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

3.2 The Keile in general


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Generally in the Hinkelstein-Großgartach-Rössen complex two main types of heavy perforated implements are distinguished: the hohe durchlochte Schuhleistenkeil or ‘perforated high shoe last adze’ and the durchlochte Breitkeil or ‘perforated broad wedge’ (Brandt 1967; Klassen 2004; Raemaekers et al. 2011; Van der Waals 1972). (fig. 4). Both are characterized by a conical shaft hole near the butt end and parallel to the cutting edge. The butt varies in shape and may display modest to severe use damage.


Figure 4 From left to right: hohe durchlochte Schuhleistenkeil from Emmen-Bargererfscheidenveen and Breitkeile from Oud-Schoonebeek and Spijk. Scale 1:3 (after Van der Waals 1972 , Tafel 42, 43).

The hohe durchlochte Schuhleistenkeil has a D-shaped cross-section and one symmetry axis at a right angle to the cutting edge and the shaft hole. The thickness/width ratio exceeds 1:1. ‘Width’ is defined at right angles to the axis; ‘thickness’ or ‘height’ is parallel to it, as with LBK adzes.

The Breitkeil has a more or less rectangular cross-section and a symmetry axis parallel to the shaft hole and the cutting edge. The width – in this case defined as the dimension at a right angle to the axis (!) – exceeds thickness. The symmetry is, however, rarely perfect, probably as a result of use wear, damage and repair.

There have been several attempts to create finer subdivisions. The Keile have been subdivided into triangular and bügeleisenförmige (flat-iron) specimens (Brandt 1967, 1995; Lönne 2003). The latest contributions in this field are the studies by Merkel (Merkel 1999) with 6 types and Klassen with 15 types (Klassen 2004). Major drawbacks of these detailed typologies are the low numbers per type and the fact that the present shape of the artefact is the end of its ‘biography’. Most of them have been used, reworked and finally discarded as worn implements. Especially the hohe durchlochte Schuhleistenkeile changed in appearance by these processes. Often it is not possible to secure whether the implement originally was a hohe durchlochte Schuhleistenkeil. The longer the Breitkeil has been used, the shorter it will be and the more the length:width ratio will increase.[9] The cross-section is, however, much less affected by use, and so the distinction between the ‘perforated high shoe-last adze’ and the ‘broad wedge’ certainly has sense (Raemaekers et al. 2011, 3-5).

In this paper both main types have been taken together under the collective term Rössen Keile or ‘Keile’ for short, and are considered to represent the period between the LBK and the Michelsberg culture, 4950-4300 cal BC.


The hohe durchlochte Schuhleistenkeile are well dated to the post-Bandkeramik period from c. 4950 onward, since they are regularly found as grave gifts in Hinkelstein and Grossgartach cemeteries and are fully absent in LBK contexts (Farrugia 1992; Goller 1972; Lichardus-Itten 1980; Lönne 2003; Meier-Arendt 1975; Spatz 1999). The same applies to the durchlochte Breitkeile. This type gradually replaced the earlier one, but both seem to have been in use side by side for a long period and are generally considered to get out of use before the development of the Michelsberg culture (Lönne 2003; Raetzel-Fabian 1986). Keile seem however to continue for some centuries in the northern Swifterbant communities, as for instance demonstrated by fragments originating from one Keil at Swifterbant S3, dated c. 4300-4000 cal BC (Raemaekers 1999, 27).[10] Also in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia the use of Keile continues until ca. 4000 cal BC (Klassen 2004, Abb. 32). In eastern Holstein they were deposited in a restricted time span at the end of the fifth millennium BC (Hartz et al. 2011).

Raw material

The majority of Keile is made out of the same actinolite-hornblende schist as the LBK adzes, with possible primary sources in the western Carpathians (Slovakia) and the High Balkan (Bulgaria), as revealed in the research by Schwartz-Mackensen and Schneider (1986, 29, 33; 1983, 174-175) mentioned earlier. The workshops, as mentioned before in the section on raw materials for the LBK adzes, have been discovered more to the west at Jistebsko in the Jizera Mountains, Bohemia, northeast of Prague (Prostředník et al. 2005; Christensen et al. 2006).

Besides these imports more local rocks were used as well. The majority of Breitkeile in south-eastern Lower Saxony are made of amphibolite, but greywacke, diabase, granite and basalt occur as well (Lönne 2003, 166, 173).[11] In the Dutch province of Drenthe 2 out of 15 of the Keile found had been made from gneiss, possibly derived from the local boulder clay deposits, all others are made of amphibolite and amphibolite-like rocks (Beuker et al. 1992).

Production and acquisition

Hoards are wide-spread over Central Europe and may comprise various implements in different stages of working, from roughly worked blocks with and without shaft hole to completely finished specimens. Well-known examples are the Čištĕves hoard in Bohemia (Venčl 1975) and the Schladen hoard in Lower Saxony (Lönne 2003, Abb. 80). They demonstrate that the Keile have not been distributed ready-made, but as raw material and rough-outs, at least into Central Europe. The rough-outs usually received further working in the settlements. An exceptional find in the Lower Rhine Basin is a fully pecked rough-out with traces of sawing in a Rössen settlement at Maastricht-Randwijck. It is a clear indication of in situ working, but similar examples from abroad are not known or have not been published (Louwe Kooijmans 1988, 2005, fig. 12.7). On the other hand part of the Keile could have been made out of already shaped and finished artefacts to adapt to local traditions. The basic form was obtained by occasional sawing, by pecking and grinding, but the final finish quite often was incomplete. Traces of the original pecked surface and traces of working, such as saw cuts, are either only partially ground off or still clearly visible.

At last the conical shaft hole was made with the aid of a hollow drill. A hollow was made first by pecking, where the wood or bone drill head was placed. This preliminary treatment can be deduced from the pecked surface at the rounded edge of the shaft hole that is still visible on some specimens. Experiments, too, have demonstrated the importance of this preliminary treatment (Lessig 1999; Vosgerau 1983-84). Subsequently the drilling was executed, probably with the aid of a drill bow in order to obtain a high speed. By adding water and sand a shaft hole was drilled. Experiments have demonstrated that in a hard type of rock like diabase a drill depth of 8 mm could be reached in 80 minutes. A shaft hole in a Breitkeil with a depth of 40 mm could be made in a single day (Vosgerau 1983-84). Drilling with a hollow bone drill on location is illustrated by the large numbers of drill cores in the settlement waste at the Rössen settlement sites (Lönne 2000). The perforation was, however, not always successful to judge from the number of discontinued perforations.


The dimensions of the conical shaft holes range from 11-15 mm to a maximum (and quite normal) of 32-35 mm (Lönne 2000; Merkel 1999).

Recovered remnants of handles provide information about the hafting technique. A Breitkeil with a wooden handle is known from the excavations at Hüde I (Deichmüller 1965). The handle was made of hazelwood. The renewed investigation in 2000 and 2001 at Rosenhof site LA 58 yielded a Breitkeil with a remnant of the handle in the shaft hole, made of rosewood (Hartz 2004, 70, Abb. 4).

A striking aspect is the relatively narrow shaft hole in relation to the weight of a Breitkeil. The types of wood recovered (hazel and rose) are not particularly known for their application in handles. Usually a type of wood is selected for its particular favourable qualities. Hence (Neolithic) axe handles have preferably been made of ash (Louwe Kooijmans & Kooistra 2006, 234). The handles of Keile differ in this respect.

Function and use

Many functions for the Breitkeile have been suggested in the course of time, ranging from plough coulter or ard share, to battle axe, hack, axe and wedge (e.g. Buttler 1938, Mariën 1948, Raemaekers et al. 2011; Van der Waals 1972). Most have been refuted and need no further discussion. As the main options the various forms of woodworking are left. Being the successors of the LBK adzes, in stone type used, in morphology and in social prestige one is inclined to consider a similar function, but then in a different execution.

A major condition for the effectiveness of an artefact as a cutting or chopping tool is symmetry. In general this condition is fulfilled, be it that both types have a different symmetry: that of adze and axe. The shaft hole is, however, rather narrow and so the haft not suited to swing the hafted Keil as a normal axe or adze. This has been demonstrated by experiments, in which Breitkeile were used as a wedge to cleave wood and as an axe. In most instances the tools turned out to be quite ineffective (Lessig 1999; Meier 1990; Raemaekers et al. 2011; Vosgerau 1983-84). It was demonstrated that a 260 mm long Breitkeil could be used for cutting into a chopped down tree, but precision proved to be quite low (Meier 1990). This was attributed to the large weight of the axe blade. Additional problems were swinging the blade and securing the handle in the shaft hole and consequently chopping down a tree was almost impossible. It is perfectly clear that these experiments did not copy the real use. In the experiments undertaken by Raemaekers two Breitkeile were broken while felling a tree (Raemaekers et al. 2011, 9).

This brings us finally by a frequently suggested interpretation that Breitkeile have been used as wedges for cleaving wood. There are however not so many experiments carried out to test several options (Böhm & Pleyer 1990; Meier 1990; Raemaekers et al. 2011), but the damage, especially at the butt end, may be a clue for its utilitarian function, but as far as known, no (microscopic) use wear study has been executed. The wedge could be placed and held in the proper position by means of the handle.

The length of Breitkeile will have decreased due to use. Most damage has been found at the cutting edge and butt (Raemaekers et al. 2011, 9-10; Van der Waals 1972, 159-160). The damage, especially of the cutting edge, has mostly been counteracted by grinding. The butt however very often has not been reworked, as a consequence of which damage caused by heavy strokes has remained visible. This implies that the location of the shaft hole in relation to the butt, and the distance between shaft hole and butt, are original and not changed by later repair activities.

Traces on the butts show that a large number of the Breitkeile are used. These wear traces varies from incidental impacts to severe ones caused by hammering. The last are however rare. This implies that cutting and cleaving wood seems to be the main activities employed with these implements. The stone wedge could in this last option be placed in the proper position by means of the handle.

Within the group of Keile some perforated axes are standing out because of their exceptional length, often in combination with a rather narrow shaft hole. Some are over 40 cm long. They are only found in the Rössen occupation area, mainly in hoards (Raemaekers et al. 2011, 18, fig. 8 and 9). This raises the question whether Keile had also a non-utilitarian function. In other words did they play a role in the social domain as ceremonial axes? A clay figurine from Szegvár-Tüzköves, Hungary (Tisza Culture) of a man with a large perforated axe over the right shoulder may be a illustration of this (Trogmayer 1990).

In the Rössen culture area Keile are also found in graves. They are frequently recovered from male graves which indicate that they can be regarded as personal items of the diseased (Raemaekers et al. 2011, 16). In that respect a social connotation can also play a role.