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

3.3 The Keile outside the Rössen culture area


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Van der Waals (1972) was the first to make an overview of the finds in the Lower Rhine Basin, inspired by the publications on southern Scandinavia (Lomborg 1962) and Lower Saxony (Brandt 1967) and by the discovery of the first Swifterbant sites in the Dutch central polder district. The rather dense distribution offered for the first time a view on the widespread occupation by communities now known as ‘Swifterbant’, at that time only known from the site Hüde I at the Dümmer and the Swifterbant discoveries themselves. Van der Waals observed that 22 out of 28 specimens with reliable find circumstances had been found in or close to low-lying areas or rivers.[12] He saw this correlation as reflecting a preference for the occupation of these zones, which could be understood in view of the supposed coverage of the upland with a dense forest in these times.

The distribution map of Van der Waals was supplemented by Raemaekers (1999, 104, App. 4) and expanded with the Lower Saxony and Rhineland data (Louwe Kooijmans 1993b; Verhart 2000). The most recent detailed distribution map is provided by Raemaekers et al ., but with the exception for the Netherlands of the province of Limburg (Raemaekers et al. 2011, fig. 10). The number of Keile in Netherlands is much higher than in Belgium and the complete implements dominate (Table 1).

Table 1 The number of Breitkeile by country divided in fragments and complete artefacts with and without known dimensions








Complete (no dimensions)













Figure 5 Distribution of Rössen Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin. German data (blue) after Brandt 1967 . Dutch data and Belgian (red) after Van der Waals 1972 , Raemaekers 1999 , Verhart 2000 , with additions. Legend: Yellow: loess, Red: Rössen Culture settlement areas.

Two patterns can be made out in the overall distribution of the Keile (fig. 5). First there is a rather even spread all over the northern part of the Lower Rhine Basin, continuing in western part of northern Germany (Brandt 1967, Karte 2, 6; Klassen 2004, Abb. 31). In the central part of northern Germany, Denmark and southern Sweden the find density also decreases to the north, but more zones with concentrations are visible in contrast to areas with hardly any finds (Klassen 2004, Abb. 31). Exceptional is the concentration around Hamburg, which is probably the result of purchasing from antique dealers who claimed that the finds were originating from the river Elbe. The concentration in the province of Limburg may relate to the short distance to the Rössen settlement zone.

The distribution shows secondly a sharp boundary to the west, with only a few finds west of an imaginary line Amsterdam-Liège. The unfavourable recovery conditions for stray axes in the Holocene wetlands of the western Netherlands will play a part in the north. The quasi absence all over Belgium to the west of the Limburg Meuse zone may relate to the different culture sphere: Blicquy in the west and Rössen in the east, each with northern contact spheres of their own. Long lasting north-south relations have been demonstrated in the western (Blicquy and its successors) sphere for the period 5500-3500 cal BC for settlement sites in the Rhine/Meuse delta, in the form of raw material acquisition and artefact typology (Louwe Kooijmans 1993a). They cannot be visualized on the map, since no implements comparable to the Keile had been involved. But it remains intriguing that (prestigious?) implements, which found their way so far north in the eastern sphere, were apparently not appreciated as such at a relative short distance to the west.

Find conditions, context

The divergent ratios between complete and fragmented Keile in different regions are to some extent determined by settlement research, but seem to reflect for a great deal different ways of use and handling Keile.

In the Lower Rhine Basin Keile have been found almost exclusively isolated and as surface finds (Raemaekers et al. 2011). Fragments are relatively rare, partly because these are less easily recognized by a layman. In contrast to the other areas considered, hardly any evidence for their use has come to light in the large-scale excavation of Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic sites conducted in recent years. Both in Hardinxveld-Giessendam-De Bruin and Hoge Vaart these artefacts have not been found (Louwe Kooijmans 2001a, 2001b; Hogestijn & Peeters 2001). Of course the low number of excavated sites in the Lower Rhine Basin compared to the higher number in Scandinavia can also be of relevance in this conclusion. There is only one distinct fragment from Swifterbant-S3[13] and two complete specimens have been recovered earlier at Hüde (Deichmüller 1965, 10). The quasi absence of fragments in the Dutch sites may be related to their marginal western position in the Rössen sphere, mentioned above. We may, however, conclude that Keile were treated in a different way than in the other regions, and perhaps were used more off site.

In Denmark many more settlements have been excavated and almost half of all broken specimens derive from these sites (Klassen 2004, Fundliste 1). The fragments are relatively large pieces (>5.5 cm).

The find conditions in the Rössen culture area itself are quite different, as has been well documented for the south-eastern part of Lower Saxony by Lönne (2003). Keile are found in settlements in worn condition and as fragments, demonstrating their intensive use at the settlement location itself. They are found off-site mainly as stray finds in Lower Saxony. Others have been grave gifts or were found in hoards. These last categories reflect, apart from their utilitarian function, also their symbolic importance.


Judging from hoard finds and seemingly unused specimens pristine Keile may have reached a length of 350-400 mm, but a length of c. 300 mm seems more normal practice.[14]. However the width of Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin shows quite some variation (fig. 9). There is tendency of increasing width in relation to the length, but the variation in width suggests that the original length could vary also.

In the hoard of Schladen (Landkreis Wolfenbüttel) a semi-manufactured Breitkeil has been found with a length of 370 mm (Schwarz-Mackensen & Schneider 1983). In the Möckern hoard the longest item is 345 mm (Hoffmann 1955). An extremely long specimen from Euskirchen, without any additional find data, has a length of 421 mm.[15] Their length, heavy weight and pristine condition raise the question whether these long Keile were still utilitarian tools.

In the course of their use Breitkeile were worn, damaged, broken and repaired, resulting in ever shorter specimens and a wide range in length, as reflected in the metric diagrams. The shortest, in the final stage of a long process of use, appear to consist in some cases almost entirely of a shaft hole surrounded by a tiny bit of stone, as exemplified by a specimen from Spijk (Van der Waals 1972, G.8).[16]

The complete Keile found in the Netherlands and Belgium – all isolated finds – range from 90 to 327 mm, for specimens from Gennep and Echt respectively, with an average of 154 mm. Their dimensions have been displayed in a series of graphs (figs 6, 7, 8, 9). The largest number lies in the length category 120-140 mm. The values of width are close together and do not show any extremes (fig. 7). The width of the axes (30-90 mm) could be the result of the original length or prolonged use and wear. Especially the wider variation of the smaller implements seems to be the result of prolonged use, with retouching, pecking and grinding, hardly affecting the cross section.


Figure 6 Length of Rössen Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin.


Figure 7 Length/width ratio of Rössen Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin.

Interregional comparison of these data may inform us on the eventual selection of axes distributed to the north and so on the processes of their distribution.

The detailed study by Lönne (2003) in the Göttingen region (south-eastern part of Lower Saxony) provides information on the dimensions of Breitkeile within a Rössen territory and its immediate vicinity. All Breitkeile have been described, both isolated finds and those from settlement context. The length of the complete implements – in different stages of use – ranges from to 80 to 315 mm with an average of 145 mm, very similar to the Lower Rhine Basin data. (fig. 8) There is hardly any difference in dimensions between Breitkeile recovered as isolated finds and those from settlements.


Figure 8 Length/width ratio of Rössen Keile in Lower Saxony.


Figure 9 Smoothed histograms of the length/width ratio of Rössen Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin (yellow) and south-eastern Lower Saxony (blue) showing that the Dutch Breitkeile are on average slightly shorter than those from Lower Saxony.

A statistical analysis of the data with a kernel density method, displayed in smoothed histograms, visualizes the slight difference between both regions (fig. 9).[17] Both graphs display single-peak distributions that differ at most four centimetres. The length of Lower Saxony Breitkeile displays a normal distribution with a peak between 135-175 mm; for Dutch specimens this is 95-135 mm. So the Dutch Breitkeile are on average slightly shorter than those from Lower Saxony, most probably slightly more worn out.

The 30 complete Breitkeile found in Denmark and southern Sweden vary in length between 115 and 219 mm, with an average of 161 mm (Klassen 2004, Fundliste 1). In this case south-eastern Lower Saxony is a very plausible source. From northern Germany 70 Keile are known, 93 to 385 mm in length, with an average of 167 mm (Klassen 2004, Fundliste 1).[18] The North German implements show rather identical ratios as those in Lower Rhine Basin area with a large variation in length and some small worn-out Keile. In Denmark and southern Sweden there is less variation in length. The large Keile apparently did not reach these regions. Very small and worn ones are missing as well.

The comparison of two districts within the research area of the Lower Rhine Basin at increasing distance to the Rössen culture area may inform us on eventual down-the-line distribution. So two southern provinces, Belgian and Dutch Limburg (at 20-75 km) are compared to the northern provinces of Friesland and Drenthe (at 150-200 km). The Keile have nearly identical dimensions in both regions. Their lengths range between 100 and 250 mm, but in Limburg there is one longer specimen (fig. 10). Shorter specimens have been found in both regions. So there appears to be no loss in quality with increasing distance on this scale and no indications for down-the-line exchange in the Lower Rhine Basin.


Figure 10 Length/width ratio of Rössen Keile in the Lower Rhine Basin.above: in the northern provinces of Friesland and Drenthe,below: in the southern provinces of Belgian and Dutch Limburg.