David Rilley-Harris


June 2019

In 1975, the South African National Museum of Military History purchased two Frankish axe heads which remain the oldest items in the museum collection. While the one axe head appears to be a utility axe, the other is shaped in the form of Frankish and Viking battle axes from the time. 

Iron Battle Axe

Iron Utility Axe

The utility axe is notably heavier while the battle axe is designed to be easier to wield in combat. Iron weapons began to appear around 1200 BCE.

These axe heads may date back as far as 400CE but are more likely from after the 8thCentury CE. Vikings used these battle axes during their raids across Europe. The Franks under Charlemagne, occasionally raided by Vikings, also used battle axes of this design. By the 8thCentury CE swords were becoming increasingly common, especially for the Franks, and battle axes became more associated with the Vikings. Frankish weapons were the elite weapons of the period and were traded widely from Iceland to Russia.

Viking weapons included iron axes, spears, and swords designed for cutting rather than thrusting. It has been suggested that Vikings used their swords and even their spears as though they were axes. Spears were used as stabbing weapons by horsemen and when infantry were formed into a shield wall. The Vikings also used throwing spears, bows, and throwing axes.

Because iron was expensive to mine, only the wealthiest Vikings would carry a full set of gear; long sword, short sword, shield, helmet, chainmail, and an axe. Less wealthy Vikings carried an axe, shield, and spear, but any Vikings could find a utility axe to use as a weapon if necessary. The battle axe in the Ditsong Military History Museum collection has a shorter cutting edge than the typical style. Viking battle axes typically has long shafts for reach and were well decorated.

As with most edged weaponry, battle axes evolved from tools, but when it comes to axes, the first suspected weapons are found among the Palaeolithic axes from a quarter million years ago.

Article Verified by S R Mackenzie: Director