Episode Transcript – Episode 14 - Jade axe

Jade axe (made around 6,000 years ago) found near Canterbury

For most of history, to live in Britain was to live at the edge of the world.

This week I've been in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Pakistan and India, seeing how five thousand years ago cities and states grew up along some of the great rivers of the world. We've explored their styles of leadership and their architecture, their writing and the international trading networks that let them acquire new skills and materials. But in the world beyond these great river valleys, the story was different. From China to Britain, people continued to live in relatively small farming communities, with none of the problems or opportunities of the new large urban centres. What they did share with them was a taste for the expensive and the exotic, and thanks to well-established trade-routes even in Britain, on the outside edge of the Asian/European landmass, they had long been able to get what they wanted.

"I think it's an extraordinarily beautiful object; almost anybody presented with one of these things would just stop in their tracks, they're stunning!" (Mark Edmonds)

We're in Canterbury in this programme, around 4000 BC, where the supreme object of desire is a polished jade axe. At first sight our axe looks like thousands of others in the British Museum collection, but it's thinner and it's wider than most of them. I'm holding it now very carefully, because it still looks absolutely brand new - and very sharp. It's the shape of an oversized tear drop - about seven inches long and at the base about two or three inches wide. It's cool to the touch and extraordinarily, pleasingly, smooth.

Axes occupy a special place in the human story, the farming revolution in the Near East took generations to spread across the breadth of mainland Europe, but eventually, about six thousand years ago, settlers reached British and Irish shores in skin-covered boats, bringing with them crop seeds and domesticated animals. They found thick forests covering the land. It was the axe that enabled them to clear the spaces they needed to plant their seeds and graze their beasts. With axes the settlers made for themselves a new wooden world: they felled timber and built fences and trackways, houses and boats. These were the people who would also construct huge, mysterious monuments like the first Stonehenge. Stone axes were the revolutionary tool that enabled our ancestors to create a green and pleasant land.

Axes like this normally have a haft - that is, they're fitted into a long wooden handle and they're used like a modern axe; but it's quite clear that our axe has never been hafted - in fact, it shows no signs of wear and tear at all. If I run my finger carefully, rather gingerly, round the blade end, I can't feel even the smallest chip. The long flat surfaces are remarkably smooth and still have a glossy, mirror-like sheen.

The conclusion is obvious: not only has our axe not been used - it was never intended to be used. Mark Edmonds of York University explains how this magnificent prestige object was made:

"If you have the good fortune to handle one of these axes - the feel in the hand, the balance, the weight, the smoothness - they have been polished to an extraordinary degree. We are talking about hour upon hour of grinding against stone, and then polishing with fine sand or silt and water, and then rubbing backwards and forwards in the hand, perhaps with grease and leaves, to really give that polish - that's days and days of work. It gives the edge a really sharp and resilient bite to it, but the polishing also brings out the shape, allows the control of form, and brings out that extraordinary green and black speckled quality to the stone - it makes it instantly recognisable, it makes it visually very striking. And those things maybe are just as important almost as the cutting edge."

But perhaps the most exciting thing about this axe head is what it's made of: not the usual grey/brown tones that you find in British stones and flints - this axe is a beautiful striking green, because this tool is made from jade, or, to give it its precise geological term, jadeite.

Jade is of course foreign to British soil - we tend to think of it as an exotic material from the Far East or from Central America; in fact, both the Chinese and the Central American civilisations are known to have valued jade far more highly than gold. But both these sources are thousands of miles away, so archaeologists were baffled for many years by where the jade in Europe could have come from. But there are actually sources of jade in continental Europe and, only a few years ago, in 2003 - so six thousand years after our axe head was made - the precise origin of the stone it was made from was discovered ... this luxury object is Italian.

Archaeologists Pierre and Anne-Marie Pétrequin spent 12 hard years surveying and exploring the mountain ranges of the Italian Alps and the northern Apennines. Finally they found the prehistoric jade quarries that our axe comes from. Here's Pierre Pétrequin:

"Having worked in New Guinea, and studied how and where the stone for the axe heads came from there, that's what gave the idea of going up very high in the Alps to try and find the sources. Because, again in the 1970s, a lot of geologists had said ... oh ... that they would just have used blocks of jadeite or jadetite that had been washed down the mountains in the rivers and in the glacial moraines. But that's not the case. So, by going much higher up, between 1,800 and 2,400 metres above sea level, they found the chipping floors and the actual source material - with signs of it having been used.

"And, in some cases, the raw material exists as very large blocks, isolated blocks in the landscape, and it's quite clear that these were exploited by setting fire against them, and then they would be able to knock off large thermal flakes and then work those up. So the sign that's left on the stone, it's a slightly hollow area - a scar as it were - then there are a large number of chips beneath that."

By using a scientific technique developed by astronomers, the geological signature of any piece of jade can be precisely identified and matched. The Pétrequins found that the British Museum axe could be confidently linked to the Italian Alps. Indeed the readings of the geological signatures not only matched the mountain, but they did so with such accuracy that the very boulder that the axe came from could be identified. And even more extraordinary, Pierre Pétrequin was able to track down a geological sibling for our axe - another jade beauty found in Dorset. Here he is again:

"And in some cases it's possible to say that this particular axe head here is from the same block of raw material as the other one. So, with the Canterbury axe head, that was from the same block as one that was found in Dorset, and it's clear that people must have gone back to that block at different times, it might be centuries apart, but because it's distinctive compositionally, it's now possible to say ... yep, that was the same block ... chips off the old block!"

The boulder from which the British Museum axe was chipped six thousand years ago sits today, as then, in a landscape high above the earth and sometimes above the clouds, with spectacular vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. The jade-seekers seem to have deliberately chosen this special spot - they could easily have taken jade that was lying loose at the base of the mountains, but they climbed up through the clouds - probably because there they could take the rock that came from a place midway between our world on earth and the celestial realm of gods and ancestors. And so this jade was treated with extreme care and reverence, as if it contained special powers.

Having quarried rough slabs of jade, the stone-workers and miners would then have had to labour to get the material back down to a place where it could be crafted. It was a long, arduous task, completed on foot and using boats. Amazingly, big blocks of this desirable stone have been found over 120 miles away - an astonishing achievement - and some of the material had an even longer journey to make. Jade from here eventually spread throughout northern Europe - some even as far as Scandinavia.

We can only guess - but we can, I think, make some guesses - about the journey of our particular axe. Jade is extremely hard, and difficult to work, so much effort must have gone into the shaping of it. It's likely that it was first of all roughly sculpted in northern Italy, and then carried hundreds of miles across Europe to north-west France. It was probably polished there, because it's like a number of other ones found in southern Brittany, where there seems to have been a fashion for acquiring exotic treasures like this. They even carved impressions of the axes into the walls of their vast stone tombs.

In Britain, six thousand years ago, the rarity, the beautiful working and the distant origins of this foreign material would have given our axe a very high value, and it would have been an exceptional gift - the equivalent of a luxury watch perhaps, or an expensive piece of jewellery. We can only speculate how the hierarchies of prehistoric British society might have regarded this rare and beautiful thing, or what they might have done with it. Similar axes in less valuable stones have also been found unworn, and their equally pristine condition implies that they may have served special, perhaps ritual, purposes. Mark Edmonds again:

"Beyond the practical tasks that you can use one of these things for, axes had a further significance - a significance that came from where they were found, who you got them from, where and when they were made, the sort of stories that were attached to them. Sometimes they were tools to be used and carried and forgotten about in the process, at other times they would come into focus as important symbols to be held aloft, to be used as reminders in stories about the broader world, and sometimes to be handed on - in an exchange with a neighbour, with an ally, with somebody you'd fallen out with, and perhaps in exceptional circumstances, on someone's death, the axe was something that had to be dealt with. It had to be broken up like the body, or buried like the body, and we do have hundreds - if not thousands - of axes in Britain that appear to have been given that kind of treatment; buried in graves, deposited in ritual ceremonial enclosures, and even thrown into rivers."

That our axe has no signs of wear and tear is surely a consequence of the fact that its owners chose not to use it. This axe was designed to make a mark not on the landscape but in society, and its function was surely to be aesthetically pleasing. Its survival in such good condition suggests that people six thousand years ago found it just as beautiful as we do today. Our love of the expensive, the exquisite and the exotic, has a very long pedigree.

In the next programme, an object much less beautiful to behold. But it speaks of one of the most momentous changes in human history. We will be in Mesopotamia, exploring the origins of writing.

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