5.4.3.2.2 Axeheads

The datasheet of stone axeheads found in Highland Region (Datasheet 5.1; Map 5.1) that was compiled by Susan Kruse, with additions and clarifications from Alison Sheridan and Steven Birch, contains records of 204 stone and flint axeheads, or parts thereof, (plus a further example whose findspot information is ambiguous). While there are bound to be further examples lurking in private hands (and possibly in museum collections additional to those listed, and in excavation assemblages that have not yet been fully published), and while much work needs to be undertaken on the systematic petrological identification and sourcing of the rock types and on the further documentation of the axeheads, it makes a good foundation for a study of this artefact type.

Map 5.1: Distribution of Neolithic axeheads found in the Highland region (updated interactive map coming soon!)

The overall distribution pattern (Map 5.1 broadly corresponds to the distribution of chambered cairns (except on Skye, where axeheads are more broadly distributed than the funerary monuments; Map 5.5). While it is suspected that most will turn out to have been made using locally available stone (a selection of which is shown in Fig. 5.44 and listed in Datasheet 5.1), certain axeheads stand out as being made of non-local stone, namely:

  • those of Alpine jadeitite;
  • those of tuff from around the Langdale Pikes in Cumbria (allocated the title ‘Group VI rock’ by the Implement Petrology Committee: see Clough and Cummings 1988 for details);
  • those of porcellanite from Tievebulliagh and/or Brockley on Rathlin Island, County Antrim (Group IX);
  • those of calc-silicate hornfels from Creag na Caillich above Killin, Perth and Kinross (Gp XXIV);
  • two of riebeckite-felsite, from Shetland (Gp XXII);
  • some, if not most, of those made of flint.
Figure 5.44: Selection of axeheads, suspected to be of locally-available stone types: 1. From the William Maclean collection, National Museums Scotland: X.AF 708 from Back, Lewis; X.AF 713 from Anderson’s Croft, Balvaird, Muir of Ord; X.AF 714 probably from Easter Ross; 2. Possibly of sandstone, and possibly from between Inveran and Kernsary, in Gairloch Museum (OBJ1040). Also shown is 3. Axehead of diorite, possibly found in the Gairloch area, in Gairloch Museum (OBJ196), with a ‘hafting shadow’ – band of lighter colour – running across the body where the haft would have been. Diorite occurs in Highland Region but is rare. (1) ©Trustees of NMS; (2) and (3) ©Gairloch Museum

Six axeheads of Alpine jadeitite or other Alpine stone – one is of either jadeitite or eclogite – have been found in Highland Region (Figs 5.45, 5.46): at Daviot (MHG2888), on the bank of the Spean River near Fort William (MHG4288), at Inverness Railway Stores (MHG3831), in the Dunrobin area (MHG61792), at Berriedale (MHG61416) and at an unknown location, probably somewhere in Caithness (MHG51891). The last two are relatively small (64 and 94 mm long respectively), while the others are – or were, when complete – well over 135 mm long; the example from the Dunrobin area is 231 mm long. A seventh, small, axehead of Alpine jadeitite may well come from the Region as well Fig. 5.45.7); it comes from the Maclean Collection, but has no findspot information.

These axeheads have been studied, and the material sourced, by Projet JADE, a French-led international project examining the use of Alpine stone across Europe (and beyond) during the Neolithic (Sheridan and Pailler 2012; Pétrequin et al 2017b). (Note that one from Daviot, formerly in the Ashmolean Museum, was not available for study as it went missing between 1963 and 1977; the project relied on its initial description and analysis by W. Campbell Smith [Campbell Smith 1963]). The source areas of the stone have been located in the Monte Viso massif in the north Italian Alps(although in the case of the two small axeheads, the Monte Beigua massif is an alternative possible source).

These will have been very special axeheads, not destined for everyday use in chopping down trees or woodworking, and their arrival is not due to exchange activities with Continental Europe. Rather, as argued elsewhere (eg Sheridan and Pailler 2012), they will have been brought over by immigrant farmers from northern France as treasured community heirlooms; some will have been centuries old by the time they reached Scotland, around or shortly before c. 3800 BC. In common with Continental practices, their deposition can be seen as a way of returning these sacred and numinous objects to the world of the gods. The example found on the bank of the River Spean, for example (Fig. 5.45.2), accords with a widespread pattern of Alpine axehead deposition in or near water, while the deliberate breakage of the examples from Daviot and Inverness Railway Stores (Fig. 5.45.3) – and the deliberate burning of the latter – may have been a way of ritually ‘killing’ these axeheads. (Whether the damage to the blade of the River Spean example was also deliberate is uncertain.)

Figure 5.45: Axeheads of Alpine jadeitite found in Highland Region: 1. Daviot, Inverness-shire; 2. Bank of the River Spean near Fort William, Inverness-shire; 3. Inverness Railway Stores; 4. Dunrobin area, Sutherland; 5. Berriedale, Caithness; 6. Caithness (of jadeitite or eclogite). 7. Axehead with no findspot information from the Maclean collection, possibly found in Highland Region (judging from Maclean’s collecting pattern) ©Project JADE

 

Figure 5.46: Distribution of axeheads of jadeitite and other Alpine rock in Scotland. Key to Highland Region examples: 1. Caithness; 2. Berriedale; 3. Dunrobin area; 4. Inverness Railway Stores; 5. Daviot; 36. River Spean near Fort William. ©Alison Sheridan

The presence of axeheads of Langdale tuff in this part of Scotland is part of a broader pattern of extensive movement of these axeheads from Cumbria, which we know was taking place as early as c. 3800 BC (Edmonds 2012; Edinborough et al 2019; Figs 5.47, 5.48). They will have travelled along networks of contacts that the early farming communities established soon after their arrival. Many thousands of axeheads were produced on and around the Langdale Pikes, and many have distinctive faceted sides. Both utilitarian and special axeheads of Group VI stone were manufactured, and examples of the latter – so-called ‘Cumbrian clubs’ (Fig. 5.47.2) – were found at Blar na Ceann, Strathpeffer, Easter Ross (MHG7898) and at Castle Stuart, Inverness-shire (MHG3016)

The decision to exploit rock (preferably greenish rock) from mountains may well have been inspired by the legends surrounding Alpine axeheads that probably existed – ie the idea that these were ‘green treasures from the magic mountains far away’. It may have been believed that mountains were associated with the world of the gods, and that stone taken from mountains possessed divine power. Whether or not that was the case, axeheads of high quality Langdale tuff were much sought after, and indeed flakes from such axeheads were sometimes reused, as is the case of a worked flake from Golspie, Littleferry (MHG11651). Most of the Scottish Group VI axeheads have been found in southern Scotland; the eight definite and five possible examples from Highland Region listed in Datasheet 5.1 constitute scattered northern outliers, mostly located on or near the coast. One was found outside High Pasture Cave, as residual material in an Iron Age context (Steven Birch pers comm).

Figure 5.47: Examples of axeheads of Langdale tuff found in Highland Region, all with faceted sides: 1. ‘Ordinary’ size, Onich, Kilmallie; 2. ‘Cumbrian clubs’: left: Blar na Ceann, Strathpeffer; right: Castle Stuart. Note: all are discoloured; they will originally have been a greenish-grey colour. ©Alison Sheridan/NMS
Figure 5.48: Distribution of axeheads of Langdale tuff (Group VI rock), as of 1988; note that further examples have been found since then, including in Ireland. From Clough and Cummins 1988; ©Timothy Clough and Bill Cummins

Like the Langdale tuff axeheads, the eleven axeheads of visually distinctive, speckled or veined Antrim porcellanite have also mostly been found on or near the coast (Figs. 5.49, 5.50). They are part of a broader scatter of Group IX axehead finds in Scotland that attests to links with the north of Ireland (Sheridan 1986). (One of the other Scottish finds is the famous axehead found in its well-preserved haft at Shulishader on Lewis: Sheridan 1992). The examples found on the west coast and on Skye and Eigg form part of a pattern of evidence for north-south seaborne travel to and from Ireland during the Neolithic, while the ones found in the eastern part of Highland Region may have travelled up the Great Glen over a network of contacts linking the far northeast of Scotland with south-west Scotland and Ireland. Tievebulliagh, one of the Co. Antrim porcellanite sources, is a mountain and its exploitation is consistent with the practice of targeting mountainous sources of rock for making axeheads. As for the date of the Highland examples, in theory they could be as early as c. 3700 BC or as late as c. 3100/3000 BC.

Figure 5.49: Axehead of Antrim porcellanite found at Mulbuie, Easter Ross. From Maclean Collection. ©Trustees of NMS
Figure 5.50: Distribution of Antrim porcellanite axeheads, from Sheridan 1986. Note: since its publication, the total of finds in Ireland has risen to over 20,000, with finds distributed over most of the island (Cooney and Mandal 1998). ©Alison Sheridan

There are only five possible examples in Highland Region of axe- or adze-heads originating from Scotland’s mountain source, Creag na Caillich above Killin in Perth and Kinross (Edmonds et al 1992); all require validation through petrological examination, so the identifications can only be regarded as tentative. One axehead was found at Shennach, Strathspey (MHG6798); another at Cantraywood, Inverness-shire (MHG14559); and at Tarradale, Easter Ross, one adze-head and two flakes, probably from two different axeheads, were found (Ballin forthcoming, Cat 1626, 1634–5). The calc-silicate hornfels rock that was exploited on Creag na Caillich is a greenish colour, usually with lighter bands; it is sometimes confused with Langdale tuff as the colour range overlaps, but the latter lacks the banding. Many fewer axeheads were produced at Creag na Caillich than at Langdale and at the porcellanite sources, and the distribution map of these Group XXIV axeheads is thin (Fig. 5.51). Excavations of the extraction site by Mark Edmonds for NMS in 1989 (Edmonds et al 1992) concluded that exploitation probably began during the late fourth millennium BC and was sporadic and small-scale in nature.

Figure 5.51: Distribution of confirmed and strongly suspected examples of Group XXIV (Creag na Caillich calc-silicate hornfels) axeheads; the tentative examples from Highland Region are not marked. From Edmonds et al 1992; ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Alison Sheridan

The two axeheads of Shetland riebeckite-felsite (NMS X.AF 40 and 41: Fig. 5.52) that were reportedly found in a cairn between Lochs Drumashie and Duntelchaig, Dores Parish, Strathnairn around or before 1865 (MHG3615), are particularly interesting as finds of axeheads made from this distinctive rock are extremely rare outside Shetland. Roy Ritchie’s discussion of Group XXII artefacts (1992) mentions one thin-sectioned Gp XXII axehead found at Nisbet Farm, East Lothian (NMS X.AF 1031, illustrated in Markham nd a and b) and around ten further axeheads, mostly found in Moray and Aberdeenshire but including one from Oban and one from Dumfriesshire, that may be of this rock. Of these, two – one from Aberdeenshire and one from Barndenoch, Dumfriesshire – have been thin-sectioned and confirmed to be of this rock.

(Note that Roy Ritchie’s claim for the presence of riebeckite-felsite Shetland knives at Lanarkshire and Shewalton Moor, North Ayrshire [1992, 216] is incorrect: the ‘Lanarkshire’ one was found to be labelled ‘Lerwick’ and it is highly likely that the other was actually found in Shetland. Also note that Ritchie wrongly describes NMS AX.AF 40 and 41 as having the characteristic expanded blade seen on many Gp XXII axeheads in Shetland – even though their actual shapes fall within the range seen in Gp XXII axeheads – and he wrongly implies that the thin-sectioned Druim an Shi [near Culloden Moor] axehead is of Gp XXII; it is in fact of Gp IX porcellanite.)

Figure 5.52: Axeheads of Shetland riebeckite-felsite, reportedly from cairn between Lochs Drumashie and Duntelchaig, Dores Parish, Strathnairn. From Markham nd. a; ©Mik Markham/IPG/NMS

This evidence for the presence of Shetland axeheads in Highland Region is highly significant; it is clear that the rock cannot have reached this area through natural glacial transportation (Andy Moffatt pers comm). Thanks to a recent project led by Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin) and Will Megarry (Queen’s University Belfast) – the North Roe Felsite Project – we now know that this rock type was exploited for making axeheads (and Shetland knives) in Shetland from possibly as early as c. 3500 BC (Cooney et al 2019, 61). Neolithic society in remote Shetland was markedly insular, as noted by the principal author elsewhere (Sheridan 2014b), and virtually all the 500+ known axeheads made of Shetland riebeckite-felsite have been found in Shetland, and so any evidence for contact with elsewhere during this period is noteworthy.

As with all old finds, however, a note of caution should be expressed regarding the reliability of the provenance information. Discovery of axeheads in a cairn is a very unusual occurrence and we need to find out more about the artefact collecting activities of the rich English businessman, Fountaine Walker of Foyers, who presented the axeheads (and an associated ‘hammer-stone or pounder), to check whether he genuinely acquired these objects from the stated findspot, or whether he collected items from far and wide, beyond Highland, and possibly even from Shetland. Nevertheless, the possibility that these axeheads are indeed a genuine Highland Region discovery, attesting to contact with distant Shetland (however achieved – directly or indirectly) is exciting.

Flint axeheads are rare in Scotland, with fewer than 150 known, but Highland region has been the findspot of five examples of a distinctive type known as All-Over-Polished flint axeheads, with faceted sides (Figs. 5.53.1–2, 5.54), and a further two were found together not far from the eastern border of the Region at Smerrick, Banffshire (Fig. 5.53.3). (See Sheridan 1992 and Saville 1999a for a discussion of this type of axehead.) These are all finely made, mostly using strikingly coloured variegated flint, and most examples have been polished to a glassy sheen. The five Highland examples have been found at Brora (MHG10210), Dunrobin (MHG10861), Altnagar (MHG14153) and Invershin (MHG12885) in Sutherland and at Craggie, Nairn (MHG14362). Of these, the Altnagar example (Fig. 5.53.2) is relatively small and lacks the glassy sheen. (Note that in Sheridan 1992 the findspot of this axehead was incorrectly given as ‘Oykel Bridge’.)

Their overall distribution in Scotland (and elsewhere down the eastern side of Britain) is strikingly coastal (Fig. 5.54), and clearly the flint is not local to Highland Region. There has been much discussion of the possible source of the flint. The axeheads’ superficial similarity to Danish thin-butted flint axeheads dating to the early fourth millennium has led some to suggest that they are imports from Denmark. However, no exact match is known from Scandinavia: the Danish examples have broader facets and generally lack the glassy polish of the British examples. The same kind of distinctive flint runs under the North Sea and can be found on the east coast of England around Lincolnshire, so it is possible that they were made in England. These are clearly special and highly valued axeheads, not intended for everyday utilitarian use (although the Craggie example has some ancient chipping to the blade suggestive of use or damage), and the glassy polish resembles that found on jadeitite axeheads. The place of manufacture remains a mystery (although Scotland can be ruled out), and none has been found in a datable context, but clearly these symbols of power were being acquired through long-distance maritime contacts.

Figure 5.53: All-Over-Polished flint axeheads: 1. From Craggie, Nairn; 2. From Altnagar, Sutherland; 3.Hoard from Smerrick, Banff, for comparison. (1) From Clarke et al. 1985; all ©Trustees of NMS
Figure 5.54: Distribution of All-Over-Polished flint axeheads in Scotland. ©Alison Sheridan

Four other flint axeheads have been found in Highland Region – from near Beauly (MHG3335; Fig. 5.55.1); Moy Hall Estate (MHG2843; Fig. 5.55.2); the Inverness area (MHG29581; Fig. 5.55.3); and Tulloch Hill, Easter Ross (MHG61227; Fig. 5.55.4) – are all smaller and their surfaces have been left mostly flaked, with just the blade area ground; they vary in the quality of the flint and the regularity of their shape. The ‘Inverness area’ one was found in a consignment of topsoil delivered to Holm Mills, and is unlikely to have been moved very far; the Tulloch Hill axehead is from the William Maclean collection, and while it was stated in an ARCH exhibition about that collection in 2010 that it may be a Danish axehead acquired from a dealer, its cross-section shape is not that of a Danish axehead, and there is no reason to doubt that it was found on Tulloch Hill.

Flint does not occur in any significant amounts in Highland Scotland, and arguably not in cobbles or nodules large enough to be used to make axeheads (although a systematic characterisation of the drift flint deposits in Highland Region has not been made), so it is likely that these are all imports from elsewhere. Blade-ground flint axeheads with thin, broad butts, similar to the example from Tulloch Hill, are known from Yorkshire (Manby 1979, fig. 2.3) and it is quite possible that the Tulloch Hill axehead is an import from there. (Blade-ground flint axeheads are also known from Northern Ireland and from the hoard of Antrim flint artefacts, including axeheads, found at Auchenhoan near Campbeltown, Argyll and Bute [Fig. 5.56; Saville 1999b], but these tend to have narrower butts than the Yorkshire axeheads.) Further research would be necessary to determine whether the source of the flint axeheads can be determined; closer examination of the range of forms made in Yorkshire would be necessary, as would a systematic survey of sources of erratic flint in Highland Region, to double-check whether any cobble or nodule sufficiently large to make any of the Highland flint axeheads could have existed in the Region.

Figure 5.55: Other flint axeheads found in Highland Region: 1. Near Beauly; 2. Moy Hall Estate; 3. The Inverness area; 4. Tulloch Hill. (1), (2) and (4) ©Trustees of NMS; (3) ©INVMG
Figure 5.56: The axeheads of Antrim flint from the Auchenhoan (Campbeltown) hoard, Argyll and Bute, including one with a ground blade; note the narrower butts than on the Yorkshire flint axeheads discussed here. ©Trustees of NMS

Finally, at Tarradale, Easter Ross, a flake and a double scraper, both from polished flint axeheads, were found (Ballin forthcoming, Cat 1100 and 794). It is not possible to tell whether the parent axeheads had been All Over Polished examples.

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