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A large axe-grinding stone near Balfron in Scotland is where Neolithic toolmakers sharpened stone axes thousands of years ago. Source: Dr. Murray Cook

Ancient Giant Axe-Grinding Stone Unearthed in Scotland


Archaeologists and volunteers examining a 4,500-year-old Neolithic site near Balfron, beside Stirling in Central Scotland, recently rolled back turf and revealed a giant slab of sandstone. Marked with a series of deep channels, it is believed the stone was used like a whetstone to polish axes. The site now represents the largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points ever discovered in Scotland.

An article on Ancient Pages explained that the site is one of only two known Scottish “polissoir” (U-shaped groove) sites. And so important was this location in the Neolithic period that the archeologists believe “people may have travelled for many miles to smooth or sharpen axes at the site.”

An Axe-Grinding Stone for those with an Axe to Grind

During the summer of 2022 a team of volunteers assisted archaeologists in discovering 33 U-shaped grooves, known as polissoirs, at the site near Balfron in Scotland. The BBC reported that Nick Parish, a volunteer from Scotland's Rock Art Project , and Dr. Murray Cook, a Stirling Council archaeologist, helped strip back turf from the huge slab of sandstone that was last used around 4,500 years ago.

The polissoirs mark an exceptionally special place where Neolithic toolmakers “with an axe to grind” gathered to use the huge whetstone to polish stone axes . Furthermore, the archaeologists are speculating that ancient craftsmen may have travelled from many miles away to smooth or sharpen axes at this particular site in Scotland, explaining that some of the axes would have been used functionally while others were given as “ceremonial gifts.”

Legacy of the Ancient Foresters

The archaeological awards organisation, Dig It , recently listed this discovery in its Top Ten for 2022. Dr. Cook stressed that “discovery is at the heart of archaeology,” but that his job is mostly “just routine and the truncated, fragments of a jigsaw without the picture.” However, the researcher said “Balfron was different” and that the huge sandstone represents “the discovery of a lifetime.”

Cook said “the grooves are astonishing” and “nobody has ever seen anything like them before.” He concluded that to imagine people kneeling at the huge stone in the Neolithic period , sharpening stone axes that would clear Scotland’s primordial forests “is just mind blowing.” Scotland’s earliest hand axes were the choice tools of the first foresters who chopped away ancient wildwoods, making way for fields.

The site where archaeologists discovered a giant sandstone axe-grinding stone represents Scotland's largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points. (Dr. Murray Cook)

The site where archaeologists discovered a giant sandstone axe-grinding stone represents Scotland's largest concentration of Neolithic axe grind points. ( Dr. Murray Cook )

Axes Indicate Shared Neolithic Technologies and Beliefs

The discovery of axe heads in various parts of Scotland shows that Neolithic people made them from both local and imported materials. Furthermore, the entire country was connected with Ireland through trading networks, along which axes were passed.

While many axes were undoubtedly used as practical cutting tools, most discovered are highly-polished ritual and ceremonial objects. According to Arch Highland , both utilitarian and ritual axe heads found throughout the UK and Europe, show “a shared technological and belief system.”

In 2018 BBC News reported that two polished stone axes were uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar Neolithic settlement on Orkney, off the north east of Scotland, which showed signs of heavy practical use. Site director Nick Card of the University of the Highlands and Islands said both axes were damaged “cutting timber joists.” One of them, however, was shaped “to maximize the beauty of the stone’s natural colors,” suggesting it might have had ritual significance.

A stone axe discovered at the Newss of Brodgar Neolithic settlement on Orkney in 2018. (Ness of Brodgar Trust)

A stone axe discovered at the Ness of Brodgar Neolithic settlement on Orkney in 2018. ( Ness of Brodgar Trust )

Axes Were Ancient Symbols of Power

The suspicion that this was “a ritual” axe was cemented when its context was considered. Dr. Card explained that the building in which it was discovered “was aligned to catch the first rays of the equinox sunrise.” This leads many archaeologists to believe that Neolithic axes , in addition to serving as multifunctional tools, may also have been important symbols of power used by emerging elite agricultural families.

Thus, the discovery of the huge sharpening stone in Central Scotland might mark the final point in the production process before ceremonial exes were traded far and wide, to north of Scotland and all the way to southern Europe.

Top image: A large axe-grinding stone near Balfron in Scotland is where Neolithic toolmakers sharpened stone axes thousands of years ago. Source: Dr. Murray Cook

By Ashley Cowie



Pete Wagner's picture

If they were forging metal, you’d have to assume they would have also had a primitive grinding wheel technology.  They would have discovered it at the same time they discovered the potters wheel, which goes WAY BACK. 

Seems the archaeologists are good at brushing dirt off their finds, but beyond that, they’re NOT the sharpest ax in the drawer, so-to-speak.  ;) 

But in general, the mindset of man is not known to change over time.  There’s still liar-tricksters and fools, secrets, theft, rackets, ...and much darker stuff. The silly diversions of academia are well down the devious list.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Steve Greenland's picture

The last sentence is supposed to read: reforge a new head. For some reason I am unable to edit this mistake from reforming to reforge.

Steve Greenland

Steve Greenland's picture

I have extreme doubts that this was used to sharpen as suggested. The axe heads were knapped and very sharp to begin with so if it were to become blunt, the edge would be Knapped again to produce another sharp edge (though this method could only be done this way a couple of times before having to throw it away), In regards to the slab being used as a polisher? It COULD be possible I suppose though the finer mud particles in the surrounding earth, streams etc. would have done a better job.
If there were traces of metals (copper, tin, bronze or iron) then I would have a better time believing the slab of sandstone was used to roughly sharpen an axe as apposed to reforming a new head.

Steve Greenland

Pete Wagner's picture

Let me apologize in advance for what follows. 

Are you kidding me?  You CANNOT sharpen an axe that way!  That would just make it dull! 

I really do think that the professionals would benefit greatly by better understanding the common ancient mind.  Lots of people could probably tell you.  Somewhere somebody lives primitively and knows the mindset perfectly.  Or better, you could try to live that way for a full year or two, and then know it yourself.  But something is needed.  

So then we’ll need another explanation for the grooves.  Maybe they were marking time or quantity?  Or some boys playing with an old dull axe?

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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