Prehistoric Socketed Axe

The history of Maastricht and the areas around it spans thousands of years. This axe dates back to the Bronze Age era of that history, which is a prehistoric period spanning several centuries that can be placed between the year 2000 and 800 B.C.E (Kuijpers, 2008). A time that was an important turning point for human history as a “humanly-ordered agrarian culture” starts to be formed (Arnoldussen & Fontijn, 2006, 289). The culture of sedentary and self-sustaining man is the beginning of a functioning society that has evolved over the centuries into the structures we have today (Arnoldussen & Fontijn, 2006).

3D model of the Prehistoric Socketed Axe

Tools played a key role in that. Past finds of various tools span the entire European continent surface and can even be traced to the Middle East (Rosenberg & Golani, 2012). What you see on this page is a specific type of prehistoric axe called a socketed axe, and it tells the story of that shift in history in Maastricht and the region.

This object belongs to the following themes:



Place of Origin
Oost-Maarland (near Maastricht),
The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
2000 – 800 BCE


Dimensions (cm)
Length: 8.45, Width: 3.95

3D Model

Canon EOS 250D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Sebastian Sitzmann & Nada Naguib Mostafa

Pathway to Modern Humanity

At first glance, the beautiful green color of the axe is what captures people’s attention. While originally a more brown-like copper color (Nienhuis, 2009), the oxidation process over the last few thousand years has transformed its color into this rusty metallic greenish hue (Nienhuis, 2009). When held, the axe is perhaps lighter in weight than what most people might expect. It is not difficult to carry, per se, yet it still holds a weight that alerts the wielder of the thousands years of history in their hands. It evokes a certain sense of fragility when held, though, as its age shows in the rust and slightly corroded edges. In that sense, it is a strong reminder of the history of the object and its relevance to the region and country.

Figure 1: Socketed axe with a handle (BBC NEWS)

While its shape doesn’t look like the typical axes that are commonly used nowadays, the socketed axe is different in that its handle isn’t attached horizontally but vertically as seen in figure 1. Some experts suggest that this shape’s smoothness and lack of rips in the interior sockets may have made it easier to mount the axe head on the handle (Roberts & Ottaway, 2023, 125).

A rare find?

There is a lot of research that is still to be done about the Bronze Age in Maastricht (Wijk et al., 2016, 53). For example, “relative absence of settlements and especially larger house structures” (Wijk et al., 2016, 53) might mean that there is still a lot to be found out about the daily lives and routines of the then-inhabitants of the area. However, there were a lot of cemeteries dating back to the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age that were excavated around the region (Wijk et al., 2016, 53). 

It is possible that this axe was a rare find in a house or settlement, but it is also possible that it was found in a grave. Over 40% of graves from that period that were excavated yielded grave goods that included some bronze objects (Wijk et al., 2016, 56) meaning that our object might have also been found in a grave. A lot of graves had  “rich content with various bronze objects like weaponry and jewellery” (Wijk et al., 2016, 56), and while this axe is not a war axe and technically not weaponry, it is still a significant indicator of status (as will be discussed later) and could likely have been a valuable grave good.


Looking at the object shown here in 3 dimensional, digitized form, it is not immediately obvious that it could be an axe. Axes from between 2000 and 800 B.C.E looked a lot different to ones we know today, especially when seen without the handle. The blade is made of a solid piece of bronze which ends in an opening for the handle, a typical design of a socketed axe from this time (Butler & Steegstra, 1997). 

Figure 2: Late bonze age finding of a mold to cast an axe (

The base with the blade is made of an alloy of tin or arsenic and copper, which were melted together and cast into the desired shape using the mold in figure 2 (Butler & Steegstra, 1997; Nienhuis, 2009). It is assumed that the first bronze alloys were accidentally created by impurities in the copper (Nienhuis, 2009). The mixture of both metals means that over the millennia the axe oxidizes further causing its beautiful shimmering green color.

Since this axe is purely handmade, it is difficult to assign it directly to a certain type of socketed axe. Each axe is unique in a way that no uniform dimensions or shapes are associated with it (Butler & Steegstra, 1997). This is important to mention because the axe has no similarities to other socketed axes found in the Limburg region (Butler & Steegstra, 1997). Rather, they can be compared with axes from the north or east of the Netherlands (Butler & Steegstra, 1997), or sometimes also the United Kingdom (Roberts & Ottaway, 2023; Taylor, 1992),  However, in comparison with the research of Butler and Steegstra (1997), similarities with so-called “linear faceted” socketed axes can be recognized, as shown in the figure 3 & 4.

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Figure 3: Socketed axes with ‘wings’ and biconical collar found in Rijsbergen (Butler & Steegstra, 1997, 209)
Figure 4: Socketed axes with face arches and three neck ribs, found in Zeegse (Butler & Steegstra, 1997, 238)
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Mapping usage

The Netherlands is not the only place where socketed axes were found, as indicated in figure 5. Based on information about similar socketed axes from roughly the same time period in different parts of the United Kingdom, we can make some parallel assumptions. Based on comparisons with these axes, it can be assumed that this axe was very strong as “its hardness and elasticity allow it to absorb shock and prevent breakage” (Kienlin, 1995). However, the shafts of the axes used for this conclusion were made out of oak which is particularly robust and durable (Taylor, 1992), but we do not know the material of the shaft that was used with this particular axe.

Figure 5: Map of Europe with locations where socketed axes were found (Butler, 2015, 4)

Based on the wider shape of the axe on top, some experts made the assumption that this kind of socketed axe might have been used as a chisel (Roberts & Ottaway, 2023, 124). By using use-wear analysis on replicas of socketed axes, researchers compared the scratches on the replicas with the scratches on the originals and could determine that the primary use of socketed axes was to strike metal and chop wood (Roberts & Ottaway, 2023, 129). However, as the use-wear analysis did not really delve into other possible uses of the axe (did not, for example, attempt its use in hunting), it cannot be determined for certain that socketed axes did not have further uses (Roberts & Ottaway, 2023, 129). Nevertheless, most evidence suggests that this axe was used in daily life activities. 

Status symbol

Not everyone had the opportunity to own such a socketed axe. It shows that with the discovery of bronze, the first structures of social inequality might have consequently developed in the Bronze Age (Mittnik et al., 2019). The material bronze is a rare metal especially for the region of today’s Netherlands (Butler, 2015). The individual components of tin and copper could only be mined in Anatolia, the Alps, the Balkans, and western France (Butler, 2015). 

This suggests that, like today, rare materials created a demand that others might have paid dearly for. Thus, the basic components for bronze were not affordable for most people at the time and only the socially higher individuals were able to own these. Evidence can be found in excavations of graves that show that only a few graves contained tools such as socketed axes as grave goods (Mittnik et al., 2019). It is therefore assumed that people of a higher social status had access to bronze while simple farmers continued to work with wood and stone tools (Mittnik et al., 2019).


While there is not a lot that we know as facts about this specific axe, the parallels that can be drawn and the assumptions that can be made about it suggest an incredible wealth of stories. However, in drawing these threads of theories regarding the relevance of the Bronze Age, bronze as a material and the transformative power of tools, it tells us a lot about the history and relevance of this axe. 

Written by Sebastian Clemens Sitzmann & Nada Naguib Mostafa