Axes are some of the earliest man-made tools we have. Indeed, the first examples are found in Australia between 49,000 and 44,000 BC! They are extremely useful tools, and for that reason are found across the ancient world. However, for this article we’re going to run you through 3,000 years of history of the battle axe as a military weapon. We’ll take a look at how they evolved and changed across Europe and the middle east, and how different cultures used them.
To begin, we travel back in time 4,000 years to the Amlash cultures of modern day Northern Iran. Made of bronze, the axes we find are distinctly curved in shape. For example, the rare semi-circular shaped blade with open metal work looks quite unusual, and not the classic ‘axe’ shape you might expect. Another Amlash axe in our collection is perhaps more typical in shape, but includes the addition of an animal figure. The exact animal is unclear – although it appears to be perhaps a sheep or cow. As it is not an animal associated with strength such as a tiger, there is some speculation that this was used as a ritual battle axe, and not in any warfare.
Slightly later around 1000 AD, we have the Luristan peoples in what is modern-day North-West Iran. A Nomadic people, their settlement was based amongst three mountain ranges. There has not been enough archaeological excavation for us to be certain of the day to day lives of this people. However, from the archaeological record – most of which is bronze artefacts – we can’t learn much. We do know many of the bronzes started to be produced in a period of climate instability that lead to interactions with Indo-European populations. Two of the most typical Luristan designs are sharp spikes on the rear or animal inspired. For those with the spikes, we sometimes see evidence that the spikes were sharpened more than the axe blade – showing they were equally important in battle!
We know what you might think – the Vikings came nearly 2,000 years after the Luristan peoples! It might seem like a jump in history, but axes were not as popular under the Roman empire and their contemporaries. However, with the rise of the Vikings in 900 AD the axe became a key weapon once more! Now they were made of iron and not bronze and took on a variety of shapes.
The most typical shape for a Viking axe is what is known as a bearded axe. It’s so called for its tall, curved blade, it allowed the user to hook the axe over their opponent’s shield. Or use the hooked shape to disarm an opponent, simultaneously injuring them with the sharped blade. One example for this is this example that has engraved star decoration and other geometric designs. Axes were highly personal items – often status symbols as well as weapons.
Aside from the bearded axe, there were those items of a more standard shape, but then again there were those who made the axe a more multi-functional weapon. One type of combination axe that we often see is an axe adjoined with a hammer. This could be in a flat, dense sense or it could be a thinner, more focused hammerhead. These are much rarer than an axe on its own and could give deadly secondary blows. Even rarer however, are those double headed axes that look more like the head of a Tomahawk. These were commonly not use, as Viking battle axes were based closely off the axes all households would have owned as tools.
Axes remained popular across Europe and the Middle East as history enters what is known as the medieval era. During the Crusades, axes were used by both the Christian and Islamic forces. For example, here is an example of a Seljuk axe from this period. The Seljuks were a large Turkish empire that spread from western Turkey to Central Asia at their height. An axe such as this one, however small, was part of their large military might. It is similar to some of those we see in the Viking era where there is a hammer like back to the blade – in order to make the weapon twice as deadly. The geometric decoration on this example is especially interesting and represents a rich artistic culture that existed in Seljuk times.
We’ll finish on an example from the early medieval period in Northern Europe. This axe is perhaps what you think of when you imagine a battle axe. Complete with a long handle, it’s easy to imagine how the large cutting blade of this weapon paired with its spiked back allowed for deadly attacks. Designed for hacking attacks, this would have been very useful against those who were heavily armoured.
We hope that you learnt something about the battle axe and will no longer estimate the power it has had in warfare throughout history! If you want to learn more about the ancient past, putting the objects themselves at the centre, explore our blog – especially our Ancient Weaponry category. If you want to own part of this ancient past yourself, check out our auction home page and our gallery collections.