Articles

THE ADZE

 

The people known as American Indians have been in the Western Hemisphere for at least twelve thousand years and possibly much longer than that.  In order to exist and thrive in the two continents, they needed food, water and shelter.  And they needed tools to use in the building of their housing as well as to kill and butcher animals for nourishment.  Since iron and steel utensils did not yet exist, these natives turned to the very abundant minerals and rocks that are found throughout the land, in order to provide material for their needed tools.  They made stone spear points and knives and axes and they began to use the abundance of trees growing in much of the mainland.  The wood from these pines and oaks and maples was used for fuel, for housing and for tool handles.  And at some points during the last twelve thousand years, the natives began using the trees to make boats for traveling in the various rivers crisscrossing the land.  They apparently would girdle the trees and then after the huge plants died, the natives would cut and fell them.  They would then burn hollows the length of the logs and cut out the charred wood but to do that, these individuals needed a specialized tool - thus they invented the Adze.

 

Our modern dictionaries state the adze is an axe-like metal cutting tool used for trimming and smoothing wood and that has curved blade set at a right angle to the handle.   According to archaeologists, the stone adze was being used in Europe/Asia as early as ten thousand years ago and the metal adze was being made and used in that region by five thousand years ago.  These scientists also state that copper and bronze adze type tools were being used in Egypt and Mesopotamia at least by 3100 BC and maybe before then.  But the ancient natives  in what is now the United States had no metal tools except for a small region in modern day Michigan where they did pound natural chunks of copper into various utilitarian shapes including spear points, knives, and axes.  With the exception of that area, these peoples, out of necessity, only used stone for their tools and weapons.

 

The adze is a rather odd looking implement.  The closest appearing wood working tool, to the adze, is called an axe which has a sharpened cutting edge centered on one extremity and with both the axe faces or sides being identical.  It was set in a wooden or perhaps a bone handle with the axe head oriented in the center of and parallel to the handle.  The adze, however, has two dissimilar faces with one being flattened and the other being rounded.   The flat side is always straight– not curved like the more modern metal ones. The cutting edge or bit is invariably highest in the center of the rounded face and the widest part of the implement is at the bit edge.  These tools were normally re-sharpened on the flat face side and are usually well polished overall possibly to assist in having them easily slide through the cuts being made.  They would have been mounted in their handles (also known as hafts) in a crosswise manner so the tool could slice narrow and thin sections of the log.  The user probably stood with his legs on each side of the timber, that was to become a boat, and struck down and back toward himself so as to shave or slab out a section of burned wood.  These were definitely secondary wood working tools and only used for particular purposes such as dugout canoe making.  The primary cutting tool would have been a larger and heavier axe that was used for chopping down the tree and the major outside alterations of the timber in the boat making process.  Adzes are normally smaller than both grooved axes and ungrooved celts and it is thought, today, that many were made from purposely altered celts.  The complex hafting techniques used for the adze probably began with a tree limb that had a suitable natural branch jutting out at less than ninety degrees and maybe as little as forty-five degrees from the main bough.  When the limb was detached from the tree and the branch severed a few inches from this appendage, the ready to use adze cutting head could have then been securely tied to the branch and the tool ready for wood working, as is shown on the attached sketch.  In the Southeast Piedmont, the primary adze making minerals were granite, greenstone, basalt and quartzite for these polished type tools.  There were also chipped adzes made and they were knapped into shape by using rhyolite, silicified shale, chert and quartz but these are very rarely found.  There have been a few adzes found that are called humped-back tools because the rounded face has a definite hump and there have been even fewer grooved adzes found that were probably made from altered grooved axes.

 

It is believed, today, that these implements were used to make dugout canoes, wooden bowls and even to shape and smooth house posts and beams but many of these tasks were probably also accomplished by the natives using ordinary axes and celts.  Grooved and non-grooved stone axes are quite rare in the Piedmont and innumerable collectors, after spending many years searching for the elusive Indian artifacts, have only found a very few or even none.  The estimates that numerous collectors have made are that axes number one to every two to three thousand common arrowheads/spearpoints.   If that is true, then the quantity of the much rarer adze woodworking tools must be a very small percentage of the quantity of axes ever found.  So, in your artifact hunting adventures, if you are extremely lucky enough to discover an odd axe type cutting tool with one flat and one rounded face, you have probably found one of the rarest of all the ancient Indian tools –  the adze.

 

 

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Wetmore, Ruth Y.                                                                          1975

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