The Bronze Axe by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

There is always a certain fascination in beginning a subject at the wrong end and working backward: it has the charm which inevitably attaches to all evil practices; you know you oughtn’t, and so you can’t resist the temptation to outrage the proprieties and do it. I can’t myself resist the temptation of beginning this article where it ought to break off–with Chinese money, which is not the origin, but the final outcome and sole remaining modern representative of that antique and almost prehistoric implement, the Bronze Age hatchet.

Improbable and grotesque as this affiliation sounds at first hearing, it is, nevertheless, about as certain as any other fact in anthropological science–which isn’t, perhaps, saying a great deal. The familiar little brass cash, with the square hole for stringing them together on a thread in the centre, well known to the frequenter of minor provincial museums, are, strange to say, the lineal descendants, in unbroken order, of the bronze axe of remote Celestial ancestors. From the regular hatchet to the modern coin one can trace a distinct, if somewhat broken, succession, so that it is impossible to say where the one leaves off and the other begins–where the implement merges into the medium of exchange, and settles down finally into the root of all evil.

Here is how this curious pedigree first worked itself out. In early times, before coin was invented, barter was usually conducted between producer and consumer with metal implements, as it still is in Central Africa at the present day with Venetian glass beads and rolls of red calico. Payments were all made in kind, and bronze was the commonest form of specie. A gentleman desirous of effecting purchases in foreign parts went about the world with a number of bronze axes in his pocket (or its substitute), which he exchanged for other goods with the native traffickers in the country where he did his primitive business. At first, the early Chinese in that unsophisticated age were content to use real hatchets for this commercial purpose; but, after a time, with the profound mercantile instinct of their race, it occurred to some of them that when a man wanted half a hatchet’s worth of goods he might as well pay for them with half a hatchet. Still, as it would be a pity to spoil a good working implement by cutting it in two, the worthy Ah Sin ingeniously compromised the matter by making thin hatchets, of the usual size and shape, but far too slender for practical usage. By so doing he invented coin: and, what is more, he invented it far earlier than the rival claimants to that proud distinction, the Lydians, whose electrum staters were first struck in the seventh century, B.C. But, according to Professor Terrien de la Couperie, some of the fancy Chinese hatchets which we still retain date back as far as the year 1000 (a good round number), and are so thin that they could only have been intended to possess exchange value. And when a distinguished Sinologist gives us a date for anything Chinese, it behoves the rest of the unlearned world to open its mouth and shut its eyes, and thankfully receive whatever the distinguished Sinologist may send it.

In the seventh century, then, these mercantile axes, made in the strictest sense to sell and not to use, were stamped with an official stamp to mark their amount, and became thereby converted into true coins–that was the root of the ‘root of all evil.’ Thence the declension to the ‘cash’ is easy; the form grew gradually more and more regular, while the square hole in the centre, once used for the handle, was retained by conservatism and practical sense as a convenient means of stringing them together.

So this was the end of the old bronze hatchet, perhaps the most wonderful civilizing agent ever invented by human ingenuity. Let us hark back now, and from the opposite side see what was its first beginning.

‘But why,’ you ask, ‘the most wonderful civilizing agency? What did the bronze axe ever do for humanity?’ Well, nearly everything. I believe I have really not said too much. We are apt to talk big nowadays about the steam-engine, and that marvellous electricity which is always going to do wonders for us all–to-morrow; but I don’t know whether either ever produced so great a revolution in human life, or so completely metamorphosed human existence, as that simple and commonplace bronze hatchet.

For, consider that before the days of bronze man knew no weapon or implement of any sort save the stone axe, or tomahawk, and the flint-tipped arrow. Consider, that the highest stage of human culture he had then reached was hardly higher than that of the scalp-hunting Red Indian or the seal-spearing Esquimaux. Consider, that in his Stone Age agriculture and grains were almost unknown–the forest uncleared, the soil untilled, and hunting and fishing the sole or principal human activities. It was the bronze axe that first enabled man to make clearings in the woodland on the large scale, and to sow on those clearings in good big fields the wheat and barley which determined the first great upward step in the drama of civilization. All these things depend in ultimate analysis upon that pioneer of culture, the bronze hatchet.

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And how did the first Watt or Edison of metallurgy come to make that earliest bronze implement? Well, it seems probable that between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age there intervened everywhere, or nearly everywhere, a very short and transient age of copper. And the reason for thus thinking is threefold. In the first place, bronze is an alloy of tin and copper: and it seems natural to suppose that men would use the simple metals in isolation to begin with, before they discovered that they could harden and temper them by mixing the two together. In the second place, copper occurs in the pure or native state (without the trouble of smelting) in several countries, and was therefore a very natural metal for early man to cast his inquiring glance upon. And in the third place, weapons of unmixed copper, apparently of very antique types, have been found in various parts of the world, both in Asia and America. According to Mr. John Evans, the most learned historian of the Bronze Age, the greatest copper ‘find’ of the eastern hemisphere was that at Gungeria, in Central India; and the copper implements there found consisted entirely of flat celts of a very early and almost primitive pattern.

The copper weapons of America, however, have greater illustrative and ethnological interest, because the noble red man, at the period when Columbus first discovered him, and when he first discovered Columbus, was still in the Stone Age of his very imperfect culture, or, to speak more correctly, of extreme barbarism. The fact is, the Indians of Lake Superior were only just beginning to employ copper, and were on the eve of independently inaugurating a Bronze Age of their own, when the intrusive white man came and spoiled the fun by the incontinent introduction of iron, firearms, missionaries, whisky, and all the other resources of civilization. On the shores of Lake Superior native copper exists in abundance; and the intelligent Red Indian, finding this handsome red stone in the cliffs by his side, was pretty sure to try his hand at chipping a tomahawk out of the rare material. But, as soon as he did so, Mr. Evans suggests, he would find to his surprise that it yielded to his blows; in short, that he had got that singular phenomenon, a malleable stone, to deal with. Hammering away at his new invention, he must shortly have hammered it into a shapely axe. The new process took his practical fancy at once: vistas of an untold wealth of scalps floated gaily before his fevered brain; and he proceeded to hammer himself various weapons and implements without delay. Amongst others, he produced for himself very neat spear-heads, with sockets adapted for the reception of a shaft, made by hammering out the base flat, and then turning over the edges so as to enclose the wood between them, like a modern hoe-handle. In Wisconsin alone more than a hundred of such copper axes, spear-heads, and knives have been unearthed by antiquaries and duly recorded.

All these weapons, however, are simply hammered, not cast or melted. The Red Indian hadn’t yet reached the stage of making a mould when De Champlain and his voyageurs came down upon Canada and interrupted this interesting experiment in industrial development by springing the seventeenth century upon the unsophisticated red man at one fell blow, with all its inherited wealth of European science. Nevertheless, the Indians must have known that fire melted copper; for the heat of the altars was great enough, say Squier and Davis, to fuse the implements and ornaments laid upon them in sacrificial rites; and so the fact of its fusibility could hardly have escaped them. A people who had advanced so far on the road towards the invention of casting could hardly have been prevented from taking the final step, save by the sudden intervention of some social cataclysm like the European invasion of Eastern America. And how awful a calamity that was for the Indians themselves we at this day can hardly even realize.

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In some similar way, no doubt, the Asiatic people who first invented bronze must have learned the fact of the fusibility of metals, and have applied it in time, at first, perhaps, by accident, to the manufacture of that hard alloy. I say Asiatic, because there seems good reason to believe that Asia was the original home of the nascent bronze industry. For a Bronze Age almost necessarily implies a brief preceding age of copper; and there is no proof of pure copper implements ever having been largely used in Europe, while there is ample proof of their having been used to a very considerable extent in Asia. Hence we may reasonably infer that the art of bronze-making was developed in Asia by a copper-using people, and that when metallurgy was first introduced into Europe the method of mixing the copper with tin had already been perfected. The abundance of tin in the south-eastern islands of Asia renders this view probable; while in Europe there are no tin mines worth mentioning, except in the remotest part of a remote outlying island–to wit, in Cornwall.

Be this as it may, the earliest and simplest forms of bronze axe with which we are acquainted are profoundly interesting, as casting a flood of light upon the general process of human evolution all the world over. Every new human invention is always at first directly modelled upon the other similar products which have preceded it. There is no really new thing under the sun. For example, the earliest English railway carriages were built on the model of the old stage-coach, only that three stage-coaches, as it were, were telescoped together, side by side–the very first bore the significant motto, Tria juncta in uno–and it was this preconception of the English coachbuilder that has hampered us ever since with our hateful ‘compartments,’ instead of the commodious and comfortable open American saloon carriages. So, too, the earliest firearms were modelled on the stock of the old cross-bow, and the earliest earthenware pots and pans were shaped like the still more primitive gourds and calabashes. It need not surprise us, therefore, to find that the earliest metal axes of which we have any knowledge were directly moulded on the original shape of the stone tomahawk.

Such a copper hatchet, cast in a mould formed by a polished neolithic stone celt, was found in an early Etruscan tomb, and is still preserved in the Museum at Berlin. See how natural this process would be. For, in the first place, the primitive workman, knowing already only one form of axe, the stone tomahawk, would naturally reproduce it in the new material, without thinking what improvements in shape and design the malleability and fusibility of the metal would render possible or easy. But, more than that, the idea of coating the polished stone axe with plastic clay, and thereby making a mould for the molten metal, would be so very simple that even the neolithic savage, already accustomed to the manufacture of coarse pottery upon natural shapes, could hardly fail to think of it. As a matter of fact, he did think of it: for celts of bronze or copper, cast in moulds made from stone hatchets, have been found in Cyprus by General di Cesnola, on the site of Troy by Dr. Schliemann, and in many other assorted localities by less distinguished but equally trustworthy archaeologists.

To the neolithic hunter, herdsman, and villager this progress from the stone to the metal axe probably seemed at first a mere substitution of an easier for a more difficult material. He little knew whither his discovery tended. It was pure human laziness that urged the change. How nice to save yourself all that long trouble of chipping and polishing, with ceaseless toil, in favour of a stone which you could melt at one go and pour while hot into a ready-made mould! It must have looked, by comparison, like weapon-making by magic; for properly to cut and polish a stone axe is the work of weeks and weeks of elbow-grease. Yet here, in a moment, a better hatchet could be turned out all finished! But the implied effects lay deeper far than the neolithic hunter could ever have imagined. The bronze axe was the beginning of civilization; it brought the steam-engine, the telephone, woman’s rights, and the county councillor directly in its train. With the eye of faith, had he only possessed that useful optical organ, the Stone Age artizan might doubtless have beheld Pears’ soap and the deceased wife’s sister looming dimly in the remote future. Till that moment human life had been almost stationary: thenceforth, it proceeded by leaps and bounds, like a kangaroo society, on its upward path towards triumphant democracy and the penny post. The nineteenth century and all its wiles hung by a thread upon the success of his melting pot.

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Indeed, the whole history of human civilization has been one of a constantly accelerated progress. The Older Stone Age, when men knew only how to chip flint implements, but hadn’t yet invented the art of grinding and polishing them, was one of immense and incalculable duration, to be reckoned perhaps by tens of thousands of years–some bold chronologists would even suggest by hundreds of thousands. Improvement there was, to be sure, during all that long epoch of slow development; but it was improvement at a snail’s pace. The very rude chipped axes of the naked drift age give way after thousands and thousands of years to the shapelier chipped lances, javelins, and arrowheads of the skin-clad cavemen. M. Gabriel de Mortillet, indeed, most indefatigable of theorists, has even pointed out four stages of culture, marked by four different types of weapons, into which he subdivides the Older Stone Age. Yet vast epochs elapsed before some prehistoric Stephenson or dusky Morse first, half by accident, smote out the idea of grinding his tomahawk smooth to a sharp cutting edge, instead of merely chipping it sharp, and so initiated the Neolithic Period. This Neolithic Period itself, again, was immensely long as compared with the Bronze Age which followed, though short by comparison with the Palaeolithic epoch which preceded it. Then the Bronze Age saw enormous changes come faster and faster, till the use of iron still further accelerated the rate of progress. For each new improvement becomes, in turn, the parent of yet newer triumphs, so that at last, as in the present day, a single century sees vaster changes in the world of man than whole ages before it have done in far longer intervals.

But the invention of bronze, or, in other words, the introduction of hard metal, was really perhaps the very greatest epoch of all, the most distinct turning-point in the whole history of humanity. True, some beginnings of civilisation were already found in the Newer Stone Age. Man did not then live by slaughter alone. Hand-made pottery and rude tissues of flax are found in neolithic lake dwellings in Switzerland. Agriculture was already practised in a feeble way on small open clearings, cautiously cleaved with fire or hewn with the tomahawk in the native forests. The cow, the sheep, and the goat were more or less domesticated, though the horse was yet riderless; and the pastoral had therefore, to some extent, superseded the pure hunting stage. But what inroad could the stone hatchet make unaided upon the virgin forests of those remote days? The neolithic clearing must have been a mere stray oasis in a desert of woodland, like the villages of the New Guinea savages at the present day, lying few and far between among vast stretches of primaeval forest.

With the advent of bronze, everything was different; and the difference showed itself with extraordinary rapidity. One may compare the revolution effected by bronze in the early world, indeed, with the revolution effected by railways in our own time; only the neolithic world had been so very simple a one that the change was perhaps even more marvellous in its suddenness and its comprehensiveness. Metal itself implied metal-working; and metal-working brought about, not only the arts of smelting and casting, but also endless incidental arts of design and decoration. The bronze hatchets, for example, to take our typical implement, begin by being mere copies of the stone originals; but, as time goes on, they acquire rapidly innumerable improvements. First, metal is economized in the upper part which fits into the handle, while the lower or cutting edge is widened out sideways, so as to form an elegant and gracefully curved outline for the whole implement. Next come the flanged axes, with projecting ledges on either side; and then the palstaves with loops and ribs, each marking some new improvement in the character of the weapon, which the inventor would no doubt have patented but for the unfortunate fact that patents were as yet wholly unknown to Bronze Age humanity. Later still come the socketed hatchets of many patterns, with endless ingenious little devices for securing some small advantage to the special manufacturer. I can fancy the Bronze Age smith showing them off with pride to his interested customers: ‘These are our own patterns–the newest thing out in bronze axes; observe the advantage you gain from the ribs and pellets, and the peculiar character which the octagonal socket gives to the hafting!’ Indeed, in this single department of bronze celts alone, Mr. Evans in his great monumental work figures over a hundred and eighty distinct specimens (out of thousands known), each one presenting some well-marked advance in type upon its predecessor. There is almost a Yankee ingenuity of design in many of the dodges thus registered for our inspection.

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Many of the celts, I may add, are most beautifully decorated with geometrical patterns, some of which belong to a very high order of ornamental art. This is still more the case with the daggers, swords, and defensive armour, often intended for the use of great chieftains, and executed with an amount of taste and feeling long since dead among the degenerate workmen of our iron age.

But the indirect effects of the introduction of metal working were far more interesting and important in their way than the direct effects. With bronze began the great age of agriculture, of commerce, and of navigation.

Of agriculture first, because the bronze hatchet enabled men to make such openings in the forest as neolithic man had never ever dreamed of. For the first time in the history of our race, whole tracts of country at once began to be cleared and cultivated. Stone Age tillage was the tillage of tiny plots in the forest’s depths; Bronze Age tillage was the tillage of fields and wide open spaces in the champaign country. The Stone Age knew no specials implements of agriculture as such; its tomahawk was indiscriminately applied to all purposes alike of war or gardening. You scalped your enemy with it, or you cut up your dinner, or you dug your field, or you planted your seed-corn, according as taste or circumstances directed. But while the Bronze Age men had axes to hew down the wood, they had also sickles and reaping-hooks to cut their crops, and a sort of hoe or scraper to till the soil with. Specialisation reached a very high pitch. All the remains of the Bronze Age show us an agricultural people by no means idyllic in their habits to be sure, and not all disposed to join the Peace Preservation Society, but cultivating large stretches of wheat or barley, grinding their meal in regular mills, and possessed of implements of considerable diversity, some of which I shall proceed to notice later.

The evidences of commerce and of navigation are equally obvious. Bronze itself consists of tin and copper: and there are only two parts of the world from which tin in any large quantities can be procured–namely, Cornwall and the Malay Archipelago. The very existence of bronze, therefore, necessarily implies the existence of a sea-going trade in tin, for which some corresponding benefits must of course have been offered by the early purchaser. As a matter of fact, we know with some probability that it was Cornish tin which first tempted the Phoenicians out of the inland sea, past the Pillars of Hercules, to brave the terrors of the open Atlantic. Long before the days of such advanced navigation, however, the Cornish tin was transported by land across the whole breadth of Southern Britain and shipped for the Continent from the Isle of Thanet. A very old trackway runs along the crest of the Downs from the West Country to Kent, known now as the Pilgrim’s Way, because it was followed in far later times by mediaeval wayfarers from Somerset and Dorset to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. But Mr. Charles Elton has shown conclusively that the Pilgrim’s Way is many centuries more ancient than the martyr of King Henry’s epoch, and that it was used in the Bronze Age for the transport of tin from the mines in Cornwall to the port of Sandwich. To this day antique ingots of the valuable metal are often dug up in hoards or finds along the line of the ancient track. They were evidently buried there in fear and trembling, long ages since, in what Indian voyageurs still call a cache, by caravans hurriedly surprised by the enemy; and owing to the unfortunate accident of the possessors all getting killed off in the ensuing fray, the ingots have been left undisturbed for centuries for the benefit of antiquaries at the present time. ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ Probably the inhabitants of Herculaneum and Pompeii had very little notion what valuable relics their bodies and houses would prove in the end for curious posterity.

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The converse evidence of a return trade in other goods is no less striking. Not only are articles in amber found in Bronze Age tombs all over Europe (though the gum itself belongs to the Baltic and the North Sea alone), but also gold objects of southern workmanship occur in British barrows; while sometimes even ivory from Africa is noticed in the inlaid handles of some Welsh or Brigantian chieftain’s sword. Glass beads were likewise imported into Britain, as were also ornaments of Egyptian porcelain. In fact, the Bronze Age clearly marks for us the period when trade routes extended in every direction from the Mediterranean, north and south, and when the world began to be commercially solidified by a primitive theory of foreign exchange. It is a little odd that the basis of all this traffic was tin, and that we still use the name of that same metal as a brief equivalent for coin in general: but persons of serious economical or philological intelligence are particularly requested not to enter into grave correspondence with the author of this paper on any possible levity which they may detect lurking in this innocent remark.

Some small idea of the rapid advance in civilization which marked the Bronze Age may perhaps be formed from a brief enumeration of the principal classes of remains which have come down to us intact from that first epoch of metal. Besides all the various celts, hatchets, and adzes, whose name is legion, and whose patterns are manifold, many other tools or implements occur abundantly in the barrows or caches. Chisels, either plain, tanged, with lugs, or socketed; gouges, hammers, anvils, and tongs; punches, awls, drills, and prickers; tweezers, needles, fish-hooks, and weights; all these are found by dozens in endless variety of design. Knives are common, and the vanity of Bronze Age man made him even put up without a murmur with the pangs of shaving with a bronze razor. Daggers and rapiers naturally abound, many of them of rare and beautiful workmanship. Halberds turn up less frequently, but swords are abundant, and are sometimes tastefully decorated with gold or ivory. Even the scabbards sometimes survive, while the shields, adorned with concentric rings or with knobs and bosses, would put to shame the rank and file of cheap modern metal work. Nay, the very trumpets which sounded the onset often lie buried by the warrior’s side, and the bells which adorned his horse’s neck bring back to us vividly the Homeric pictures of Bronze Age warfare.

The private life of Bronze Age man and his correlative wife is illustrated for us by another great group of more strictly personal relics. There are pins simple and pins of the infantile safety-pin order: there are brooches which might be worn by modern ladies, and ear-rings so huge that even modern ladies would in all probability object to wearing them, unless, indeed, a princess or an actress made them the fashion. The torques, or necklets, are among the best known male decorations, and are still famous in Ireland, where Malachi (whoever he may have been) wore the collar of gold which he tore from the proud invader. Many of the bracelets are extremely beautiful; but, strange to say, as if on purpose to spite the common prejudice about the degeneracy of modern man, they are all so small in girth as to betoken a race with arms and legs hardly any bigger than the Finns or Laplanders. Of the clasps, buttons, and buckles I will say nothing here. I have enumerated enough to suggest to even the most casual observer the vastness of the revolution which the Bronze Age wrought in the mode of life and the civilisation of ancient man.

Bronze found our early ancestor, in fact, a half-developed savage: it left him a semi-civilized Homeric Greek. It came in upon a world of skin-clad hunters and fishers: it went out upon a world of Phoenician navigators, Egyptian architects, Achaean poets, and Roman soldiers. And all this wide difference was wrought in a period of some eight or ten centuries at the outside, almost entirely by the advent of the simple bronze axe.

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