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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Sutton-Hoo Axe-Hammer

The Sutton-Hoo Axe-Hammer

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
The axe-hammer was found in the centre of the grave chamber well away from the weapons, which may indicate that the folk who so meticulously organised the grave display did not classify it as a weapon.

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.
The idea that the axe-hammer is a ship-building tool can be dismissed. Wood-working tools such as axes, adzes and hammers have changed but little over the last couple of millennia and never has anything remotely resembling the Sutton Hoo axe-hammer been found. It also seems unlikely, to say the least, that such a rich and powerful king as the occupant of Mound One should be buried with a simple tool.


The idea that the axe-hammer was a weapon needs more serious consideration - for it certainly looks like one. However there are fundamental problems with this idea. Firstly, battle-axes were fairly unusual at this period. Certainly, the Franks used the francisca (throwing axe) from 500 to 750 CE and examples have been found in southern England. They also seem to have made some use of small, light (Less than 2lb) axe-hammers, one of which found its way to Kent (Howletts) but this wooden-hafted Tomahawk is a far cry from the Sutton-Hoo weapon.
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)
As is evidenced by the finds of war-axes from Illerup Ådal, Denmark, in Scandinavia, the axe was a popular weapon until around 600 CE, when it was eclipsed by the sax-dagger. Battle-axes come into their own again in the so-called 'Viking period' and in some shape or form survive well beyond the medieval age.

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.
Medieval Poleaxes
Of course, it is possible that it was a unique ‘one-off’, manufactured by some maverick Anglo-Saxon smith but the fact remains that ergonomically the all-iron axe-hammer is a poor weapon. As Stephen Pollington dryly comments in his book “The English Warrior”, ‘it is perfectly feasible to swing this weapon two-handed although its all-metal shaft would have conducted the force of the blow up the holder’s arms’. I can concur with this, having tried out my replica. It is also really heavy- roughly twice as cumbersome as the average Viking-age axe, which would make it very slow and unwieldy, particularly if used from the saddle. Medieval Poleaxes were invariably infantry weapons and it is my opinion that even the strongest warrior would be unable to keep to his saddle attempting to swing the axe-hammer on horseback. Thirdly, there was no tactical need for such a weapon. The medieval poleaxe was developed as a ‘can-opener’ to defeat plate armour. There was no such need in Rædwald’s day, when even mail was rare. A cheap 2½lb axe is vastly superior as a weapon.

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.

Sutton-Hoo Whetstone
Dobat argues cogently, that it must be a symbol of the leader-as-priest who was a feature of early Germanic society. The Germanic king originally had three main functions: as a judge, as a military leader and as an intermediary to the gods including the offering of sacrifices. As high priest, the king often claimed descent from one of the gods; in England this was usually Woden himself.

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.

2 comments:

Frank Anthony Cannarella III said...

Very interesting article but I couldn't help but notice how much this axe resembles a modern drywall axe hammer. You mentioned "In 1998, Martin Carver tentatively suggested it could have been used for ship repair, including the hammering of rivets." I wonder if you have more resources on this as it seem to me that this would work wonderfully as a tool/symbol of a ship's captain whom in dangerously rough seas would need a strong dependable tool to cut down the mast without having to worry about the haft breaking in time of need. As valuable as iron was at the time, it seems logical that a tool like this would be in possession of the captain/chief. What are your thought?

Unknown said...

It's not a weapon, it's a shipwright's maul. Used for splitting tree trunks into planks.

The "hammer" is a striking face which would be used to drive it into the wood.

The handle is metal because sometimes you miss, and doing so would destroy a wooden handle.

The faces of the head are convex, and smooth to prevent the head sticking in the wood.

The head is curved because you would stand over the log to take the first swing and you don't want to hit the ground.

The length of the thing is just long enough from a 2 handed grip to reach just above the ground where the log would be.

Clearly none of the academics commenting on the usage of the thing have ever used a maul to split logs.

The real questions are why was a shipwright's maul left at his feet, and why was he buried in a ship? Simple sign of respect from the builder of the ship in the grave? Good patron? Did he commission the building of lots of ships? Was he a shipwright himself?