The axe was designed for hand-to-hand ﬁghting and consisted of a relatively short wooden handle, one end of which was ﬁtted with the operative lethal part which was either metal or stone. The weapon was swung by the handle, and the head brought forcefully down on the enemy.
The purpose of the axe was to pierce and cut, and it needed a blade that was light and sharp. The key problem in the manufacture of the axe was the ﬁtting of head to handle in such a way that it would not ﬂy off when swung nor break off when struck.
To prevent the weapon from leaving the soldier’s hand when swung, the handle was widest at the point of grip, tapering toward the head, or it was curved, or sometimes both.
The problems involved in the manufacture of the axe were complex, and attempts to solve these problems led to the variety of shapes devised for the blade. Since the axe was designed for hand-to-hand ﬁghting, its development was guided by the need either to pierce or to cut. The quality of the enemy's armor at the time dictated which of these was important.
This, too, inﬂuenced the form of the axeblade. The cutting axe was effective against an enemy who fought without armor. But if he wore armor, the piercing axe was required, with power of penetration. Axes could therefore be broadly divided according to shape, which coincides with their function:
It was also necessary to produce an axe that did not separate into two pieces when it was used. The blade had to be fitted to the handle in a way that it would not fly off in action. This, of course, is a danger in all such instruments, even the axe used by the laborer. The Bible draws attention to it in Deuteronomy 19:5: “And when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbor to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbor, that he die. . . .”
Axes are classiﬁed according to the way the blade is joined to the handle:
The variety of axes reﬂects the attempts of armorers at different periods to meet the new technical and tactical demands of the times.
The Sumerians Develop the Axe
One of the most remarkable technical achievements of the Sumerians was their development of an axe with a pipe-like socket, its blade narrow, long, and very sharp-edged. In doing this, they used already existing prototypes of such axes. We know this because of the dramatic discovery of a great number of copper axes in a cave in the Judean Desert, in the Dead Sea in Israel (see the socketed axehead circa 3100BC at right).
The appearance of this type of piercing axe among the Sumerians is no accident, for it is at this time and in this land that we ﬁnd the first evidence of a high standard metal helmet (see Helmets). Such helmets could be rendered ineffective only by a piercing axe which was swung with force, with a handle very firmly attached to the blade.
The Sumerian axeblade (see right) was made of copper. It was long and narrow, getting slightly wider and rounder near the edge. Its socket was rather like a smoking pipe set at an acute angle, so that the handle, which ﬁtted into it, sloped forward. To give a better grip and prevent its slipping out of the hand, the handle was slightly curved toward the bottom, where it was also thickened. This axe was the personal weapon of the spear-carrying infantry and of the charioteers (see an example from the Standard of Ur, below).
From the illustrated monuments and from the axeheads themselves which archaeologists have found, we now know their characteristics and the way they were used. The Sumerian axe continued to be used right into the Accadian period, particularly in Syria at the end of the third millennium, as we can see from the lethal axes discovered in the tomb of Til Barsip (see below).
Later on axe-makers added a small blade or a lub (in the form of an animal head) at the rear of the socket. And there were changes in the shape of the blade which made it a more effective piercing instrument. On occasion, the blade was much narrower and tapered toward the edge, giving it almost the form of a large peg (see right). This type, together with the beautiful axe of Naram-Sin - a long, narrow-bladed weapon with a socket no longer in the form of a pipe, are the prototype of many of the axes which appear in the Middle Bronze period.
Another type of piercing axe in use at the time was the axe of Anatolia. This could almost be called a double-bladed weapon. Its main blade, long and narrow, was similar to the Sumerian blade. On the other side of the socket was a smaller blade whose primary function was to add weight to the swing and to increase thereby the penetration power of the first blade.
Some wonderful examples of ceremonial axes of this very type, made of precious stones and metals, were discovered in Troy by Schliemann in a stratum belonging to the middle of the third millennium.
The socket-type piercing axe spread from Mesopotamia to the area of Canaan, but did not reach Egypt. Egyptian armies always made do with the tang-type axe, primarily a cutting instrument, even during much later periods when they, too, had started using the piercing axe.
A good example of this kind of curved axe with a well-made central tang was found at Tell el-Hesi in Palestine (see right). An identical type was found in Jericho, together with pottery which was established as belonging to the Early Bronze III period (2600 to 2300 BC).
This shows that the Palestinian relics were at least of the same period as the Mesopotamian, or even earlier. Additional examples of these axes from the second half of the third millennium were discovered in Syria and southern Anatolia, and from there the type spread to Egypt at the end of the third and beginning of the second millennium (see below).
The Axe in Egypt
The Egyptians seem to have rejected the socket-type axe. The Egyptian axes in the third millennium were always wide-edged cutting weapons, and it was clearly difficult to ﬁt such blades with a long socket. Moreover, it was comparatively easy to attach the handle to the blade by means of a tang or by cords run through holes in the rear of the blade. But this explanation does not meet the point that when the ﬁrst piercing axe was introduced into Egypt in a much later period, even then it was socket-less.
Perhaps the reason is to be found in the conservatism of the ancient Egyptians. But it may be also that throughout the third millennium, Egypt had no need for a piercing axe. No evidence has been found in Egypt or in its immediate neighborhood during the third millennium, of the helmet or coat of mail, against which a piercing weapon would have been needed.
We ﬁnds signs of early experiments to produce a hybrid weapon by ﬁtting a metal blade to a macehead, but they failed.
In the ﬁrst half of the third millennium, the axeblades were mostly semicircular and often were ﬁtted with lugs at the rear, on either side, to enable the handle to be bound more ﬁrmly. But starting from about 2500 BC we ﬁnd the gradual introduction of the narrow blade, shaped like a slice of an orange. This was attached to a wooden handle by cords which were drawn through holes in its neck and fastened securely round lugs on either side.
The siege and battle scene shown on limestone in the tomb of Anta, at Deshashe in Upper Egypt is most instructive on the functioning of the axe in battle. It shows very clearly the shape of the “slice axe” used by Egyptian soldiers and it also shows how it was used: it was swung with both hands and brought smartly down to deliver a sharp blow.
In a scene from the wall painting at Saqqarah, the semicircular bladed axe is well depicted. Here it was used mainly for tearing down the wall of a besieged city (see above right).
It is interesting to trace the development of the flat, multi-tanged cutting axe in the second half of the previous millennium. Interestingly enough, this axe, effective largely against an enemy not equipped with helmets, fell out of use in the country of its invention, yet continued to be widely used and even perfected in the land of its adoption - Egypt. This was due, no doubt, to two factors:
The Egyptian epsilon axe (see above) was really a composite of two other styles:
In the latter type, the three tangs are wedged into the haft and made secure by binding; in the Egyptian axe, the tangs have holes through which they are fastened to the haft either by small nails or with cord, or by a combination of both, similar to their earlier method of attaching blade to haft. Some typical examples of this axe are shown at right and below. At least one (right) shows that on occasion the haft itself was made of metal.
The axe was developing quite differently in Syria, Palestine, and the neighboring region. Here, too, the weapon that emerged showed the twin influence of tradition and necessity.
This led to the invention of a completely new type of axe: a piercing weapon with a socket.
It developed out of the epsilon and the anchor axes and is commonly referred to as the eye axe (see below) because of the prominence of its two holes, which look like hollow eyes. These are really a carry over of the spaces between the two inner curves of the epsilon tang - but they are now bounded at the rear by the socket. The eye axe was a difficult weapon to produce. Some splendid examples of ceremonial axes of this type, made of gold, were found at Byblos; one is shown at the top of this page (see the image with a red background).
The eye axe was brought to Egypt by the Semites when they started to inﬁltrate and establish themselves there and even serve in the army. But it did not gain acceptance, no doubt because the tradition of the tang type was too entrenched. There are, however, some Egyptian examples of the tang axe being given an eye form.
The Syrian and Palestinian eye axe was further developed to make it a more effective piercing instrument by lengthening the blade and narrowing the edge. The hollows have become smaller and less prominent, and the whole blade assumed the appearance of a duck’s bill - which is its name. The haft was usually curved to prevent it from slipping out of the hand, for the weapon required to be swung with much force.
This is seen in the celebrated Beni-hasan wall painting of the caravan of Semites going down to Egypt, like the Israelites. The warrior on the left bears in his right hand an object which looks like an axe of this type.
In Baghouz, Syria, a cemetery was discovered belonging to this period which contained graves of warriors who had been buried with their weapons. These included duck-bill axes.
In the 18th century BC, the duck-bill axe had already given way to a new type which was designed solely for piercing and penetration. This development was certainly prompted by advances in the development of armor. It demanded a very long blade with a narrow thin edge, almost like a chisel. This was a socket axe. These weapons were so widely used during this period that there is hardly a warrior’s grave in Palestine and Syria in which they are not to be found.
Each stage in the development of the axe during this period, and its
transformation from the epsilon tang type to the narrow-edged long-bladed socket type, reflect the untiring efforts of armies to perfect their weapons and enhance their effectiveness against the armor of their
In this, as in the previous period, we again come across the two earlier and conﬂicting traditions:
At the beginning of the period, particularly from the 16th to the 15th century, the Egyptian axes follow the earlier Hyksos pattern. They were piercing axes with a long, narrow blade, and wide edge. One of the finest examples is shown in the image below. It belongs to the end of the XVIIth and the beginning of the XVIIIth Dynasties, at the very outset of the New Kingdom. It is the ceremonial axe of Queen Ahhotep, mother of two pharaohs, who received it as a present from her second son, Ahmose, the founder of the XVIIIth Dynasty, who completed the Hyksos expulsion started by his brother Kamose. Both axes are similar in shape, with a long and narrow blade which curves to a wide edge and a wide rear. The rear portion has two lugs by which the blade, whose back is inserted into the wooden haft, is tightly bound to strengthen the join. The edge is very sharp and convex, which makes it an excellent piercing weapon.
This sort of axe was used throughout the period of the New Kingdom, though its shape underwent slight changes. Beginning from the I5th century, its blade becomes shorter and its edge narrower until eventually the edge becomes the narrowest part of the blade. The end development can be seen in the axes in the hands of Tutankhaniun’s infantrymen as depicted on the painted lid of a wooden chest found in his tomb at Thebes, belonging to the middle of the 14th century, and those borne by the soldiers of Rameses II as illuminated in the relief from the temple of Karnak, belonging to the middle of the 13th century.
But the most interesting and indeed the most beautiful group of axes from the other lands of the Bible in this period are of the socket type.
One example is shown above. The portion of the blade to the rear of the socket is fashioned into ornamental lugs, or prongs, in the shape
of fingers of a hand, or an animal's mane. This had a functional and not only a decorative purpose, for the prongs gave the rear part of the axehead an operational value. The 18th-century axes from
Kültepe in Anatolia and from Chagar-Bazar in northwestern Mesopotamia, which have something akin to lugs at the rear of the socket, are no doubt the prototypes of
this ax (above), which is typical of the axes of the Late Bronze period.
Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Different type of axes: socket, tang, epsilon, anchor, eye and duck-bill; with images and descriptions