7th Day of Christmas: A Tale of a Suffolk Greenstone Axe

Greenstone axes are key objects of the British Neolithic (6000–2400 BC) – a period that starts with a shift in population, as recent aDNA studies have shown, and of transformation as communities embraced domestication and the altering of the land to grow crops, keep animals and build monuments. They created new architectural forms as places to gather – to celebrate, to hold ceremonies and to undertake various social transactions, feasting and for burial. With this change in lifestyle came a new material culture – pottery, a new range of flint tools, and also the worked stone axe – often made from one of several hard volcanic rocks, mostly known as greenstone, worked and finished by pecking, flaking, grinding and polishing.  

Greenstone axe

From visual inspection the Suffolk axe, or rather the axehead as it is missing its wooden haft, appears to have been made not from local stone but from gabbro, a type of hard igneous rock that formed deep in the Earth’s crust, distinctly dark green in colour with a coarse-grained texture and a mottled appearance of glassy light and dark minerals. The axehead was first made from percussion or pecking, probably with a hammerstone, as its coarse grain makes it unsuitable to flake, and finished by first grinding and then polishing using a special stone – known as a polissoir – and an abrasive grit.  This would have given the object a fine gloss. It would also have given the axe blade a sharper cutting edge.

This materially exotic axehead would have stood out in all but the few areas of Britain where gabbro is found. It is likely to have been made in West Cornwall, possibly from rock found on the Lizard peninsula and classified by petrological analysis as Group I, the most southerly point of mainland Britain. We will have to wait for further scientific analysis to verify this as the possible source, but if this suggestion is correct then the axe, discovered in Suffolk, had been fashioned in a place several hundred kilometres away and on the other side of England.

Cornish greenstone axes, as with other axes of stone and flint, were exchanged across much of Britain during the Neolithic. Many can be placed into specific rock types and quite a number can be traced back to possible sources or rock outcrops — the most famous of which is the so-called Group VI from Cumbria, where working sites and quarries have been identified. However, similar productions sites are yet to be located for Group I. It is of course possible to fashion an axe from a loose piece of rock.

Cornish axes of Group I occasionally occur with the earliest type of Late Neolithic pottery known as Grooved Ware, a style of pottery that probably developed in Orkney and, along with henges and stone circles, spread south across Britain and into Ireland at around 3000 BC.                 

Alistair Barclay (Principal Post-Excavation Manager)

In case you missed it:

1st Day of Christmas
2nd Day of Christmas
3rd Day of Christmas
4th Day of Christmas
5th Day of Christmas
6th Day of Christmas

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