The Politics of Supply: The Neolithic Axe Industry in Alpine Europe

By Thirault, Eric | Antiquity, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Supply: The Neolithic Axe Industry in Alpine Europe


Thirault, Eric, Antiquity


Introduction

The circulation of certain high status artefacts as a reflection of organised production and supply is an important aspect of the Neolithic period (Binder & Perles 1990). A good example of such an artefact is offered by the polished stone blades serving as axe heads or adzes which are found throughout the European Neolithic. Such artefacts are seen as having a high economic, social and symbolic value, as attested by their occurrence in contexts of discard as well as in ritual deposits (graves or hoards). Most studies of axe blades in Western Europe emphasise the petrographic characterisation of tools as a key to their provenance in particular rock sources (Ricq-de Bouard 1996; Le Roux 1999). However, the next agenda is to reveal the social consequences of these distributions (Petrequin et al. 1997, 1998, 2002; Petrequin & Petrequin 1993). To understand the connections between the sources, mode of manufacture and geographical distribution of the polished blades, on the one hand, and the functioning of the societies which used them, on the other, it is essential to try and integrate every available fragment of archaeological information (Bradley & Edmonds 1993; Jeudy et al. 1995; Petrequin & Jeunesse 1995).

In the Western Alps, three variables characterise the system represented by the axe blades: the provenance of rock extracted, the mode of manufacture and the find spots of raw materials and finished products. The dominant rock sources are the eclogites of the Italian Alps, and important patterns are provided by both the location of workshops and the eventual destination of their products. On the basis of a study of more than 2000 polished blades (Thirault et al. 1999; Thirault 2001a, b), I offer here a summary review and a provisional interpretation of the supply system which seems to be emerging over the Neolithic period, particularly as it relates to the area of the Rhone-Saone rivers.

Distribution of axe blades made in different fabrics

Alpine metamorphic rocks which outcrop in the Western Alps and the Apennines constitute a substantial source of resilient rock which was widely exploited during the Neolithic period (Compagnoni et al. 1995; Ricq-de Bouard 1996; D'Amico et al. 1995, 1998; D'Amico 2000). The metamorphic metabasites, especially edogites, jadeitites and glaucophanites, have a shock-resistant character particularly useful in an axe. Eclogites outcrop in the Alps massif and valleys, on the Alpine Piemontese slope, in the Swiss Valais and in the Ligurian-Piemontese Apennines (Voltri group). Glacial and alluvial transports also formed substantial secondary deposits in Liguria, Piemonte, in the Val d'Aosta and in the upper Rhone valley above Lake Leman (Ricq-de Bouard 1996). In subsequent analyses I propose to include axe blades made of jadeite pyroxene (jadeitites), with the eclogites since there appears to be little difference between them from an archaeological point of view (Thirault et al. 1999).

Petrographic and mineralogical analysis of axe blades found in and around the Western Alps demonstrates that the area of use of eclogites extended far beyond the outcrops (see Figure 1; the production areas (i.e. extraction areas) are marked in black in Figure 2, and the area of natural outcrops (following Deville et al. 1992) is marked by hatching in Figure 3). Within a radius of 200kin from the alpine eclogite outcrops, this family of rocks is used in a ratio which is never less than 50 per cent, and often exceeds 75 per cent (Figure 1; Ricq-de Bouard 1996; Compagnoni et al. 1995; Thirault et al. 1999; D'Amico 2000). In the extraction areas, the ratio sometimes reaches 100 per cent.

[FIGURES 1-3 OMITTED]

Other kinds of rock exploited in the axe industry have distributions which are peripheral to that of the eclogites (Figures 1 and 2). In Western Provence, tool production from pebbles in metabasites belonging to the blue-schist facies (glaucophanite) has been noted by Ricq-de Bouard (1996). …

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