Sociokulturel betydning af tragtbægerkulturens tidligneolitiske flintøkser


  • Casper Sørensen
  • Mathias Bjørnevad-Ahlqvist
  • Lasse Sørensen



tragtbægerkultur, tidligneolitiske flintøkser


The socio-cultural significance of flint axes from the Early Neolithic Funnel Beaker culture
The Funnel Beaker culture in Denmark, beginning around 4000 BCE, saw the introduction of arable agriculture and animal husbandry, marking a seminal shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. The culture’s polished flint axes embody many of the inherent changes and the foundation of a new social structure during this period. In previous research, these axes have primarily been employed in typological, chronological discussions or to contextualise broader interpretations. Rarely have the axes themselves been in focus. In this article, we invert this approach to explore the socio-cultural significance of axes in the Early Neolithic Funnel Beaker culture (c. 4000-3300 BCE), with an emphasis on the characteristic thin-butted examples.
The article begins with an introductory presentation of the axes from a case study area, the southern Limfjord, focusing on the production of axes and their deposition in hoards in this area. The background and context of the axes in the Early Neolithic, EN I, c. 4000-3500 BCE, is then outlined. The following section focuses primarily on EN II (c. 3500-3300 BCE) but with a brief look at the first part of the Middle Neolithic. Finally, the two periods are discussed, highlighting the role of the axes in relation to the organisation of society. 
The two longest flint axes ever found in southern Scandinavia are from the southern Limfjord area, between Viborg and Skive. The longest example, 50.5 cm in length, was found recently in a peat-filled gully near Kardyb, together with a slightly shorter axe, now broken, which was originally probably 40-45 cm long (fig. 1). The Kardyb hoard was found 1.1 km from the Kardyb long dolmen, the longest long barrow in Denmark (fig. 2), which may have been contemporary with the nearby hoard. The second-longest axe, 46.4 cm in length, was found further to the east, at Jægstrup Bæk (fig. 3), together with two shorter axes, 32.5 and 29.6 cm in length. In addition to these hoards, single finds of so-called ‘ceremonial axes’, greater than 30 cm in length and often showing no traces of use (fig. 4), are particularly densely distributed in the southern Limfjord area relative to other regions of southern Scandinavia.
Hoards of smaller axes are also well represented in the case study area: For example, those found at Vestergaard Øst, Engedal Mark and Kølsen (fig. 5), with the former having been deposited at a possible settlement. In contrast to the large ceremonial axes, which are often made of high-quality Senonian flint, these smaller axes were produced using Danien flint that was probably sourced locally, for example at Daubjerg and Mønsted (figs. 6, 7, 8). Axe planks and flakes have been found at Daubjerg, attesting to the production of axes here (fig. 9).
The distribution of the axe depositions, hoards and single axes, is quite varied. They are found in dry areas and in various wetlands, including along the Lim­fjord, on lake margins, in river valleys and in small bogs. Although they are found throughout the case study area, there is a slight predominance in the west, particularly around the former lake Tastum Sø, the location of the area’s only known causewayed enclosure, Søby Møllegård.
Recent evidence indicates that the spread of the Funnel Beaker culture and the introduction of farming took place via a process of farmers immigrating from Central Europe coupled with the modification of the local material culture by Ertebølle hunter-gatherers. In the centuries around 4000 BCE, expansions of agrarian communities into the British Isles, the Netherlands, northern Germany and southern Scandinavia can be observed. All these communities have features of their material culture which suggest either direct or indirect influences from the Michelsberg culture (c. 4400-3600 BCE), which originated in northern France, Belgium, southern Netherlands, Bohemia and southern and central Germany. In southern Scandinavia, these Michelsberg influences are evident in many of the changes that occurred throughout the first centuries of the Neolithic: transitions from core axes with specialised edges, pointed-bottomed vessels, small huts and relatively few ritual deposits to polished pointed-butted axes, flat-bottomed vessels, two-aisled houses, large pits, flint mines and numerous ritual depositions. One of the most conspicuous changes in southern Scandinavia, arising from influences from the Michelsberg culture, is the emergence of pointed-butted flint axes, interpreted as imitations of alpine jade axes.
The jade used in these highly prized axes was obtained from the Italian Alps and further processed at several settlements in northern France, after which the axes were distributed throughout Europe. They have been interpreted as a cultural mediator representing both functional and ideological ideas emanating from Central European agrarian societies. In southern Scandinavia, local imitations of these jade axes, produced in flint and stone, are in evidence from the beginning of the Funnel Beaker culture. This suggests that the axes did not lose their significance as status symbols and can therefore be interpreted as material agents for the expansion of farming communities from Central Europe to southern Scandinavia.
The farming communities in southern Scandinavia also had links with other parts of Central Europe, as evident from the many imported copper axes dating from the early part of the Funnel Beaker culture. Thin-butted flint axes, first seen in Denmark around 3800 BCE, are also interpreted as local imitations of the copper axes of Kaka type or thin-butted copper axes from the Gumelnița culture, concentrated in northeastern Bulgaria during the 5th millennium BCE.
The polished axe went through several technological stages during the Funnel Beaker culture: from pointed-butted to thin-butted and, finally, thick-butted. The pointed-butted and earliest types of thin-butted axes are primarily found in Scania and eastern parts of Denmark (fig. 11). Later, in Early Neolithic Ib (c. 3800-3500 BCE), thin-butted axes of types III and IV are more widely distributed across southern Scandinavia. It is therefore suggested that this pattern reflects an initial easterly migration route with subsequent bourgeoning agriculture, followed by a phase of cultural consolidation.
Axes are found in approximately half of the long barrows and flat inhumation graves from Early Neolithic I. Despite their relative scarcity and the difficulties in identifying them, probably only a small segment of society was buried in these graves. As often only one individual was placed in each grave at this stage of the Neolithic, we can therefore infer that the deposition of flint thin-butted axes was associated with individuals who had the social clout to orchestrate these burials, and especially monumental long barrows. This may indicate the existence of a pronounced hierarchical social structure already in the initial stages of the Early Neolithic.
The numerous axe hoards from this period are another important ritual sphere which informs on the symbolic and social role of axes. In the Early Funnel Beaker culture, flint axes dominate the hoarding phenomenon, and comparatively few hoards contain other types of objects, thereby highlighting the particular importance of these flint artefacts. The most exquisite axes are often found in these hoards, with the hoarded axes being noticeably longer than those found in settlements, and some examples approaching 50 cm in length. These axes often show little or no traces of use, are sometimes carefully arranged and often found deposited in wetland areas. In particular, so-called ‘ceremonial axes’, greater than 30 cm in length, are often found in hoards and as single depositions. The widespread distribution of these hoards indicates that the depositions were a shared social phenomenon and illustrates the pronounced significance of flint axes within this ritual sphere.
In the subsequent Early Neolithic II and into the earliest phases of the Middle Neolithic, material culture and societal practices transformed and expanded. There are fewer records of depositions of axes from this time, and the hoards generally contain shorter axes than the ceremonial examples seen in Early Neolithic I. Compared to the general scarcity of graves from EN I, however, this period is characterised by the intense construction of megalithic dolmens. Unfortunately, many of the chambers of these monuments were heavily disturbed and reused during later phases of the Neolithic and in subsequent prehistoric and historical periods. In addition, the poor quality of early antiquarian excavations and the widespread destruction of megalithic tombs limits their interpretative potential relative to contemporary burial practices and the role that axes played in these.
Similarly, it is difficult to assess the role of axes in the causewayed enclosures that began to be constructed during the later Early Neolithic II and into the Middle Neolithic due to limited excavations of these monumental sites. At the well-known site of Sarup, however, intact axes were found in several pits, while axe fragments were found elsewhere on the site. Fragments of sharpened flint axes were also found at Toftum and in the southern Limfjord area, and an almost complete axe was found in a pit at Søby Møllegård. It has previously been suggested that fragments of axes found at causewayed enclosures may represent the loss and casual discard of used axes. An increasing awareness of the intentional fragmentation of axes undertaken during the Funnel Beaker culture, combined with the deposition of these fragments in pits together with other apparently ritual objects, could, however, indicate that they should be interpreted from a ritual perspective. Consequently, it appears that axes may have been part of the ritual sphere at these causewayed enclosures, although to a lesser extent than other materials, for example, pottery. This seemingly reduced role of axes at causewayed enclosures is, therefore, seen as an aspect of the broader shift in the social and ritual role of axes during the later Funnel Beaker culture, compared to Early Neolithic I.
To interpret the changing socio-cultural significance of axes, we draw upon new research into the social organisation of the early stages of Funnel Beaker culture. Here it is suggested that the consolidation of agriculture in the centuries after 3800 BCE saw an increase in social inequality, leading to the formation of an elite. This period saw an intensive investment of resources and labour in the various ritual spheres, including the deposition of hoards and the construction of long barrows, resulting in a competitive social situation. Investment in ritual practices, monuments and sites further intensified through the Funnel Beaker culture, with the building of thousands of megalithic tombs and the construction of causewayed enclosures, as well as extensive depositions in bogs of pottery, humans and animals, amber and axes. At the same time, settlements became more extensive, leading to the formation of complex social structures grounded in and negotiated through these ritual practices and monuments.
Modern ethnographical and ethnohistorical accounts of groups in Papua New Guinea provide a helpful analogy to the social structures and role of axes during the Funnel Beaker culture. In Papua New Guinea, axes were produced and procured for senior, high-ranking members of society and formed part of a complex exchange system, involving especially large ceremonial and bride-prize axes. These impressive axes had great political and social value, and the people who had access to their production used them to maintain and elaborate influential societal positions.
It has been recently argued that the production, exchange and deposition of large jade axes played a similar role within an elite part of society in the Neolithic of Central Europe. After the raw material had been extracted in alpine regions, the finished axes were exchanged across vast areas of Europe and, in some regions, they were inextricably linked to megalithic cultures. The production and far-reaching distribution networks of these axes have led to them being interpreted as important prestige objects associated with a hierarchical society with increasing social inequality. The similarities between jade axes and Danish ceremonial axes are striking with regard to both the organisation of the society behind them, and their roles, including the complex systems of production, exchange and deposition of, in particular, large ceremonial axes. We therefore suggest that the flint axes played a particularly prominent role during this period and may have been employed as a strategic element in a competitive society, where one of the goals was to invest resources in ritual actions to highlight and cement social hierarchies.
The social hierarchy is less clear in Early Neolithic II. The various ritual contexts and depositions, and the numerous burials and causewayed enclosures, require more detailed analysis for it to be possible to identify the social structure and detect the possible continuation of existing hierarchies. It has been argued that the clustering, reuse and revisitation of megalithic tombs could represent evidence of ancestor worship associated with these monumental burials. Furthermore, the construction of dolmens directly on top of demolished houses, as found around Sarup, may suggest that the social organisation of the Funnel Beaker was also lineage-based. Megalithic tombs in parts of Southeast Asia provide a further useful analogy to the link between the construction of megalithic tombs and social hierarchy, as only prominent families and individuals had the required influence to mobilise the construction of such monumental tombs.
In conclusion, insights gained from the archaeological record and ethnographic analogies strongly suggests the existence of a high degree of social inequality during the Funnel Beaker culture and, perhaps, especially in the southern Lim­fjord area. This inequality may have been linked to, and negotiated in, the symbolic use of axes, especially in Early Neolithic I, through influences from the Michelsberg culture via immigrant farmers. By the mid-4th millennium BCE, the axes were an integral part of hitherto unprecedented, ritualised behaviour across southern Scandinavia, including the production and circulation of exquisitely produced ceremonial axes and the deposition of axes in hoards and burials. Later, in Early Neolithic II, the socio-cultural role and symbolic use of axes was transformed and possibly reduced. At this later stage of the Funnel Beaker culture, other forms of material culture and other monuments appear to have been used instead to negotiate the shifting forms of social structure and stratification in Early Neolithic II and into the Middle Neolithic.





Sørensen, C., Bjørnevad-Ahlqvist, M., & Sørensen, L. (2022). Sociokulturel betydning af tragtbægerkulturens tidligneolitiske flintøkser. Kuml, 70(70).