Tools that were used as axe type cutting implements, in prehistoric America, are quite rare – especially so in the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Virginia.  Of the sparse number that has been found in the region, the majority were created from granite, greenstone or diorite.  These natives had no manufacturing knowledge to use metals such as iron or steel so they needed to use the most common available natural minerals for their daily use hewing and splitting instruments.  On occasions, though, a chopping tool will be found that is made of a rock that is not at all common.  Such is the case with the stone grooved axes and celts pictured with this article – from left to right a trap rock celt, a wiry granite celt, a quartzite three-quarter grooved axe and a basalt three-quarter grooved axe.  They are certainly four rare stone tools.

The first celt is made of a mineral called by several names including trap, trapp, trap stone and trap rock.  It is an uncommon stone and is, today, mined when a supply can be found, for use in roads creations and establishment of structures.  It is a dark colored and fine-grained igneous mineral that was anciently formed both intrusively and extrusively to the earth surface from volcanic actions.  Trap rock has a high modulus of elasticity which means it can bend without shattering under high pressure thus making it ideal for the construction of roads and buildings.  It is fire resistant with a melting point of around 1450 degrees centigrade and is very hard, being rated as 8-9 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale, which makes it almost as unbreakable as a number 10 diamond.  Trap rock is normally found eroding in certain areas where it was produced by stacking of successive lava flows thus creating stair step landscapes.  In fact the name “trap rock” is derived from the Scandinavian word trappa which translates as stair step.  As mentioned earlier it is a rare stone and was not normally used by the ancient natives for tools.  This trap rock celt is 4 1/8 inches long which places it in the lower end of the average Piedmont celt size range of 4-6 inches and was found many years ago on the, now inoperative, Valley Dale Farm Site which was adjacent to the New River in the ancient volcano region that is currently known as Wythe County, Virginia.  It was certainly made as a longer tool those many hundreds of years ago and the bit re-sharpening and size reduction is clearly evident.  It is not such a beautiful celt but is certainly a well-made from the rare lithic material called trap rock.

The next tool is also a celt and is made of wiry granite.  Granite, one of the estimated 9,000 varieties of rock found on our planet, is an igneous stone and is never found in the oceans – only on our continents. Granite, which has a Mohs hardness of 6-7, has grains large enough to be seen by the unaided eye and was formed intrusively to the earth crust from volcanic magma.  It is composed of minerals in a normal grayish color but is also can be found in red, pink and black.   Wiry granite is ordinarily found in a gray color from the minerals quartz and feldspar along with elongated biotite (black) mica strands that appears to be tiny wires running throughout the stone – thus the name wiry granite.  While granite is very common in our world, wiry granite is not and is estimated to be in found in only about one per cent of the total granite exposed on the earth surface.  This celt was also a surface find on the Woodland Period village location known as the Valley Dale Farm Site adjacent to Foster Falls on the New River in Wythe County, Virginia.  It measures to 4 3/8 inches in length and was possibly longer than six inches while it was being used as a cutting tool maybe 500 to 900 years ago.  It was prehistorically re-sharpened many times to this smaller size before perhaps being discarded as no longer being a workable tool.  But would the maker have tossed it if he had only known of the extreme rarity of his non-grooved axe made of wiry granite?

The next axe is made of heavily patinated dark tan quartzite.  This compact granular rock is a metamorphosed sandstone composed primarily of silica quartz in the colors that range from off-white to tan to brown to yellow to red to green to blue to orange.  It is found throughout our earth wherever sand anciently accumulated and where this rock was formed by extreme heating and pressure.  It is grainy and usually glassy in appearance when found today and will register as a 6-7 on the Mohs hardness scale.  Quartzite nodules are almost as abundant as other stones such as granite and quartz but were rarely utilized as axes.  The stone is often found in the Piedmont bordering coastal plains and the Appalachian Mountains and was extensively used during the Archaic Periods in the making of spear points and knives.  This three-quarter grooved axe is only 3 ¾ inches in length and was found in northern Guilford County, North Carolina near the Haw River.  There is clear evidence that it was re-sharpened many times to this probable discard size during the time is was used those 2,000 to 4,000 years ago.  Grooved axes are quite rare in the Piedmont and of the few that have been found, most are made of granite or greenstone.  An axe of this type that is made of quartzite can easily be considered to be one in maybe a thousand which makes it a truly rare stone tool.

The last three-quarter groove axe in the photo is made of basalt which is an igneous mineral created from volcanic molten rock or magma.  This stone is comprised primarily of calcic feldspars along with magnetite, olivine and augite and like many volcanic minerals, is in the 6-7 range on the Mohs hardness scale.  Basalt has many varieties of textures from smooth and compact to crystalline coarse in colors that range from dark brown to grey and black.  It is not normally discovered in the Piedmont since it is associated with volcanoes but the nearby ancient Appalachian Mountain range did have these erupting vents many millions of years in the past.  And occasionally an ancient vein of basalt weathers out of the soil - even today.  This small 3 7/8 inches long axe is made of fine grain black basalt that most likely came from one of the long dead Appalachian volcanic spews.  It was found on a plowed field adjacent to the Dan River, just east of the town of Eden, in Rockingham County, North Carolina.  This well made and well-polished tool appears to have been made in this miniature size and shows no obvious signs of re-sharpening.  The compact size leads to questions about this axe.  Did the probable Archaic Period axe-maker only have a small piece of the volcanic material with which to make this implement?  Or was it made as a learning toy by a loving father for his son?  Or was it created as some type of rare ceremonial totem many millenniums ago?  All unanswerable questions but the definite answer is the rarity of this beautiful basalt axe.

Though these four cleaving utensils are among the smallest in my axe collection, they are among my favorites because of the rarity of the lithic components.  After studying and owning hundreds of ancient axes I can certainly state that they are four very rare stone tools.



Coe, Joffre L, PhD                                           1964

    “The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont”, TRANSACTIONS OF THE AMERICAN


Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman     1957


Hothem, Lar                                                    1989


Hranicky, Wm. Jack                                        1995



Le Maitre, R. W., Editor                                  2002


Maus, James E.                                               2003

    “Two Rare North Carolina Axes”, THE PIEDMONT, Vol. 27, No. 1

Rights, Douglas L.                                           1947


Wetmore, Ruth Y.                                           1975