In Northern Italy, approximately 45 million years ago, geological forces reshaped elements of the local rock, metamorphosing it through high pressure into jadeitite.
Over the intervening millions of years, natural forces worked to erode this iconic stone, yet it stood firm. In the Neolithic period, from the middle of the 5th and 4th millennium BC, local people recognised this resilience, along with other qualities, such as its unique speckled green colour when polished, and chose this lithology from which to make stone axes.
The use of jadeitite to make stone axes highlighted the importance the people of Northern Italy put on this lithology. Stone axes are seen as objects of power, symbols of identity, and carriers/transmitters of ideas. They played key parts in social and ritual activities for prehistoric societies, and could symbolise an individual or community. They were used to display status, and were part of gift exchanges and marriage payments. Importantly, stone axes were a key to the survival and prosperity of these early farmers, for they represented people’s influence or control over nature.
These early farmers chose this stone type because of its broader, often unconsidered, characteristics. The jadeitite was found in the Italian Alps, at heights of over 2000m, and could only be reached during the warmer months. Large boulders were split and quarried, using fire and water, to create blanks of workable size. These were ‘roughed out’ and brought down for final finishing, often requiring over 100 hours of grinding and polishing.
This was an arduous task in itself as this is an extremely hard stone to work, something which contributed to its importance. This investment of labour and skill, distinctive colour, extreme hardness, along with the difficulties in exploitation, were all characteristics which identified stone axes made from this lithology as prestige objects.
These distinctive objects were traded across Europe, spanning approximately 3000km. From the Atlantic in the West to the Black Sea in the East, examples have been identified in countries such as Ireland, Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany.
While the specific meanings of these axes often changed from place to place, their importance was always recognised. In several cases they were re-shaped to fit the local considerations of how an axe should look. Yet an axe made from this exotic stone with its distinctive colour and high polish, was always seen as an object of high status.
Ireland is approximately 1600km from where the jadeitite was first exploited and shaped into axes, yet the trade in these and similar objects contributed in bridging that gap, linking people across Europe. All along these long distance trade networks the jadeitite axes were interpreted differently, allowing us to consider the social relations of peoples across Europe. Although culturally different, there were still concepts shared by all.
Four of these jadeitite axes are currently on display in the Prehistoric gallery at the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2. These include one very large, spectacular, highly polished example (1880:97), which is approximately 27cm long and 9.5 cm wide, demonstrating the prestige and high status jadeitite axes attained in the Neolithic, and still have today.
Jadeitite Axehead is located at: