Copper axe blade found in Switzerland matches Iceman’s

Analysis of a copper axe blade found in Switzerland in 2008 has revealed that it matches the copper axe carried by Ötzi the Iceman, the traveler who was felled by an arrow 5,300 years ago in the Ötztal Alps on the border between modern-day Italy and Austria and was frozen in the ice until some German tourists stumbled on him in 1991. Ötzi is Europe’s oldest human mummy and has proven a seemingly endless font of knowledge about Copper Age Europeans, every new approach, study and technology adding more pieces to the puzzle.

Last year, researchers discovered that the Iceman’s copper axe blade was remarkably pure at 99.7% copper and very much to their surprise, was mined in the Colline Metallifere area near Campiglia Marittima in southern Tuscany. There were active copper mines in the Alps at this time, so the expectation was that Ötzi’s gear would have been produced locally. Instead, either the ingot or the manufactured axe head was traded hundreds of miles to the north of where it was mined or made.

The axe blade unearthed at the prehistoric site of Riedmatt, in canton Zug, Switzerland, in 2008 appears to have made much the same trip. Riedmatt was a small pile-dwelling village on the shores of Lake Zug and a rich density of archaeological remains were found in the small space protected by a coffer dam for excavation.

University of Bern researchers sampled the copper and found through Lead Isotope analysis that the material is virtually identical to that in axes used by Neolithic peoples to the south, most notably Ötzi. The copper was mined around Campiglia Marittima and made its way north from there over the Alps. It is half the weight of Otzi’s axe and shorter in length, but it shares the same distinctive trapedoizal shape.

Unlike Ötzi’s blade, which was complete with its yew haft and the leather strips binding the two parts together, the Riedmatt axe is the blade alone. Also unlike Ötzi’s, the Riedmatt blade is almost pristine, excepting a single notch and surface pitting from several thousand years spent underground. The Iceman used his a lot and there is evidence of extensive wear and regularly resharpening on the blade. The Swiss axe may not have ever been hafted; it’s impossible to determine because corrosion has eliminated any traces left on the blade of the joining. The finishing of the blade had been completed at the time of its deposition between 3250 and 3100 B.C. Archaeologists believe it may have been deliberately left on the lakeside as a ritual offering.

“It was a very efficient general-purpose ax, especially proper for woodworking,” said Gishan Schaeren, an archaeologist with the Office for Monuments and Archaeology in the Swiss canton (or state) of Zug. But in addition to chopping trees to build stilted houses, people could use these axs as lethal weapons, Schaeren added. […]

“Mainstream research normally does not consider the possibility of intense contacts between south and north in the Alps” during this time, Schaeren told Live Science in an email.

He thinks Copper Age people should be given more credit.”We have to consider that people who traveled in the Alps had a very profound knowledge of the landscape and its conditions due to their experience with hunting, herding and exploring natural resources in these areas,” he said.

Stronger links to southern Europe, Schaeren added, could explain certain styles of rock art, pottery, burial customs and other phenomena seen in the north.

The find has even larger implications that upend commonly held positions about how metallurgy developed in this area of Switzerland in the 4th millennium B.C. Because local production of copper artifacts seems to have cratered after 3500 B.C. — a smattering of copper objects and crucibles from this time have been found north of the Alps, the frequency increasing again only after around 2600 B.C. — scholars have long thought that the local copper mines must have been exhausted and as a consequence the metal had lost its appeal, perhaps even come to be treated with hostility, by the Neolithic peoples living in the regions between Lake Constance and Lake Zurich.

From the initial results of the study published in this paper (pdf):

However, the copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt with its link to metallurgical traditions south of the Alps demonstrates that copper metallurgy at the end of the 4th millennium BC on the Swiss plateau is not to be understood as a very humble end-of-range model of the earlier metallurgy (3800-3500 BC) north of the Alps. In fact, this metallurgy is a new kind derived from the hotspots of metallurgical innovation in the regions of the Tyrrenian-Ligurian coast. This contradicts the theory proposed in Artioli et al. (2017, 9–11), in which the Alps are depicted as “a neat cultural barrier separating distinct metal circuits”. The as yet unpublished isotopic analyses of the copper finds from Lake Biel confirm our theory that Italian ores played a major role in lake-side dwellings north of the Alpine divide (Löffler, in press). The copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt accentuates a multitude of contemporaneous cultural bonds to the south, which seemed to be unconnected and had been underestimated until now (Röder & Gross, 2007, 230–236). Furthermore, it challenges the evolutionistic and one-track perceptions of a time that marks a watershed in early metallurgy.

5 thoughts on “Copper axe blade found in Switzerland matches Iceman’s

  1. According to other sources, “taking into account that the product is ‘Made in Italy’, the level of corrosion is remarkably low”, actually 😆

  2. Yet another finding that illustrates human cultures were highly mobile, even way back in the day. We are an aggregation nation.

  3. Dear Karlsdottir, as always with all due respect, even if ‘Karl’ and his mates definitely must have come from ‘somewhere’, I could not say if you and I really form the ‘nation’ that you mentioned. I reckon, moreover, that the Neolithic sets a ‘good’ example here is highly debatable.

    Back then, however, movements were at least bidirectional, the number of people to ‘aggregate to’ was in general smaller, and unless ‘trade’ and ‘marriage’ were involved, the ‘standard procedure’ was -nonetheless- to slay the aggregated, eat them up and -provided there was any- to plunder their stock.

    Besides, who, do you think, shot poor old ‘Oetzi’ down, up there ? :confused:

  4. Dear History Blog, we are always flattered when our “copper news” spread around the world. However it’s a pity, that the credits of the pictures get lost notoriously on their way from the press release to the public. It’s a nuisance for the department and the authors of the pictures and it violates the copyright. That is why we give the full captions with the credits for our used pictures. Fig. 3: The deposits of the lakeside dwelling, in which the blade was found in 2008 (arrow), were situated underneath fluviatile or limnic deposits of about 6 m thickness and were located about 800 m from today’s shoreline (Photograph: Rolf Glauser, ADA Zug).

    Fig 1: The copper axe blade of Zug-Riedmatt is preserved in its entirety and has a length of only 6.5 cm (Photograph: Res Eichenberger, ADA Zug).

    Fig. 3: Careful sampling of the blade’s copper (Photograph: Gishan Schaeren, ADA Zug).

  5. Is primarily a member of the human race.

    I like the idea that copper was traded so far, and I wonder how quickly the skills needed to seek, mine and process it moved across the world.

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