27 Pounds of Copper Age Axe and Hammer Heads is the Largest European Hoard of its Kind
Ancient societies’ ability to manufacture metal objects was critical in the development of civilization. This is why any finds of metallic goods or tools from the prehistoric past is so important for our understanding of our ancestors. In Bulgaria, a chance discovery of a hoard of axe and hammer heads is helping us to better understand the Copper Age (4000-3000 BC) in Europe and its surprising level of civilization.
Lucky Find in Farmland
The find was made near the sleepy village of Polkovnik Taslakovo in the Sara Kaya area of North Eastern Bulgaria not far from the Black Sea coastline in 2013. The axe and hammer heads were found on a plot of farmland entirely by accident and they were covered by a round smooth piece of limestone, about one foot (0.3 meters) beneath the surface. The hoard is located not far from four prehistoric settlement mounds in the region, according to the academic journal Archaeologica Bulgaria. The objects in the hoard are currently on display in a local museum.
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Example of a copper axe head from the copper age; found in the territory of the Hungarian town Hajdúdorog. (Jojojoe/CC BY SA 3.0)
The find was reported to the local authorities as required by Bulgarian law. Experts from the Ruse Regional Museum of History investigated the site and removed the objects for further examination. In total 22 items were recovered, including 18 flat axes and four hammers that are known as axe-hammers. The hoard weighs 27 pounds (12 kg). All of the heads are made from a copper alloy which was once easily mined in the region. Archaeology in Bulgaria website writes that the hoard is the largest find of these objects in Europe to date.
Drawings of hammer-axe heads found in the copper hoard in Bulgaria. (D. Chernakov)
Remnants of a Prehistoric Civilization
The tools are estimated to date to about 6,500 years ago, thus they’re from the Chalcolithic era, or as it is more popularly known ‘the Copper Age’. This was when copper, which can be quickly turned into a usable metal, was widely used by a variety of cultures in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Interestingly, the heads did not show any sign of wear or tear and they were never apparently used - they are in great condition. This has led to the theory that they were not meant for practical purposes such as agriculture or even warfare. The items could have been used as gifts or even as prehistoric currency.
Copper Axes. These are from the Middle Copper Age in Hungary (c. 3500-2799) by the "Baden Culture". They are at the Budapest History Museum. (Bjoertvedt/CC BY SA 4.0)
The find is raising all sorts of possibilities and is providing experts with a better understanding of the Copper Age and in particular the very important Chalcolithic culture that flourished on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast over 6,000 years ago. Other finds from the Copper Age culture made in the region include the “Varna Gold Treasure” that was uncovered from a graveyard from 4500 BC. This society also built Europe’s oldest known urban settlement, which is called the ‘The Salt Pit’ in English. Other finds from this culture in the North-East of Bulgaria include evidence of workshops and “a grave of a man holding a stone ax sceptre” according to Archaeology in Bulgaria.
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Insight into the Copper Age
It is believed that the copper items were made elsewhere and brought to the region, where they were used to express the power of members of the local elite. They could have also been hidden because they were valuable during a period of instability and those who buried them were never able to retrieve them. There is also the possibility that they were some sort of sacrifice or gift to a chthonic deity, such as a god of the Underworld.
The sheer extent of the find and the fact that they were not used would indicate that the prehistoric culture that thrived in this area some six millennia ago was very rich. It also shows that the culture had considerable technological expertise, especially metallurgical technological capabilities. Moreover, it had access to such quantities of the metal that they could use it for non-utilitarian purposes. And there is the real possibility that the hoard is evidence that copper axe and hammer heads were used as a form of money. The find is helping experts to reconstruct one of the earliest known civilizations not only in the Balkans, but also in Europe.
Top image: The hoard of copper axe and axe hammer heads from the 5th millennium BC is said to be Europe’s largest Chalcolithic find of its kind. Source: Ruse Regional Museum of History
By Ed Whelan