The Battle Axe Culture: Piecing Together the Age of Crushed Skulls
Peering into the development stages of the Neolithic cultures of Old Europe has always been a challenging task for archaeologists and scholars. Reaching so far back into time in the hope of piecing together a detailed picture is a task that involves decades of dedicated work. Understanding the enigmatic secrets of the Battle Axe culture, which thrived in the coastal areas of southern Scandinavia and is considered to be one of the most important and most intriguing Chalcolithic cultures of Europe, can help us better understand the Indo-European migration and the replacement of Old European cultures.
Slowly spreading northwards and reaching the shores of Scandinavia, this culture brought with it many innovations and new cultural traits that were iconic of the Indo-Europeans. But what was their relationship with the native inhabitants of these regions? And did the Battle Axe Culture define the future of Germanic peoples? Let’s try and find out!
Neolithic boat axe from Boberow, at the Archaeological Museum of the state of Brandenburg in the Stone Age Gallery. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ancient Origins of the Battle Axe Culture
The Battle Axe Culture is considered an offshoot of the broader Corded Ware culture. The latter is considered to be one of the most crucial archaeological horizons of Europe. It emerged in the very late Neolithic (late Stone Age), flourished in the Copper Age, and declined in the early Bronze Age. One characteristic aspect of the Corded Ware culture is the great swath of land over which it spread. At its height it spanned most parts of Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe.
In historic and archaeological terms, the Corded Ware culture is crucial. It emerged as an offshoot of the Yamnaya culture, which today is considered to be the source of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their language. Thus, as the Corded Ware culture spread eastwards and northwards, it displaced the Proto-Indo-European populations of Europe and brought with it a new language and advanced technology. Through these migrations a new world was created that would come to reshape the course of history.
Researchers used genomic DNA extracted from the skeletal remains of a male individual associated with the Neolithic Battle Axe culture to try to understand the genomic ancestry of the Scandinavian culture and its relationship to the broader Corded Ware culture. (Jonas Karlsson / Östergötlands Museum)
The Battle Axe culture slowly formed in the southern regions of the Scandinavian Peninsula, around 2,800 BC. Its origin lies in the Corded Ware culture. It’s easy to visualize how this development might have occurred: after reaching the Baltic, these peoples might have sailed over to Scandinavia, where through partial isolation they would have developed a culture slightly different to the original Corded Ware. Initially, Battle Axe peoples replaced the earlier Funnelbeaker culture that thrived in north-central Europe for a long time.
The Funnelbeaker culture was marked by its distinctive pottery and animal husbandry, alongside complex religious rituals. Today it is agreed that it was of Proto-European origin, unlike the migrating Battle Axe culture. It is almost certain that the assimilation of the Funnelbeaker culture was a relatively fast process, taking perhaps a century and no more. While mass migrations and gradual genetic displacement certainly played a big role in this process, some scholars – most notably the famous Marija Gimbutas – stated that a political relation between the natives and the intruders contributed to a faster cultural “morphosis” into the broader Battle Axe culture.
Example of a Funnelbeaker, Skarpsalling vessel, Denmark, 3200 BC (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One key insight into the overpowering spread and influence of the Battle Axe culture is their co-habitation with another native culture of Scandinavia – the Pitted Ware. The latter was a largely peaceful culture of hunter-gatherer societies, flourishing alongside the coast and dependent on maritime resources. It managed to coexist alongside the Battle Axe culture for roughly three or more centuries, before finally being overwhelmed and assimilated.
What Made the Battle Axe Culture So Unique and Successful?
The Battle Axe Culture has always been a subject of great interest in the world of archaeology, and in particular for Swedish scholars who have devoted a lot of research to this period. One of the major contributions in the field was presented in 1933 by the Lund researcher John Elof Forssander, whose doctoral dissertation introduced major defining factors on the subject. It was during this period that the distinctive names for the culture appeared – Battle Axe and Boat Axe culture. But where do these names come from?
The answer can be found in the distinctive shape of the axe heads associated with this culture. To date, over 3,000 axe heads have been discovered in Scandinavia, many of them discovered at burial sites. These axes are by far the most characteristic aspect of this culture, and its identifying trait. They are most often made from polished flint stone, skillfully worked in a precise, curved shape resembling a boat. The axe heads, even though they are made from stone, showcase an immense amount of artisanal skill and are a clear insight into the advanced technologies that this culture brought with it.
Cord Ware beaker, plus Boat Axe Culture pottery, stone axes, at The Estonian History Museum. (CC BY 3.0)
The axe heads are almost exclusively double headed and some examples show a great attention to detail. It is likely that these heads were of a ritual significance and were most certainly a symbol of status within the society. The ritual axe heads that have been found are often worked from black stone with angular sides and a pronounced lip, together with a rounded crushing end. The axes were deposited in burials as grave goods, and might have had a ritual or funerary significance, alongside being a status symbol for the wearer. Such axes were definitely a deadly weapon that gave the Battle Axe culture an advantage in warfare: numerous burials from the era display catastrophic, crushing head wounds, giving rise to the name “Age of Crushed Skulls”.
Another aspect for which the Battle Axe culture is known are its burial customs. Around 250 distinct burials have been discovered to date in Scandinavia, all of them sharing identical traits associated with this culture. The deceased were placed in small, single flat graves without the use of barrows. A specific orientation was followed – north to south – clearly due to a ritual significance, with male and female burials being different: women were placed on their right side, while males were on their left side. The deceased was accompanied by numerous grave goods, of which, of course, the most important is a battle axe head. Besides this there were stone tools like chisels and work axes, amber beads, and antler weapons and arrowheads, as well as remains of wildlife. Pottery beakers were also a popular burial good, with many finds documented.
The Bergsgraven discovery of 1953 during the building of a road in Linköping, Sweden, included the grave of what was probably an entire family, including man, woman, child and dog, and items such as battle axes. This is currently on display at Östergötlands Museum. (Östergötlands Museum)
Exploring The Age of Crushed Skulls
From these burial customs, researchers have been able to discern a significant difference between the Battle Axe people and the Funnelbeaker people. The main reason for this is the fact that the defining feature of the Funnelbeaker culture was megalithism. Up to the time of the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, the Funnelbeaker peoples raised complex megalith structures: tall stones that had a major ritual significance. Many of these were dolmens, passage tombs of raised stones, in which collective burials were conducted. This meant that there were many dead in one location (dolmen), complete with numerous grave goods. This pointed to a collective society that largely lived in unison. Where the Battle Axe culture differs is in their clear emphasis on single, simple burials within individual graves. Once we take into account a clear warlike element such, namely the battle axes, we can deduce that the Battle Axe culture was much more individualistic, perhaps even tribal in large measure.
When it comes to settlements associated with the Battle Axe culture, things get more complicated. Less than 100 excavated settlements are known today, many of them without substantial quality of preservation. This is due to the fact that most of these remains are located on arable land, with continuous plowing dissipating the remains. Nonetheless, a certain pattern can be identified: most of these settlements are located inland in Scandinavia’s south, and very few are located on the coast. This tells us that either the coast was inhabited by the peoples of the Pitted Ware culture, or the Battle Axe people preferred more fertile lands located inland. Furthermore, most of the Battle Axe settlements can be denominated as being of a farm community type, and are often closely connected to burial places. Some examples even show that houses were located around a burial ground. This perhaps indicates a strong culture of ancestral worship, which was universal across Europe at the time.
Archaeological evidence and DNA data from remains on display at Östergötlands Museum have been crucial in the Royal Society study which aimed to identify the origins of the Battle Axe culture. (Östergötlands Museum)
But even so, the Battle Axe culture enjoyed certain similarities to the cultures it encountered. It too was largely based on established agricultural practices and mastered animal husbandry. Multiple archaeological discoveries have confirmed that wheat and similar cereals were grown in small individual plots, and that the settlements tended to move around, due to the growing of these crops, as well as for the herding of cattle. One aspect that researchers agree on is the clear evidence of trade. It seems that the Battle Axe culture was not entirely warlike, and engaged in trade with peoples to the north, where they exchanged the goods resulting from animal husbandry for different material goods. They also mastered the use of horses and ox-drawn carts, as did the peoples of the Funnelbeaker culture.
One thing that is crucial for the Battle Axe culture, and the impact it had on the future of Scandinavia, is seafaring. The distinguishing characteristics of this culture were quick to spread, and this is apparently due to their skills in sailing. At the time, sea levels were higher, which allowed them to use the waterways and seas as easily navigable routes through which to spread and conduct trade. This developed into a partially maritime culture that boosted their geographical spread around Scandinavia and helped expand their economy through trade. This is further confirmed by the numerous and widespread petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating to this period, which depict ships.
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The so-called boat-shaped battle axes are typical of the Battle Axe Culture of Bornholm. Pottery vessels and axes, chisels and arrows made of flint are also common as grave gifts on the island of Bornholm. (National Museum of Denmark)
The Ancestral Seed of the Germanic Peoples
By far the most crucial role of the Battle Axe culture, is the part it played as progenitor of the Germanic peoples. Upon their arrival to Scandinavia in around 2,800 BC, these peoples brought the distinct cultural aspects of the Indo-Europeans with them, as well as the Indo European language. Upon their absorption of the native cultures, and their fusion with them, different cultural aspects were combined. This was a necessary component which helped push Scandinavia into the Nordic Bronze Age.
Today, the Nordic Bronze Age is considered to be the ancestral civilizational era of the Germanic Peoples. One interesting detail could easily be the missing link between the Battle Axe Culture and the later identity of the Nordic Bronze age: the battle axe symbol. Its distinct shape, and its obvious ritual use, could mean that the axe head was a symbol of a deity, much like Thor, whose chief symbol was a hammer head or sometimes even an axe head, or the Slavic deity Perun, or even the Finnic god Ukko. Could it be that the axes of the Battle Axe culture were a symbol of an early form of a thunder god?
Several complex genetic studies were carried out on the two remains located at a Battle Axe burial in order to confirm their identity and learn more about the genetics of the migrating Indo-Europeans. Thanks to these DNA studies it was deduced that the male of the burial carried the haplogroup R1a. The R1a group is the most common paternal haplogroup of the various Corded Ware cultures and widely attributed to Mesolithic Eastern hunter-gatherers.
The Ever-Changing Fate of Old Europe
Time is ruthless when history is in question. It’s easy to write about the disappearance of one culture and the emergence of another. But for the peoples of that faraway era, things were different. These were processes that took hundreds of years to complete, and weaker, primitive peoples were often faced with disappearance and assimilation, which is never a pleasant thing. But such was the way of life in ancient times which was characterized by mass migrations of technologically advanced peoples, whose innovations and skills often brought an abrupt and dramatic change in the lives of cultures that had developed peacefully for hundreds of years. And so it was that the rapid spread of Indo-Europeans brought an unstoppable change for Old Europe. The original Neolithic cultures had to fuse with the invaders, attempt to resist, or disappear altogether. And so the future was forged and cemented, one century at a time.
Top image: Little is known about the Neolithic Age Battle Axe culture, but archaeologists and scholars continue to apply new technologies to piece together a more complete picture. (Image, Stone Axes in Turov Local History Museum). Source: Grigory Bruev
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