Axes first came into use over a million years ago. Initially, they were hand-held tools made entirely of flint, greenstone or slate, with no handle. Eventually man learned to attach the axe head to a handle for more power. One breakthrough of the Bronze Age, c. 3000-500 BC, was bronze or copper axes, which started replacing stone axes. To start with, the design was a pure reproduction of the stone axe. The axes were also luxury weapons or ceremonial objects.
After a while, moulds were also made for the axe heads, so that axes could start being copied and, to some extent, mass-produced. The axe changed again during the Iron Age, c. 1000-500 BC. The handleless axes disappeared, to be replaced by axe heads with a hole for the handle. The axes also became larger, with broader blades.
The culture in Knossos
The Minoan culture flourished in Knossos on the Greek island of Crete in around 2500 BC. Knossos was probably the biggest and most powerful of several centres in the eastern Mediterranean at that time. The enormous palace, Labyrinth, was home to the ruling dynasty, but also the hub of political and economic life in Knossos. Colourful religious ceremonies and ecstatic cult festivals took place here. The name Labyrinth comes from the word Labrys, an ancient Cretan word for a double-headed axe. The name of the palace, Labyrinth, meant House of the Double Axe. Images of double-headed axes have been found carved into stone in Knossos. It is known that the double-headed axe played a major role in Minoan culture and was a symbol of power. Excavations of the Knossos palace have uncovered a mural of a heavily armed woman who has a double-headed axe in each hand.
The House of the Double Axe and the woman with the double-headed axes represented just a few of the symbols and depictions in Minoan society. Religion and ritual were an integrated part of general culture.
Double-headed axe with bull’s head (boukranion) from Mycenaean Greece.
According to Greek myth Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths, struck Zeus, Father of the Gods, over the head with his double-headed axe. Athena, goddess of wisdom, is said to have leapt from the cloven head of Zeus, fully grown and armed. The event is depicted in an Athenian bowl from 560-550 BC. Double-headed axes in bronze were found during the Bronze Age.
The axe as a weapon
The axe is one of mankind’s oldest close combat weapons. It was often used both as a weapon and a tool, but special battle axes used only as weapons started appearing in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age.
In around 2000 BC, what is referred to as the Battle Axe Culture reached Sweden from Central Europe. Axes were processional weapons or cult objects. The axe may even have represented the divinity itself. This double-headed stone axe from the time is around 18 cm long (left). The axe is held by the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm.
There are many rock carvings of double-headed axes dating from Sweden’s Bronze Age. The picture (picture) is part of a rock carving from the parish of Skee in Bohuslän.
In Scandinavia, the battle axe rose in popularity during the Viking Age, c. 800-1100 AD, when the axe became something of a weapon of choice. During this time, the Nordic smiths developed axes with longer handles and thinner blades, making the axe head extra light for use in battle.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 1300-1500, European armies often had two different types of battle axe: a small axe with a short handle, often carried on the belt, and a larger one with a longer handle. The knights often fought on foot, when it was common to use battle axes. It was also common to find axes where the poll ended in an iron spike and the hand was protected by an iron plate on the handle. During the 15th century, knights in Germany and France in particular used special battle axes that were intended to crush the opponent’s metal armour. These axes were heavier, with a shorter handle and a rather blunter edge.
There were also large battle axes with a broad long head on a long handle. One example is the bearded axe, which often had an elongated edge with a sabre-like curve called a beard. These axes were common in Western and Central Europe during parts of the 14th century, before becoming more widely used, particularly in Sweden and Eastern Europe.
Forestry companies turned axe making into an industry
Before industrialisation, axes were manufactured at numerous small forges. The design and structure of the axe were determined by its function, the user’s requirements and the craftsmanship of the axe smith. Until the mid-19th century, axes were used for small-scale tasks by craftsmen and self-sufficient farming communities.
The aggressive logging that came with industrialisation brought brand new axe customers on a large scale: forestry companies and specialist forest workers. The increase in demand for axes made axe manufacture of more commercial interest and it was concentrated in axe factories. Long runs and production efficiencies lowered the cost of manufacture. Axes became standardised, mass-produced industrial products and large amounts of energy went into ensuring that the axes met the demands of the time regarding how an industrial product should look. All axes of a particular model were supposed to look exactly the same.
Axis superseded by chainsaws
When chainsaws appeared in the 1960s, they replaced axes in forestry work and the axe industry came under immense pressure. Sales of axes fell dramatically and many axe forges ceased trading. Those who kept going had to rationalise their operation severely to reduce production costs and survive. The axes were made as quickly and cheaply as possible, often at the cost of both function and quality.
Today, production at Gränsfors Bruk looks very different. Professional craftsmanship is allowed to take the time it needs and piecework has been abandoned. The most important factor is quality, not quantity.
Axes are now used in farming, in the home, in outdoor pursuits and so on for small jobs, just as they were before the forest industry took off. The millions of cubic metres of pulpwood and timber processed by the forest industry have never been near an axe. Chainsaws and harvesters have taken over completely.