Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 4-1 (October 2012)Leo Verhart: Contact in stone: adzes, Keile and Spitzhauen in the Lower Rhine Basin1
3 Perforated Rössen Keile

3.5 Use and meaning of Keile in hunter-gatherer territory

Keile are quite rare regarding the total number and time span in which they were used, so these artefacts do not belong to the standard tool range of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. The Mesolithic tool range comprises moreover good functional equivalents in bone and antler. Wear traces on

Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin are identical with the ones, which can be seen on Keile found in the Rössen occupation area. It is not possible to determine of these wear traces originate from the Rössen region itself or are the result of activities exploited in the Lower Rhine Basin.

These artefacts could have a similar function in both regions: cutting and cleaving wood. The Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin however, are with one exception not recovered in settlements and are also not known from graves or hoards. Most specimens are stray finds and often found in the low lying - wet - areas of the landscape suggesting deliberate deposition. Raemaekers et al. (2010, 21-24) made clear that complete Keile were often deposited in the low lying areas of the landscape, despite the low number of finds with detailed information about find circumstances in their study area. A quarter of all Keile was found in low lying locations, while c. 30% was found on higher land, the supposed area for settlements (Raemaekers et al. 2011, table 7).

This raises the question whether these artefacts, apart from being utilitarian implements, played also a role in the social domain. Exotic objects and materials have always exerted a major attraction, often also associated with a higher appreciation (Taffinder 1998). As such the possession of exotic objects, or control over their distribution, may cause an increase in prestige. Keile belong in this category because of their appearance and raw material, despite the fact that they are worn. In this respect Keile may have been given an additional meaning in hunter-gatherer society, as compared to the Rössen culture, especially in graves and hoards.

Secondary shaft holes

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It appears that Keile, robust as they may be, were rather frequently broken across the shaft hole. In those cases a new shaft hole may have been made. Within the Rössen culture area the new shaft hole was executed in the traditional way with a hollow drill, in no respect different from primary shaft holes (see Lichardus 1976, Taf. 10c). Parts of the original shaft hole remained still visible at the (new) butt in some cases. That such items, ‘in their second life’, found their way to the west/north is demonstrated by specimens from Helmond-Stiphoutsbroek (Arts 1994, fig. 11), Montfort and Elsloo (Brounen 1997).


Figure 11 Examples of Rössen Keile with secondary shaft holes. From left to right: Stiphoutsbroek, with conical shaft hole (after Arts 1994 ); Elsloo, with conical shaft hole (after Brounen 1997 ); Colmont, with hourglass-shaped shaft hole from Colmont (after Brounen 1997 ).

In the northern regions, outside the Rössen zone, in contrast, hourglass-shaped shaft holes were (attempted to be) made by means of a pecking technique in a number of cases. This practice is unknown in the area investigated by Lönne in Lower Saxony (Lönne 2003). Examples of hourglass-shaped shaft holes have been published from Denmark, among others from Skalagerbanke and Gåbense-Faergegård (Fischer 2002, fig. 22.17). In the Netherlands a specimen was found at Colmont, southern Limburg (Brounen 1997). A remarkable large fragment of a high bandkeramik adze from Voerendaal-Vrakelberg, showing an attempt to make an hourglass-shaped shaft hole by means of pecking, may be interpreted as a reworked scavenged artefact (Brounen 1997). Both sites are at a distance of only 30 km from the Rössen settlement cluster at the Aldenhovener Platte.

Meaning, alternatives and ritual deposition

Assuming that the Keile in the Rhineland loess zone (the main source area for the Lower Rhine Basin), have similar specifications as those in south-eastern Lower Saxony then it is apparent that no positive or negative selection had taken place and that the indigenous people had a regular access to these highly valued tools. Three options for the background of this exchange can be distinguished. However, a preference for one of these options cannot be given.

The first option is that the axes were exchanged in a better condition, that part of the wear and damage results from use after exchange, and that the axes were valued for their functional qualities as well. Indications for their use are the secondary hourglass-shaped perforations and the recovery of – be it scarce – fragments. Apparently such shaft holes had a purpose and did suffice, as they did for the Geröllkeulen and Spitzhauen (see below). As such they are an indication for a prolonged use. But in order to use Keile for wood working, they should be fixed firmly to the handle and that seems hardly feasible in the case of Keile with this type of perforation. The second option is that the axe spectrum as available in Rössen settlements, from pristine to heavily worn, was exchanged, that they were not or hardly used by the indigenous recipients, and deposited in the same condition as received. This implies that the axes had first and for all a symbolic and no functional value for the new owners and could play a role as prestige object, as can be supported by ethnographic analogies (Appadurai 1986; Renfrew 1982; Taffinder 1998; Verhart 2000), parallel and in accordance to the ideas developed in southern Scandinavia and adjacent Germany (Lomborg 1962; Berlekamp 1969; Gramsch 1973; Fischer 1982, 2002; Merkel 1999; Lübke et al. 2000; Klassen 2002, 2004). The exotic character of the items, alternatives in the Mesolithic tool kit, the restricted numbers in hunter-gatherer territory and the long distance of exchange, are in favour for this option. The third option is an alternative functional explanation that the Keile were used as the head of a clubs. As such they could have been objects with a symbolic value or used in warfare. Violence is a well-documented element of Mesolithic society, but evidence that club heads were involved in these activities is lacking up till now. Only in hunting activities the use of clubs is well documented (Noe-Nygaard 1974).