Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hand Axe & Early Saxon Warfare

Hand axes have been with us for millennia, through the Stone and Bronze Ages, since man first crafted a tool. The precursor to the modern steel axe, flinted objects were used in everyday life for killing prey on the hunt, stripping meat from a carcass and for carving bone into tools or amulets. Revered for their functionality and the reliance early man had on them, they became worthy of decoration. A postgraduate study at the University of Southampton revealed the existence of two distinct Neanderthal cultures in Europe, based on the designs of their axe heads. The Neanderthals inhabited a western and eastern region, now France and Germany. The western Neanderthal culture made symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped hand axes. During the same period, the eastern Neanderthal culture created asymmetrical bifacial blades. Furthermore, groups from both tribes living near their borders in modern day Belgium, crafted axes using a combination of both the western and eastern designs. Dr Karen Ruebens, of the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO), believes this suggests “distinct ways of making a hand axe (that) were passed on from generation to generation”. To my mind, this also shows an interest in defining weapons and territory through art, and that they were open to accepting influences from neighbouring civilisations.

In addition to being a practical tool, object of decoration and symbol of cultural identity, evidence also exists for the axe as a ceremonial object. Take for instance the late Bronze Age socketed axe from north-west continental Europe, which was found almost ‘as-new’, preserved in peat at the fen site of Shinewater near Eastbourne in East Sussex. Or the bronze and silver Bactrian ceremonial hand axe from Pakistan, dated from 2000BC now residing at the British Museum. The beautiful blade of this latter piece is formed by a boar’s back and further down a tiger is clutching a goat. This axe was intended to be admired or used in ritual, its great beauty proving the worth of the ceremony to any receiving deities.
'Bactrian Ceremonial axe head' courtesy of the British Museum
 And thus, we come to the more lethal role of the hand axe: its use in combat. Here, I am focussing on its use in early Saxon warfare, though its use is by no means exclusive to this culture or period. However, it is relevant to the era of my novel and the main focus of my research when I was writing 'Wulfsuna'.

Also known as the ‘francisca’, the hand axe is a small throwing axe about the length of the forearm. The ‘haft’ or handle is often made of hickory or ash woods and the blade, of steel. An inexpensive weapon to make, its availability to all ranks of men meant there was no status related to its possession, unlike a sword or seax. From commoner to king, a hand axe was a useful instrument, though often the materials used could set them apart. We have only to look at grave goods in royal burials at locations such as Sutton Hoo, to see how materials used in production could define status of object owners. To gain further understanding of how this weapon was embraced across social divides, we merely look at the names given to its pertinent parts:-

Head, Cheek, Eye, Throat, Shoulder, Beard, Belly, Heel, Toe…

The fact the hand axe is given human body parts, thereby bestowing upon it familiar features and likening it to a living being, for me proves the high regard in which it was held by those who owned it. In battle it became a living, breathing extension of the warrior who wielded it.

During the sub-Roman period, Germanic warfare occurred at close-range. Once spears and angons (javelins) had been thrown from behind the shield wall and an arrow shower released, the walls of both sides advanced. From the first clash of shields, fighting was at close-quarters and your opponents’ heads the main target. Relatively lightweight in comparison to other weapons, the hand axe could be used with one hand, allowing the bearer to also hold a shield for defence. They were easy to wield effectively in tight spaces, where a sword would be too long a weapon to draw, requiring elbow-room to free it from the scabbard. Held at the ‘shoulder’ (the top of the handle just beneath the blade) the ‘bit’ or blade of the axe became a hefty knuckle-duster, capable of punching faceplates on helmets and slicing flesh at close-range. Held at the ‘belly’ (half-way down the handle) it could strike a nasty dent or break through an iron helmet, allowing the bearer to hook the ‘beard’ or ‘heel’ of the blade (the lower section that curves downwards) onto opposing items. Hooking was extensively used on the tops of enemy shields, to bring down the opponent’s guard for a following strike to the head/face or upper body and also to hook around protruding ornamentation on the tops of helmets, so as to yank down the enemy’s head, breaking their neck (if drawn backwards) or revealing a vulnerable neck (if drawn forwards).

Using the axe beard to hook an opponent's shield.
Once in open combat, as the shield walls of both sides were broken and the fight became one-on-one, the axe could be held at the ‘throat’ (bottom of the handle) and used in wide swings, connecting either blade or ‘butt’ (the flat head at the back of the blade) for devastating results. The end of the handle, known as the ‘knob’ was effective when used in a stabbing motion to break a windpipe, much like the pommel was implemented on the end of a sword hilt (from where we get the word ‘pummelled’, or rather ‘pommelled’). It was also used to batter the back of your shield at the start of a battle, creating an unearthly din as your tribe yelled their war-cries in readiness for war. Finally, the hand axe was a ferocious weapon when thrown at speed.

From this research I was able to ascertain several things. Dark Ages warfare was violent, close-quarters combat where the head was the main target and took the brunt of attacks. Battle was exhausting and death could be swift or a long, laboured nightmare of repeated head blows, deep cuts or dismemberment. Beyond the arrows and angons, the axe was the preferred and wholly versatile weapon meaning a warrior could retain a sheathed sword for some time: as swords were expensive to make and objects of high value, this was just as well.

If you would like to see how I furthered my hand axe research and became a warrior for a day (and had some fun into the bargain), you can read my other blog 'Saxon Combat'. How far have you taken research to obtain the details you needed for your writing?

To see a Saxon warrior in action, view my book trailer for 'Wulfsuna' here.

Thank you for visiting!

SOURCES: posted August 19, 2013 (contributing source: University of Southampton)
‘Woden’s Warriors – Warriors and Warfare in 6th-7th Century Northern Europe’ by Paul Mortimer News, No.10, December 1995

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