Early Metal Designs

By Joseph A. McGeough

An Egyptian relief of about 2500 BCE, the time at which the pyramids were being built, shows a metal axe (copper or bronze) of curious shape, almost semi-circular, lashed to a wooden handle along its diameter. The same picture shows a knee-shaft adz whose metal blade makes an angle of about 30° with the handle. If the number of pictures and artefacts of the adz is a guide, the adz was more widely used than the axe. Generally speaking, the adz had a short handle, with angles of the order of 60° between blade and handle. Although the ancient Egyptians became skilled metalworkers, this was not reflected in their tools, the designs of which hardly changed over 2,000 years.

On the other hand, bronze axes and adzes from Mesopotamia of even the period 2700 BCE are shaft-hole types, the hole for the handle being formed in the mould. Aside from eliminating the nuisance of lashing the blades, these castings permitted a heavier head than the thin-bladed Egyptian models and had better dynamic characteristics.

Shaft-hole axes and adzes were also being cast in Crete about 2000 BCE. At the same time, a new tool was created there. The double-bit (two-bladed) axe, classically associated with the Minoans, was first known in 2500 BCE as a votive axe, a piece of tomb furniture made of riveted bronze plates. It became a working tool when it was cast in bronze with a shaft hole about 500 years later. Double-bit adzes also date from this time, as do axe–adz combinations. The succeeding Mycenaean, Greek, and Roman civilizations carried these designs forward. According to Homer, Odysseus used a double-bit axe of a type that disappeared with the use of bronze. Illustrations or artefacts from the Middle Ages reveal only iron single-bit types, although in a bewildering variety of profiles. By mid-19th century the double-bit was again in use, principally in the United States as a lumberman’s axe. The axe was also used in Canada and Australia, where it is still marketed.

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