Articles

A MAGNETITE AXE

The ancient Americans made stone axes for many thousands of prehistoric years.  These tools, used in miscellaneous cutting tasks from chopping wood to butchering animals, were made from a variety of stones but in the Southeast most were made of granite or greenstone.  Others were made, though rarely, of quartzite, quartz and diorite and at least one was made of the somewhat common mineral magnetite.  This is a mineral that was rarely used for tools but was used to make this magnetite axe.

Magnetite is a ferromagnetic mineral that is in the iron oxide family.  It is formed of one part wustite and one part hematite.  Wustite is itself an iron oxide mineral that is found in meteorites as well as in native iron.  Hematite is also a form of iron oxide and is commonly mined as the principal ore of man-made iron.  The dark gray to brown to black colored magnetite, with a MOHS hardness of around 6, is the most naturally magnetic mineral found on earth and is a worldwide dispersed substance with its small grains found in almost all igneous and metamorphic rocks and many sedimentary stones.  In this country it is found in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and further south in Virginia and North Carolina and is also found in various areas in the western portions of the United States.  It occurs naturally as crystals in the cubic system, in masses and as loose black sand especially as washed in by rivers onto marine beaches.  One type of magnetite was named lodestone in Middle English because it means “leading stone” thus leading the mariners on their voyages.  A small piece of lodestone was suspended and became the first navigational magnetic compass because it could freely spin and point to magnetic north.  The ancient Mayan people and other cultures in Mesoamerica and Mexico used highly polished pieces of magnetite as mirrors as well as also using lodestones for compasses.

The magnetite axe pictured with this article is of the full groove type and could have had a manufacture date as early as 8,000 BC or as late as 2,000 BC.  It is 5 ½ inches tall by 3 15/16 inches wide by 2 5/8 inches thick at the poll end and was found near the Catawba River, in Catawba County, NC.  Weighing in at almost four pounds, it is rather heavy considering its somewhat small size but that is typical of iron type minerals.  This is certainly not the most beautiful axe found in the region with its many pockmarked pits that are probably due to the iron stone rusting in the wet ground over thousands of years.  It was found in the 1940’s and was in the collection for many years of one of the most famous early southeast collectors, Mr. A. D. Capehart of Oxford, NC.   It would have been made by pounding or pecking and grinding a chunk of magnetite until the desired shape was obtained and then it would have been polished.  Easily determined is the fact that the axe was originally much larger and was prehistorically re-sharpened many times to its current size.  There are considerable small flecks of mica imbedded in this magnetite stone which is common in the mineral found in the southeast mountains.  This writer has owned and studied many hundreds of prehistoric stone axes and this is the only one ever seen that is made of the mineral magnetite.  Other stones are much harder and theoretically would have kept their cutting edge much longer than this material but, of course, they would also have been much more difficult to make because of the hardness. Just why an ancient axe maker decided to use this odd material for an axe will always be a mystery.  But today it is simply a mysterious and unique ancient tool of prehistoric America – this magnetite axe.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Coe, Joffre L.                                                                                      1964

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

            AMERICAN PHILOSIPHICAL SOCIETY

 

Hothem, Lar                                                                                      1989

            INDIAN AXES AND RELATED STONE ARTIFACTS

 

Hranicky, Wm. Jack                                                                          1995

            PREHISTORIC AXES, CELTS, BANNERSTONES AND OTHER LARGE TOOLS IN VIRGINIA

            AND VARIOUS STATES

 

Hurlbut, Cornelius S & Cornelis Klein                                                      1985

            MANUAL OF MINERALOGY

 

Rights, Douglas L.                                                                            1947

            THE AMERICAN INDIAN IN NORTH CAROLINA