Mesolithic Tranchet Axe (Oldesloe-Type) from Schleswig


A tranchet axe is a lithic tool made by removing a flake, known, when using this method, as a tranchet flake, parallel to the final intended cutting edge of the tool which creates a single straight edge as wide as the tool itself.

The principle of tranchet flaking first appeared during the Acheulean. Flake cleavers have a cutting edge created by a tranchet flake being struck from the primary surface. The first tranchet axes were present already in the MSA of Africa.

Core axes were made by the façonnage technique from large flakes or cores. Site 8-B-11 on Sai Island in northern Sudan is famous for its early MSA (Sangoan)-core axes.  The lowest stratified layer is the late Acheulean which features large lanceolate handaxes, which are very fresh, and have a maximum age of 223 k.a. BP (OSL dating). At Sai Island Acheulean and MSA assemblages were actually contemporary.

Wear analysis indicates that Sangoan core-axes from site 8-B-11 at Sai Island, Sudan, were used while hafted. The middle Sangoan occupation level at 8-B-11 served as a locale where specialized activities were performed, including core-axe manufacture and hafting. Newly manufactured quartz core-axes served as replacements for exhausted items that were mostly fabricated out of raw materials other than quartz, which were carried back to the site in their hafts for re-tooling.

The hafted core-axes appear as highly mobile, curated tools, being transported across a large territory. The evidence indicates that the Sangoan is the archaeological reflection of a complex behavioural system involving economic specialization, which appeared in this part of Africa for the first time around 200 k.a. ago.

From the upper Paleolithic comes a core axe from Kostenki I, which has characteristic signs of use. Core and tranchet axes were also made during the upper Paleolithic at Haua Fteah, Libya.

Core and tranchet axes were typical tools of the Mesolithic of southern Scandinavia and the northern part of central Europe. During the Mesolithic until the onset of the Neolithic they were omnipresent present from the British Isles in the west to Russia in the east. In Central Europe the southern boundary is Kirdorf Wahlen about 80 miles from Kassel and was detected by Klaus Quehl at a quartzite outcrop, which was already used by Mousterian and Blattspitzen-groups.

In the Middle East such implements are common during the early Holocene in the Natufian and continue until the PPNB. Flint mines for the production of core and tranchet axes from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B were dated to 7500 and 7000 cal BC. In Europe their use is attested during the initial Neolithic of Northern Europe, especially during the Funnel Beaker Culture and atypical tranchet axes are known from mid-and late Neolithic Settlements in Western Europe.

Early on, it was pointed out that in early Mesolithic of northern Germany and southern Scandinavia core axes are initially more often than tranchet axes, the numerical ratio in the course of time shifts in favor of the tranchet axes.  This observation was not confirmed by modern excavations at Duvensee 8 (early Mesolithic), where almost as many core axes as tranchet axes were present. However, at other large sites a certain trend of increase the proportion of tranchets during the time could be attested.

Interestingly, the function of Mesolithic tranchet axes is poorly understood (woodworking? earth working?). The pieces must have been hafted, but were never found in hafting material, despite earlier claims based on complete frauds.


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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3 Responses to Mesolithic Tranchet Axe (Oldesloe-Type) from Schleswig

  1. Nick Van Liefferinge says:

    I can not see the negative of a tranchet flake in the photo above, so it
    can be interpreted as a tranchet axe without ‘coup de tranchet’?

  2. Katzman says:

    I understand what you mean. Do you accept the designation “tranchet axe” only for longitudial but also for transversal coups de tranchet? If the small transversal negative on the picture does not justify to call this axe a tranchet axe, how would you call this artifact?
    In Germany we call these axes: Scheibenbeil. When I wrote the text I did not know for shure if tranchet axe would be the correct translation…

  3. Nick Van Liefferinge says:

    Indeed! In my opinion ‘tranchet axe’ is always a the correct translation for this kind of tool (Scheibenbeil). But originally, the name has been created for a bifacial palaeolithic axe which is characterized by a so called ‘coup de tranchet’.

    In dutch we also call it ‘afslagbijl’ when we refer to a mesolithic or neolithic axe, made out of a thick flake. But only in the case when the cutting edge (‘tranche’ = ‘Schnitte’) is deliberately formed by a transversal “coup de tranchet”, then it’s just called a tranchet axe (English), afslagbijl (Dutch) or Scheibenbeil (German) WITH coup de tranchet.

    So, the photo shows a typical mesolithic/neolithic ‘tranchet axe WITHOUT coup de tranchet’. The small transversal negative (see photo) can hardly been called ‘coup de tranchet’ (because it forms no cutting edge)… In fact, I think it’s nothing but one of the remaining dorsal negatives of the flake.

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