Drain digger finds Denmark’s largest Neolithic flint axe

Tage Pinnerup was digging a new drain on his old friend Henrik Hansen’s property near the village of Kobberup on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula when he saw something sticking up out of the ground. It was a long, smooth almost rectangular piece of flint 50.5 centimeters (20 inches) long. Pinnerup had found a prehistoric axe before, so he recognized it as such, but because of how exceptionally large and finely worked it was, he figured it had to date to the Iron Age. A few days later he and Henrik Hansen found another one, this one 35 centimeters (14 inches) long.

They alerted the authorities to a potential treasure find, and Viborg Museum experts determined that they were not Iron Age, but rather Neolithic flint axes dating to 3800-3500 B.C. Back then the find site was a marshy area next to Tastum Lake, long since drained and converted into arable land. Because they were found in a bog, are a matched pair and so carefully worked, the axes weren’t likely to have been misplaced. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately deposited in the bog as ritual offerings. The 50.5 cm axe is the largest Neolithic flint axe ever discovered in Denmark.

“It’s fascinating that they could master the flint and produce such a perfect axe,” said Mikkel Kieldsen, an archaeologist and curator at Viborg Museum. “A lot of effort has been put into the axes, so the sacrifice must have really meant something.”

Flint is a challenging material to work. Like glass, it breaks easily and requires very careful handling. Judging from modern experiments replicating prehistoric flint tools, Kieldsen estimates it would have taken the craftsmen who produced these axes hundreds of hours to achieve so polished a result. Compare the slender length and cricket bat-like smoothness to this axe from around the same time as the Tastum axes, or these, which are about a thousand years younger and bear the characteristic divots and sheers of knapped flint.

That long, slender polish suggests these were not practical tools. The flint axe was an essential tool to Neolithic farmers who used it to clear wooded land for agriculture. It had to be sturdy, thick through the middle and razor sharp at the end to do the job properly. A narrow, long, thin axe would likely crack at the first blow. It’s connection to the still-new trend of agriculture made the axe a powerful cultural symbol and well as a highly prized piece of property, which is why they have been found in the passage graves and dolmens which were built in grand style at the same time the Tastum axes were made.

Archaeologists excavated the site further to see if their were any other artifacts to be found and came up empty. The axes are treasure trove and will be sent to the National Museum of Denmark for assessment next month. Before that happens, they will be on display at the Viborg Museum for the next three weeks.

20 thoughts on “Drain digger finds Denmark’s largest Neolithic flint axe

  1. How were these flint axes formed? Normally, flint tools were knapped (flaking) but these appear perfectly smooth. How in the heck did they work the stone this way?

    1. Like Celia suggests, they were probably knapped at first to get the rough shape of them, and then abraded for ages to smooth everything out. There are long striations on the surface that I suspect were left by very even, top to bottom grinding. I’ve never seen anything like them, and I loves me some prehistoric axes.

  2. Flint is no different from quartz varieties to work. After rough shaping grind it using progressively finer grit and finish the polish by rubbing on a clay slurry on leather. Time and patience are needed.
    My husband found a similar shaped bronze axe while ditch digging in Berkshire that was also considered to have been an offering as it was the site of what was once a vast lake. Later a dug out boat was found nearby which is now in the rowing museum in Henley.

  3. How perfect the straight-line edges seem!

    Does that predicate the existence of a linear standard against which the workpiece is measured or is there a method of work that self-regulates to produce such perfect linearity?

    I am consistently flabbergasted by the skills acquired/shown by ancient people. Very humbling.

    1. That is a very good question to which I have no answer. It seems like there would have to have been some sort of straightedge, but I suppose it could have been done by a very keen eye, too.

    1. It’s funny you should say that, because I actually discarded another story with a Denmark connection just because I’d already written three in the past two weeks. I couldn’t let this one go, though. The axes are just too cool.

  4. My husband put it in his pocket where it fell out when he climbed a fence! He discovered this when he went to give it to the land owner (Sir John Smith)
    Fortunately he was able to find it again.

    It was a fascinating area on the verge of being swallowed by urban sprawl but still with an extraordinary legacy of folklore.

  5. The human eye is remarkably accurate. I’m a whip-maker and always straighten the stocks by eye viewing along the length.

  6. I suspect that many of the axes found are instead wedges for making planks. The tree is felled and after a bit of drying, it has stone wedges pounded down the grain with wood mallets. Celts are found in all parts of the world, usually from a hard stone. I’ve seed many with what looks like ware to the blunt, wider end of the celt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.