Axe found near The Old Castle Inn
In 1881 this polished, dark grey axe was found along with several skeletons in an excavation at the (back of) Old Castle Inn (the side of but long predating the modern A road).
It was curated and held by the Blackmore museum that had opened in 1867 at the rear of the Salisbury Museum in St Ann’s Street, moving to the King’s House in the Close in 1981 where it is still on display.
It is 116x52x25 mm in size. It was made in 3800 – 2500 BC of porcellanite, a hard silica rock that resembles unglazed porcelain.
It is one of more than 10,000 axes from Tievebulliagh (the first neolithic stone axe factory to be known in the British Isles, near Cushendall ) or Rathlin (Island), Antrim, Northern Ireland. The stone was quarried there then rough shapes were hewn in processing sites nearby but the final shaping and polishing of this axe may have been elsewhere. They made axes, adzes and chisels but no axe hammers or mace heads have ever been found. No perforated porcellanite axes have been found.
Antrim Porcellanite are the commonest neolithic axes from an identifiable source found in Britain. It is one of the furthest travelled, only a couple have been found in Wessex. With only one found on the Welsh coast and none on the south west of England coast it seems likely this one had a shorter part of its journey across the Irish sea in a hide built curragh or possibly later on a plank built boat, and then a longer part across land down Britain. It could have been carried by itinerant traders or hopped by trading or gifting through different owners. None of these Antrim axes has been found outside Britain and Ireland.
Porcellanite is a very hard stone that accepts a fine polish and keen edge and does not flake easily like flint. Axes of it could have their lives extended by regrinding and resharpening, becoming smaller in the process. It is thought their primary purpose was tree felling, land clearance for grain production. They probably developed ceremonial or symbolic significance later on, more as a Bronze age than neolithic use. But stone axe use was certainly not abandoned when bronze was invented. Stone axes moved along trading routes, their distribution reflects tides and rivers, mountains and passes and later transport of tin and copper (and fuel) to production sites had to happen for bronze to be made.
Map: General distribution of Porcellanite axe heads from Antrim 3800-2500 BC taken from Waddell, 1993 who himself acknowledged Sheridan, 1986 as a primary source. The yellow circle denoting this axe has been added by this author for this article. Waddell discusses the effect of Irish Sea tides and currents explaining the relative dearth in Wales and Wessex.
A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 1 Part 1, ed. R B Pugh and Elizabeth Crittall (London, 1957), OUP. page 101
Jope, E. M., Morey, June E. and Sabine, P. A. 1952 Porcellanite Axes from Factories in North-East Ireland: Tievebulliagh and Rathlin. Ulster Journal of Archaeology Third Series, Vol. 15 pp. 31-60
Sheridan, J.A. 1986 Porcellanite Artifacts: A New Survey. Ulster Journal of Archaeology vol 49 p19-32
Waddell, J. (1993) The Irish Sea in Prehistory, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, Vol. 6, 29-40
Salisbury Museum. Details of find and the photograph. Its reference number is SBYWM:1996R.629
For more Old Sarum stone axes held in Salisbury museum see https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/neolithic