On the 13th of November 2014, the Society welcomed Dr Alison Sheridan from the National Museum of Scotland. She was speaking to us about "Projet Jade", a pan European research project funded by the French government. The project was led by Dr Pierre Petrequin and the University of Besancon and took 3 years to complete.
Dr. Sheridan began by explaining the aims of the project, which are laid out below.
1. Discover the provenance of the jade and the axes
2. Discover the working areas associated with these axes
3. Outline the manufacturing process and how it was organised
4. Map the European wide distribution of the axes
5. Formulate a database for all jade axes larger than 14cm
6. Establish a European wide typomateriochronology
The axes were made from 6500 BC to 2500BC; they were manufactured in the Alps and then transported across Europe. These axes had a ceremonial role and Dr. Sheridan believes that axes in the Neolithic obtained a sacred status due to their importance in clearing the land for agriculture.
It was originally believed that the jade originated in Asia, however, this was disproven. The working theory following that was that the jade was mined from boulders brought down the mountains in rivers and streams; as it would be much too difficult to climb the mountains, just for some jade.
However, when Dr. Pierre Petrequin studied native tribes in New Zealand, he observed that obtaining stone for ceremonial goods required a great deal of effort, and was in and of itself a ceremony. The stone was considered sacred due to the difficulties in obtaining it. When he returned to France, he applied this logic to the European jade axes, and spent the summers climbing the Alps with his wife searching for the source of the jade. In 2002 they discovered working sites for jade axes high in the Alps, proving his theory.
So how would Neolithic people have discovered these jade sites? Dr. Sheridan explained that it was likely that they found the jade when climbing the mountains in the summer with sheep or goats. She recounted her own experience climbing to the top of the Alps and described the summit as seeming otherworldly, Neolithic shepherds would undoubtedly have felt similarly humbled. This added extra value to the jade, not only was it difficult to get but it also came from an isolated area, high above the clouds, which may have seemed divine to Neolithic people. The jade axes were “pieces of places”, their sacred origin added value to a sacred object – the ceremonial axe.
The axes originated in Italy, and gradually spread to Switzerland, France and throughout Europe, reaching a peak at 4600-4400 BC and then becoming rarer from 4200-2700BC when copper axes rose in popularity. The jade axes were difficult to make, and would have taken hours to shape and perfect. They were not finished in the mountains, but were brought down to the valleys were they were completed. They obtained their polish throughout their life, not necessarily during their manufacture.
By Patricia Kenny