The Early Iron Age socketed axes in Britain

Boughton, Dot orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-5206-2348 (2015) The Early Iron Age socketed axes in Britain. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis examines metalwork deposition, distribution and association in the British Early Iron Age (800-600BC) through the medium of the socketed axe. Out of 1412 known Early Iron Age axes, 954 specimens were analysed in detail for this thesis: 680 associated finds and 274 single finds. The methodology was governed by two main objectives: firstly, to propose a reworked and more comprehensive typology of Early Iron Age cast copper-alloy and wrought iron socketed axes in conjunction with their metallurgy, distribution and deposition, and secondly, to discuss their place within Early Iron Age society and what part they may have played in the people’s life, work, trade and exchange, ritual and death. As a result, this thesis introduces, defines and discusses 12 new types of transitional and Early Iron Age socketed axes. While the transitional type can be dated to the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age transition (c. 850-750BC), the remaining 11 types can be dated to the fully developed Early Iron Age (800-600BC). The 11 types of bronze Early Iron Age socketed axes display a great variety of decoration, shape, size, weight and colour. While Late Bronze Age axes are plain or simply ribbed, almost all Early Iron Age socketed axes are decorated with ribs-and-pellets, ribs-and-circlets or a more elaborate version thereof. Some axe have a shiny silver surface colour (Portland, Blandford, East Rudham and Hindon types). More than three quarters of Early Iron Age socketed axes were found in association with other metalwork. These hoards can be divided into two main groups: axe hoards and mixed hoards.

The eight geographical regions outlined in this thesis are defined by different contexts, associations and the predominance of different Early Iron Age axe types, and in terms of depositional contexts this research suggests that the depositional contexts of Early Iron Age hoards containing socketed axes was different from the deposition of single finds: while hoards were often found in retrievable places, single finds were not. The survival of a large number of complete and almost undamaged bronze axes suggests that in the British Early Iron Age socketed axes were not just commonplace tools that were in use until they reached the end of their life. The changes in looks and shape, and consequently the adaption of a new and improved typology of socketed axes in the British Early Iron Age were accompanied by a change in conceptualisation and the overall meaning of socketed axes.

Even when used in a different context their basic, very recognisable socketed-axe-shape was always maintained, that is a wedge of different dimensions with a socket and a small side loop for suspension or possible attachment of other items of metalwork. Throughout British prehistory axes were one of the most familiar objects in daily use: as a tool, socketed axes were omnipresent and thus an established part of British Late Bronze Age life – a life that appeared to be foremost practical rather than ritual, with the majority of Late Bronze Age socketed axes showing clear signs of use and resharpening. In the Early Iron Age socketed axes adopted a previously unseen duality in function and meaning (that is materialistic and symbolic). Thus, while Late Bronze Age axe may have been regarded as common woodworking tool, types of Early Iron Age axes were understood as ingots, weapons, or objects needed for certain displays or performances, with their unique ornaments communicating their role in both display and society as well as perhaps their users regional identity and status.

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