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Neolithic 4200 - 2000 BC

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Flint and stone axes from Thanet
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Thanet axes - a review

Ceremonial axes?
Surface finds
Non-flint axes

Artefact scales in centimetre divisions

Flint and stone axes from Thanet

A ceremonial polished flint axe from Northdown Road, Cliftonville

Thanet axes - a review

The majority of Thanet's polished axes are fully functional tools which have been well used. Generally these objects are also seen as prestigious items who's degree of craftsmanship present in their manufacture gives them a status beyond their practical function.

How true this view is might depend on where we discover these objects today. That can at least give an indication on how they were viewed at the time of their disposal.
Polished flint axe from Ebbsfleet

The Ebbsfleet axe

Photographer unknown

Ring-ditches and roundbarrows

Four of Thanet's polished flint axes (three of which are complete) have been found in ring-ditch monuments and roundbarrows. The examples from Ebbsfleet (pictured left) and North Foreland (pictured below) were found redeposited in the ditches. A fragment was also discovered in the outer ditch at Lord of the Manor I (recut in the Beaker Period).
Another was found at Lord of the Manor III (pictured further below). The precise context of this piece is uncertain at present.

The final deposition of the Ebbsfleet and North Foreland axes may have been the result of an intentional act inspired by the monument themselves. Both are very strongly patinated however, which suggests that they have had a significant period of surface exposure.

In the case of the North Foreland example at least (pictured below) this was prior to its final burial in the primary fill of the barrow ditch. The position may suggest that its deposition was contemporary with the completion of the Beaker burial and could be viewed as a devotional or ritual act.

Polished flint axe from Beauforts, North Foreland Avenue

However it should be noted that the backfill of the Beaker grave also contained Early Neolithic flints of similar though slightly stronger patination. This suggests that residual occupation debris was disturbed during the construction of the barrow monument.

The axe could have been encountered at this time and was put aside for deposition in the ditch, or just discarded onto the chalk spoil upcast, to swiftly erode into the ditch with the primary silting.

Polished flint axe from Lord of the Manor 3A

It should also be noted that very little of this ditch was available for excavation and only two small slots were explored. In the case of the Ebbsfleet axe only one small section of the ditch was excavated before the monument was unexpectedly covered-over.

The recovery of the axes was then either very fortunate, or may suggest that the ditches may have been the focus of more widespread depositional activity associated with the monuments.


At least two of Thanet's polished flint axes show a significant amount of reworking.
It can be clearly seen on the examples from North Foreland and St. Peter's footpath. The reworking has been done to re-shape and thin the body of the axes so they can be fixed into new hafts.

This action has significantly altered the aesthetic appearance of the axes and destroyed their status-value as anything other than practical tools. This may demonstrate that the importance of the practical use of such tools ultimately outweighed their status-value, at least late in their life.
An early metal axe from Gore End, Birchington

An early metal axe
from Gore End, Birchington

Ceremonial axes?

With the advent of the Beaker Period and the Early Bronze Age, metal axes arrived and gained prestige at the expense of the stone ones. However these early metal axes were initially in short supply and some polished axes were still held in high regard. Others were made to imitate the splayed blades of the early metal axes.

This period saw the production of impractically large polished axes which remained unused as tools and likely functioned as status symbols, objects of gift-exchange or implements associated with ritual activity.

Large polished flint axe from Northdown Road, Cliftonville

The large axe found in Northdown Road (pictured above) is one such piece and could well date from this time. The flint itself is non-local and probably comes from Lincolnshire or Belgium (Jessop 1970) By 1970 only three others of this type were known from Kent. One wonders what sort of feature this axe was deposited in.

Surface finds

At least two of Thanet’s axes have appeared as surface finds. One was found along the St.Peter’s footpath (pictured below). Another was retrieved from the ploughsoil at Netherhale Farm.
The Stone House axe may have been recovered from a similar topsoil or subsoil context.

It has been observed elsewhere that many polished axes are discovered as ploughsoil finds. This may suggest that they have been ploughed out of shallow features. Another idea is that these tools could also have been used as hoes and were lost in ancient ploughsoils by Neolithic farmers.

Polished flint axe from St. Peter's footpath


Non-local polished stone axes

Non-local polished stone axes
From the collection of
Mike Child

Non-flint axes

The excavations along the Monkton-Minster A253 and at the Earlier Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure at Chalk Hill, Chilton (both by Canterbury Archaeological Trust) have produced the only evidence for the use of non-flint axes on the Isle. In both cases only fragments have been recovered (and the precise nature of the Monkton-Minster axe is uncertain at present).

Bradley (1984) suggests that stone axes seemed to have been preferred to flint by the users of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware. On Thanet there is currently very little evidence for both the use of Grooved Ware and stone axes.

The piece from the Chilton site was identified as being from a Group VI  axe (an Implement Petrology Group classification). The raw material is a Tuff which comes from the highly productive 'axe factory' at Great Langdale in Cumbria. Group VI axes are probably the most numerous type found in Britain.

In Wessex these are typically found in assemblages associated with Peterborough Ware pottery
(Thorpe and Richards 1984). This is a Mid (and possibly Late) Neolithic pot form who's use overlaps with the end of the Earlier Neolithic.

In the South East it is the Group I class of stone axes which occur most frequently. These are of Greenstone and likely to originate from the South West; some from the Mounts Bay area of Cornwall (perhaps from a site now submerged). By 2002 there were 8 examples known from Kent, none found in East Kent (Lewis and Parfitt 2002).

Both Group I and Group VI axes were manufactured and used over a relatively long period of time (Smith 1979).

The current count of flint and stone axes is no doubt less than the true figure of those recovered so far. Further research should increase the quantity and accuracy of this figure.

A greater knowledge of the context of their discovery will also prove vital in an understanding of the role played by these prestigious objects during the Neolithic.

If you have any extra information regarding Thanet’s flint and stone axes please get in touch.


The text is the responsibility of the author; the photographs are by the author unless otherwise stated.

Paul Hart

Version 1 - Posted 27.07.06
Version 2 - Posted 16.12.06

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