The axe in the water

Few artefacts are as universally appealing as a pristine polished stone axe. A Neolithic extravagance, their neat forms litter the sacred spaces of the final phase of the Stone Age in Europe.

But, 5000 years after its deposition, we pick up the story of one recent discovery not in the splendid setting of a monumental tomb, but in a damp field on the edge of a village on the edge of suburban sprawl, the hum of the M5 ever-present.

It was discovered in a routine exercise, a few trenches to test some ambiguous geophysical survey results: in archaeological jargon, an ‘evaluation’. Come rain or shine, on any given day dozens of these trenches will be dug across the country, to inform planning decisions, building designs or road layouts.

On a cold October afternoon, the excavator bucket skimmed another slice of topsoil from the stubble field, and the watching archaeologist scuffed at a smooth surface exposed in the loose earth. Curiosity turned to delight as the dirt slipped easily from the edge of a flint axe.

Neolithic polished flint axe

Neolithic polished flint axe

Flint is a mercurial material. Indomitably durable and sharper than a razor, this toughest of materials forms within the softest of rocks: the chalk beds that are the remnant of ancient tropical seas. It cleaves along neat and predictable planes, but the hard crests and ridges that render flint so desirable for toolmaking make it the very devil to grind and polish.

But ground and polished this axe was, and the investment in time would have been considerable: knappers tell me that experimental replicas can take up to 150 hours of graft. The grooves in stone polissoirs found in or around Neolithic settlements are testament to that labour – sandstone, sarsen, quartzite or even granite, worn smooth and grooved from years of cumulative effort.

All for the production of axes that in many cases never bit, never chopped, and were seemingly never even hafted. Our axe is made from a honey-coloured flint, the polish highlighting the flaws and mottled colouration like a fine marble tabletop. It probably originated around 100 miles to the south of its resting place, but other examples of the era travelled the length and breadth of the continent.

Which brings us back to the damp field by the M5. Sometimes axes seem to have been deliberately broken prior to deposition. Ours is complete, and it is extraordinary that in the passing years it has avoided the blows of the plough, a common cause of damage. But there is little to suggest the presence of other Neolithic activity. The field yields scattered traces of Iron Age and Roman settlement, heavily scoured by medieval ridge-and-furrow agriculture, but nothing contemporary with the axe remains.

So how did our axe end up here? The clue is in the heavy, sticky soil and the adjacent pools and brook. This is likely to have been a watery, marginal place in the Neolithic. From Scandinavia to Ireland, the Netherlands to western Britain, extraordinary and beautiful axes were thrown into bogs, rivers and lakes.

Why? With their mists and mysteries, bodies of water are otherworldly places, even today. Besides the vital role and life-giving qualities of water, we think these places had significance as gateways to a world beneath our realm, and points of contact between the two. 5000 years ago, Neolithic Europeans shared not only trade networks, but aspects of spiritual belief.

And perhaps, in some ways, those beliefs aren’t so very far removed from our own. Ever thrown a coin into a wishing well or fountain?