Central States Archaeological Societies
Central States Archaeological Societies
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Miniature Stone Axes

by Ron L. Harris,

Central States Archaeological Societies 2017 April Journal

Hickory, North Carolina

At top: Figure 1. Ten miniature axes as displayed in the author’s collection and otherwise explained in the accompanying article.

 

Have you ever wondered for what real purpose or function those diminutive grooved stone axes were used? Miniature axes, as they are commonly called, are ones that range from about 2 to 4 inches in length. They are not uncommon, yet not plentiful either. Most are very well made and mimic the larger normal sized utility axes, both full-groove and three-quarter groove types, of the Late Archaic period. Some actually show evidence of use-wear on the bit and/or poll, suggesting they may have been utilized as tools. Many others show absolutely no use-wear or damage whatsoever. Some collectors and archaeologists offer the opinion these small axes were “toy” axes made for the children. Some even speculate they may be ceremonial or ritualistic axes since there is no obvious “use-wear.” “Pocket-axe” is a general term some also use to describe these small undersized axes (Converse, 1973). Apparently this term considers them small enough for “pocket” size carry.

Miniature axes should not be confused with “expended” small axes. They are usually delicately and faithfully made ancient ‘reproductions’ of larger types. They were never intended as tools but probably functioned as toys (Shriver 1990a and Hranicky 1994). However, the miniature axe could possibly have served as a tool for delicate work, but the assumption is that its true function has not been demonstrated (Hranicky 1995).

The (10) miniature axes illustrated in Figure 1 are of the full-groove and three-quarter groove variety. They vary in the extent of workmanship, some being finely developed without use-wear or damage, while others display evidence of ancient use-wear. Several exceptional ones are made from porphyritic lithic material. These axes range in size from 2½ to 3 ½ inches. They were recovered in central Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia and in the Ohio River Valley region of Indiana and Ohio. They are in the author’s collection and were acquired over the years from old-time collections of McGee, Parker, Peake, Noel, Travis and Mullins. The (4) polished miniature grooved axes in Figure 2 were recovered in the eastern Midwest states extending from the Ohio River Valley northward into Wisconsin. They range in size from 3 ½ to 3 7/8 inches. They too are much smaller than average size utilitarian grooved axes which are more prevalent. These are made from speckled granite, greenstone, porphyry and straw granite lithic material. The axe on the right is considered a well-formed miniature Ohio Trophy axe. These axes date to the late archaic period of around 2000 (+/-) BC. They are relatively rare considering their small size and extraordinary workmanship. These were formerly in collections of Ritter, Kelsey, Davis and Parker, and acquired by the author between 2002 ~ 2015. Axes such as this are believed to have been hafted on short wooden handles and utilized as “hatchets.” However, the exact intent or purpose for use of this size axe in ancient times remains problematical.

Figure 2: Four well-developed miniature axes from the Midwest as displayed in the author’s collection and fully detailed in text accompanying the photo.

 

Many years ago in a presentation given by old-time collector Dr. H. M. Whelpley (now deceased) entitled, “Indian Miniature Stone Axes and Celts” illustrated with lantern slides and specimens), he offered the following:
Stone axes of utility-use range from four to six pounds and those of hematite from one-half to four pounds. Ordinary (miniature) axes occur not weighing more than three ounces. These miniature axes form a class by themselves in weight below one-half ounce. The usual miniature ax weighs about one hundred grains. They are similar in shape to ordinary axes. The workmanship is usually very good. They are generally made of granite 1or hematite and are found where axes of utility occur. The purpose for which they were made is problematical. It has been suggested that they were toys for children, ornaments, amulets for medicine men or examples of expert workmanship. They are usually found on village sites or picked up in the field. Fraudulent miniature axes are more plentiful than genuine. They are usually made from material which is readily worked and seldom equal the genuine article in finish.

Years ago, on August 5, 2000, the author recalls talking with old-time collector Charlie McCorkle (now deceased) at the Owensboro Relic Show held that year in Bowling Green, Kentucky. McCorkle had on his display table numerous miniature axes of exceptional quality, many of porphyritic lithic material. McCorkle said he had acquired these small axes over the years from various collectors and finders, mostly from the Midwest region.

The late Lar Hothem, famed author and Indian artifact expert of Ohio, offered in part, the following comments on miniature axes. This was featured in an issue of the publication Prehistoric American:
Miniature axes are usually made of a good grade of hard stone. Most examples are well worked and nicely finished, with some degree of polish. Many miniatures do not show signs of normal axe use, but others have dulled or battered blade edges and evidence of pounding on the top or poll. Miniature axes are sometimes better-made than full-size axes, though the usual lack of damage or wear may enhance this impression.

Why these little axes were made, and what they were used for, has always been somewhat of a puzzle. There are four theories, and the most common is that the axes were toys or playthings for children. Ceremonial use has been proposed, also the idea that the miniatures might have actually been real tools, used for specialized tasks when larger axes were unsuitable. Whatever the original purpose, miniature axes are fascinating reminders that much of the longago
past in North America is still a mystery.

Note: Lar Hothem was a well-known author of numerous books about Indian artifacts, one of which is entitled: Indian Axes and Related Stone Artifacts. As one can imagine, based on the above information, miniature axes as such remain an enigma with many theories as to their purpose or intent. They remain a subject of great interest and speculation for serious collectors and archaeologists alike.