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One of the largest hoards of Bronze Age axes ever found in Britain has been investigated by Wessex Archaeology.

At a site on the Isle of Purbeck in south Dorset, metal detector users found hundreds of Bronze Age axes in late October and early November 2007.

The axes, though not made of gold or silver, seem certain to qualify as Treasure when the Dorset Coroner holds an inquest into their discovery. Revisions to the original Treasure law mean that prehistoric objects of bronze can be classed as treasure, opening the way to a reward for the metal detector users and the landowner.

The metal detector users could hardly believe their luck when the discovery of one complete bronze axe and a fragment of another led them to identify three hot spots close by. The hotspots proved to be hoards of axes. Having reported the finds to the government funded Portable Antiquities Scheme, the detectors returned the following weekend. And promptly found another hoard containing hundreds of axes. In total at least 300 axes were found.

Following a request from the British Museum, who will give expert opinion to the county Coroner as to whether finds should be defined as Treasure, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a team from Wessex Archaeology undertook a follow up excavation.


The site

The metal detector users were alerted when they discovered a complete axe and part of another in the topsoil. It seems likely that these axes had been dislodged from one of the hoards by ploughing.

Investigating the area more closely, they were amazed to find three groups of axes. Although it was initially thought that the axes were all from one large hoard and the axes were mixed together, the follow up excavations confirmed that they had been buried in three separate pits dug within five metres of each other. The middle one of the three small pits contained the most axes. The fourth hoard, which was found the following weekend, lies 20 metres away.

The Wessex team found two postholes close to the three pits and some fragments of pottery, but little else. These finds can only hint that there may be a settlement or bronze foundry not far away.

The axes date to about 700 BC, the end of the Bronze Age. In the Bronze Age, metal axe heads had wooden handles that were fitted into a socket at the blunt end of the axe. The axe head was then secured by lashing it in place with twine or binding.


The axes

The axes in the Dorset hoard are small, about 10 cm long. Sometimes their sides are decorated with raised ribs some of which end in circles. Experts call this type of axe a ‘linear facetted axe.’ A first assessment of the finds suggests that the axes from all four of the hoards are very similar.

But these axes had never been used. And it may be that they were never intended to be used.

The sockets of many of the axes were still filled with the sand that was put inside the stone moulds when they were cast. On most of the axes where metal had seeped out through the small gap between the two halves of the mould, the seepage had not been cleaned away. The recipe that was used to make the bronze alloy also contained a high proportion of tin or lead. This made the axes very shiny, but it also made them so brittle that they could never have been used as working tools.

All this evidence suggests that the axes were buried in the hoards shortly after they were cast. This might suggest that a bronze casting foundry stood nearby. But other evidence from Dorset suggests another story.


Dorset hoards

Bronze Age hoards containing the type of axe found in the Purbeck hoard have been found from Cornwall to Norfolk, but most have been found in Wessex, in Wiltshire, Hampshire, and, especially, Dorset. Here, six hoards containing ‘Linear facetted axes’ are now known.

Other types of axes that might not have been use as working tools were also buried in hoards at this time, either British types known as ‘Sompting’, after a hoard discovered in Sussex, or ‘Armorican’ because they may have been imported to Britain from north-west France.

Most of these hoards contain less than five axes, though a few contain more than 30-40. Only very occasionally does the total exceed 100.

With hundreds of axes; over 300, and maybe many more, the Dorset site is remarkable. Not only are there more of axes than from any other site of this date, but it is also unique in having four separate hoards buried close by.


Why were the axes buried

The burial of so many axes poses a puzzle for archaeologists:

  • Were they buried by a traveling metalworker to be used at a later date?
  • Were they buried for safekeeping in times of trouble?
  • Or were they buried as a gift to the gods by deliberately putting valuable objects beyond the reach of mortals?

The discovery in Dorset of other hoards of axes of the same type makes the idea of traveling metalworkers less likely. This evidence might suggest instead that there were troubled times at the end of the Bronze Age.

But hoards of bronze objects were buried throughout the Bronze Age and in such numbers to suggest that at the beginning of the metal age, metal was important enough for objects made of it to be sacrificed as offerings to the gods. The hoards lay undisturbed because, as gifts to the gods, they had gone beyond the land of the living.

The axes in the Dorset hoard could not have been used. Instead it is as if they were ingots of metal made in the shape of an axe. From the Stone Age axes made from stone from the highest hills, perhaps where the gods lived, had been objects regarded as having special powers. At the beginning of the Bronze Age, metal axes were treated as special objects.

At the end of the Bronze Age, when iron had already started to be used, it is almost as if symbolic axes were used as a form of currency, as a measure of wealth.

It is almost as if the values of the offerings to the god could be measured in terms of the amount of metals used, and that at the very end of the Bronze Age, the shape that embodied the value of metal was the one that was used at the beginning of the Bronze Age; an axe.

And judged against such measures, the offerings to the gods that were made at the place where the Dorset Hoard was found, was a special sacrifice.