The copper axe
The most important item of the Iceman’s equipment is his copper-bladed axe. The carefully smoothed yew haft is around 60 cm long. At the top of the haft there is a forked shaft into which the blade was fixed with birch tar and tightly bound with thin leather straps to keep it in place.The 9.5 cm blade is trapezoidal in shape and made of almost pure copper. The narrow end was produced by cold-hammering after the blade was cast. It allowed the blade, which shows clear signs of use, to be fixed more securely in the haft. Archaeological experiments have shown that the copper axe was an ideal tool for felling trees and could fell a yew tree in 35 minutes without sharpening. The axe was therefore not just a symbol of rank. In the period around 3000 years BC, copper axes were a status symbol and must have been cherished as weapons. Perhaps the Iceman was therefore a tribal leader or warrior.
Like gold, copper was one of the first metals to be worked by humans. This is probably related to the fact that both metals can occur in their pure, native state. However, this is rarely the case. Often copper occurs in ores, from which the metal has to be extracted. In prehistoric times, the Alps were especially well known for their copper ore deposits.
Copper is a relatively soft metal that is easy to shape and work. At first Copper Age metalworkers shaped and hammered native copper nuggets in the cold state. Later they learned how to smelt cooper ore and to cast the molten metal.
The metal for the axe edge was smelted from copper ore. It was then heated into a molten state and cast. Finally shaping was accomplished by cold-forging. The edge shows clear signs of use and resharpening with a whetstone.
The haft, i.e. the handle of the axe, was carved from the split wood of a yew tree. A nearly right-angled branch growing out of the trunk was used. The axe blade is held in a slit in the haft with birch tar. It was then bound in place with narrow strips of leather.
Using a replica of the axe, it took just over half an hour to fell a yew tree.
In Central Europe in the period around 3000 BC, a copper axe would have belonged to a man of high social status. This is confirmed by grave finds from this period. In the grave field at Remedello di Sotto southwest of Lake Garda, for example, only 17% of the axes placed in the men’s graves had a copper blade. The copper axe blades recovered from those graves are identical in shape and size to the Iceman’s.
Archaeologists suspect that during the European Copper Age, axes with a copper blade served as status symbols, thus indicating a social hierarchy. They were regarded by their owners as representational objects. However, clear signs of use on the Iceman’s axe blade confirm that it was also used as a tool or weapon. These objects are depicted on statue menhirs.
During the Copper Age in Central Europe, flint and coarse-grained stones remained common raw materials for making tools and weapons. Accordingly, stone axe blades served as models for fashioning early blades of copper. The Iceman provides a good example of this parallel use of stone and metal. Besides the copper axe, his equipment also included a flint dagger and flint arrowheads. His belt pouch included a scraper, a drill, and a flake, i.e. a small flint blade. The arrowhead lodged in the Iceman's shoulder, which resulted in his death, was also made from flint.