French archaeological project given the axe

Four ancient and rare stone axes from Hampshire recently had an outing to London from their home at Winchester Museums to be analysed as part of a prestigious scientific project.


Project JADE - a three-year, million-Euro programme, funded by the French government - seeks to discover where our axes, and others like them that have been found all over north-western Europe, were made. The analysis, undertaken at the British Museum involves measuring the electro-magnetic radiation in the axes. The results can then be compared with those for rocks from known source areas.


In 2003, extraction sites for the distinctive and beautiful green stone, known as jadeite, were discovered high up in the North Italian Alps by the pioneering archaeologists Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin. The axes in Winchester City Council’s collection were found to be from this Alpine source and so had been carried for many miles before they were lost in Hampshire.


The axes date from the Neolithic period, a time of great change that saw the first farmers arrive in Britain from north-western Europe. From their research, the Pétrequins believe that jadeite axes were valued not just for their practical uses but also for their magical properties. These properties were conferred by their origin in places where earth meets sky; where this world meets that of the gods and spirits.


Comparisons with the Continent show that the axes were old when they arrived in Hampshire. Along with the seed corn needed to grow crops, and domesticated animals, the settlers brought their treasured heirlooms to remind them of the magical places far away and to bring good luck in the new land. Once here, they sought out new magic rocks from which to make axes: the best British-made Neolithic axes are of fine green volcanic stone quarried high up in the Lake District at Great Langdale.


Dr Alison Sheridan, National Museums Scotland, is a leading authority on prehistoric stone artefacts and co-ordinated the analysis of the British examples on behalf of Projet JADE.  She commented:


“The international team from Projet JADE are grateful to Winchester Museums for the chance to include these axeheads in their Europe-wide database of 12,000+ analyses. Work is still underway on processing the results, so it may prove to be possible to pinpoint exactly where, in the two main source areas in the North Italian Alps - around Monte Viso (above Turin) and Monte Beigua (above Genoa) - these specimens started their lives. It's all really exciting!”


Patricia Stallard, Winchester City Council’s portfolio holder for culture and sport, remarked: “Once again, science has put flesh on the bones of a fascinating story about our Hampshire ancestors and pointed up the value of Winchester Museums’ reserve collections. The beauty of the technique is that it involves no damage to the objects, as old-fashioned petrological sectioning did, so that we will be able to include them in future exhibitions intact.”


Meanwhile a fifth specimen, from Shawford Down, which was recently donated to the museum, was pronounced by Pierre Pétrequin to be ‘probably not Alpine’. Could it be one of the new magic objects made of British rock? We hope to find out, so watch this space.