Never a dull moment: the lives of Early Bronze Age axes

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One of the Greenwell axes used in this study, found in Northumberland and with evidence of resharpening over wear. (IMAGE: the Trustees of the British Museum)

The Reverend William Greenwell (1820-1918) was a British antiquarian who, throughout a long career of excavating prehistoric barrows, accumulated a large collection of artefacts. This included almost 570 copper-alloy axes from across Europe. Unfortunately, due to practices (or the lack of them) at the time, many of these objects – now curated at the British Museum – have no known provenance or any other contextual information. This had meant that, for the most part, they remained in museum storage, deemed useless for research.

A new study, however, has once again brought the axes in this collection to light, by macro- and microscopically analysing them for wear patterns and other signs of use.

Dr Rachel Crellin, from the University of Leicester, examined 38 Early Bronze Age flat axes from the Greenwell Collection, all from Britain or Ireland. While still a developing field of archaeological science, metalwork wear-analysis has been shown to be effective in assessing the life-histories, so to speak, of objects such as axes, swords, or other tools/weapons.

Using this technique, Rachel was able to identify production characteristics, such as casting defects and hammering (which can be used as a decoration technique, but is predominately used to increase the hardness of the metal), as well as use-marks, which on the blade constituted wear-striations, notching, bluntness, and breaks, and on the butt, signs of rounding or flattening.

Based on this analysis, Rachel found that some of the axes were heavily used, remaining blunted before deposition, while others appear to have been re-sharpened just prior to burial. Interestingly, the axes she examined from hoards were quite varied in their use patterns: some were seriously worn, others unused, and a few showed signs of intentional damage. Based on this mix, in the paper highlighting these finds, Rachel argues that ‘the variety of use-levels and surface damages exhibited by the collection indicates that conventions regarding the selection of axes for deposition may have been complex and geographically varied.’

This article appeared in CA 340.

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