One of the most enigmatic items found in 1939 in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo was a large axe-hammer forged entirely from iron. To this day, mystery surrounds this unique object: is it a weapon, or something else?
Almost uniquely, the iron of the axe-hammer has survived the acidic soil of Sutton-Hoo corroded but virtually intact. It is an impressive 30.7 inches (78cm) long and the heavy wedge-shape of the axe-head plus the blunt hammer extension is 8 inches (20cm) wide. Some time ago, I had a fairly accurate replica made, so I can state with confidence that the thing weighs no less than 7lb (3.2kg). The unique iron haft is round in cross section for about the first quarter of its length, presumably to aid grip but then becomes roughly square in section. Towards the top, the section becomes flatter side on, so that the end is able to fit into a slot in the head where it is retained by iron washers. It is, in most respects, a sound design, and my replica remains as solid as the original even after some serious abuse over the years. At the base is a small iron ring set in an ingenious swivel device, suggesting that it had a carrying, hanging or retaining strap.
|Thegns of Mercia replica of the Sutton Hoo Axe-Hammer|
Bruce-Mitford, who had undertaken the post-war evaluation of the Sutton-Hoo artefacts, in his 1983 publication ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’ proposed, not unreasonably, that the axe-hammer was a horseman’s axe/war-hammer, but the position of the artefact in relation to other finds in the meticulously laid out grave, being kept well away from other weapons, may suggest the axe-hammer was not classified as an item for battle. Various other theories on the purpose of this item have since been put forward;
- In 1986, Werner suggested it was a butchery tool used for the slaughter of cattle, while emphasising an association with banqueting.
- In 1998, Martin Carver tentatively suggested it could have been used for ship repair, including the hammering of rivets.
- In 2006, Andres Dobat reinterpreted it as an instrument for the ritual sacrifice of animals by pole-axing.
|C7th Merovingian throwing-axe head inlaid with silver, from Neuweid, Germany. (BM)|
|6th Century Axe-hammer from Grave 19, Howletts, Littlebourne, Kent|
|Iron-Age axes from Illerup Ådal, Denmark. (Moesgård Museum)|
The nearest weapon equivalent of the Axe-Hammer was the 15th century Poll-Axe. This was equipped with an axe blade, war-hammer and iron ‘langettes’, which protected the shaft from being lopped off- a drawback of all battle-axes. The weight of these specialised weapons, designed specifically to deal with the formidable plate armour of the period, was between 3-6 lbs - somewhat less than the Sutton Hoo axe-hammer.
The remaining function for the axehammer is as a pollaxe used in the slaughter of large animals such as oxen or horses. Due to their large size and strength, these animals need to be safely immobilised prior to exsanguination. Stunning into unconsciousness by a carefully placed blow to the beast’s forehead using the hammer-end of a poleaxe was a traditional slaughter technique until modern times when it was replaced by the captive bolt pistol.
According to Ann Hagen, there is good evidence from skeletal remains, that the Anglo-Saxons used stunning with a hammer in this way. Cattle skulls from the Anglo-Scandinavian levels in York bear this out, being either heavily fractured or bearing clear ‘punched-out’ holes in the frontal bones.
More recently, examination of the horse-skull from the famous 'Lakenheath warrior inhumation' - the famous 5th century founding burial of the cemetery near RAF Lakenheath, excavated in 1997, has revealed the animal was stunned, in precisely the way described, by a blow between the eyes. The shape of the weapon used to inflict this stunning injury before the ritual slaughter of the animal, to be deposited with its deceased master, is preserved in the shape of the caved-in area of the skull; rectangular, and of similar in size and shape to the impact-surface of the axe-hammer from Sutton-Hoo Mound 1. It is quite feasible, therefore, that the weapon used to stun this animal was similar in form to the axe-hammer from Sutton Hoo, and, therefore, that this enigmatic object may, too, have been used for ritual slaughter.
If it is reasonably secure to consider the Sutton-Hoo axe-hammer as a slaughterman’s poleaxe; it then raises the question of why it was found in a place of honour in the king’s grave.
While most of the the Sutton-Hoo treasure speaks of the the king as a ruler and a warrior, the whetstone ‘sceptre’ with its ancestral faces and the fearsome sacrificial axe-hammer speak of the king as high priest.