconographic and archaeological sources seem to confirm these assumptions. While the shorter sword-sized weapons were apparently stored in chests (Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, Heimskringla version 252; Halldórsson 2001: 149), the longer spear-sized weapons were stored in a different way because of their length. Old Norse depictions of ships show spears clustered in several pieces sticking out of the stern at the captain (an example would be the Gotland image stone of Smiss Stenkyrka I), and an analogy is provided by spears found on a Byzantine ship from Serçe Limani that were on deck rather than below deck, with four of the spears found were bound with coarse cloth to protect the points (Schwarzer 2004: 372). When moving on land, wagons could be used to transport weapons, as shown for example in the Bayuex tapestry (tituli 37). Storage in chests is supported by the find of a complete chest from Mästermyr, which contains two axes (Arwidsson – Berg 1999).


Axes stored in a chest. Manufacturer: Misch Meurin.

Moving weapons on the wagon. Bayeux Tapestry.

Attachment to the saddle

As can be seen from the above Coptic manuscript New York, Morgan, MS M.613, f. 1ar, the axe may have been placed on the belt and ready for use while riding a horse, which would correspond well with battle axes deposited in elite equestrian graves (e.g. Koperski 2003; Nevizánsky – Košta 2012). However, we cannot rule out the possibility that the axe could have been rigidly fixed to the saddle, similar to bags (Grettis saga 16) and other pieces of equipment. This possibility was also proposed by some authors (see Kirpičnikov 1966: 29; Nadolski 1954: 38). However, as far as we know, written references and iconographic documents from the early middle ages are missing.

An axe attached to a saddle. Author: Jan Kudělka.


For the help in creating the article, we are extremely grateful to everyone who willingly helped with advice and creation of illustrative visualizations (pictures and videos), especially the following reenactors: Pavel Alekseychik, Diego Flores Cartes, Skyler Desnoyers, Roman Král, Daniel Kocur, Jan Kudělka, Tim Lee and Greg Owen. Thank you very much!

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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