Case Study: Neolithic Axeheads found in the Highlands

Susan Kruse

Until the Highland Regional ScARF was undertaken, there was no corpus of Neolithic axeheads from the Highlands, although community projects by Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH) had collated evidence that Neolithic axeheads had been found over much of the Highlands. Over 100 axeheads are known (Map 5.1; Datasheet 5.1), most stray finds, with examples in every part of the Highlands. Over the years it is not uncommon for new finds, or indeed historic finds, to emerge.

Some of the axes can be shown to have come from long distances, with Highland examples from Langdale, Cumbria; Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland; Killin, Perthshire; and the Alps. Jadeite axeheads from the Alps are known from throughout the Highland region, and scientific analysis now potentially allows them to be linked to specific outcrops. Alison Sheridan attributes these to be personal possessions of the first Neolithic settlers (ScARF Neolithic panel 5.2.2). The Highlands also have some fine flint axeheads, including finds from Dunrobin (MHG10861) and Brora (MHG10210), Sutherland, Moy, Inverness-shire (MHG2843) and near Nairn (MHG14362). Most flint axeheads from Scotland tend to be from imported flint, although identifying sources is often difficult (ScARF Neolithic panel 5.2.2).

Teardrop shaped stone axe.
Jadeitite axehead from Berriedale, Caithness (INV 1977.049.002). ©Michael Sharpe
Two long stone axes next to each other on display in a museum.
Polished flint axeheads from Brora and Dunrobin. ©Michael Sharpe
A collection of stone axes of various sizes and materials.
Selection of axeheads collected by Dr William MacLean in Easter Ross, now in the NMS. The Mulbuie axehead is from Co. Antrim, Ireland. ©Susan Kruse

Altogether the widespread finds of axeheads show that all areas of the Highlands were connected and able to obtain them through trading networks, or were able to make their own from local or imported materials. While many of the axeheads were undoubtedly used as practical tools, others, including highly polished examples or very small examples, are generally considered to have been items of status and ritual. Further wear analysis and geological identifications would provide insights into use and origin.