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Department of Anthropology

Mexican Masks in storage


In the anthropology collections of the National Museum of Natural History is a celt, an ungrooved ax, with a wooden handle from Genesee County, Michigan. It was found in 1881 during the excavation of a drainage ditch through a peat deposit. This is one of the few examples of a preserved wood handle and ground stone blade made by Eastern Woodland Indians. Such tools are rare because they are only preserved under constantly wet conditions, where they are found by chance, or constantly dry conditions which are unusual in the East. The handle dating to the late 15th century AD is similar to other examples from the Eastern Woodlands. The few available examples suggest use of a similar type of haft over a broad area of the Eastern Woodlands, between New England and Oklahoma.

Results were recently obtained from radiometric analysis of about 100 mg of wood submitted to determine its age. Using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), the amount of the radioactive carbon isotope (C-14) can be measured very accurately for samples of much less than a gram. The wood has no appearance of treatment with any preservative. The sample Beta-180706 has a corrected radiocarbon age of 390+/- 40 years before present. The intercept with the calibration curve is AD1470. The 2 standard deviation (95% probability) range is AD1420 to 1530 and 1550 to 1630.

The tool appears to date to the late 15th century AD, although a date around AD 1600 can not be ruled out. The date that iron axes first appear in the lower peninsula of Michigan is open to conjecture but may be before 1600. Whatever the case, some time would have elapsed before stone axes would become obsolete. Were iron axes common enough in this area that stone axes were completely abandoned before 1630?

Also uncommon, another clue to hafting is provided by Mississippian monolithic axes (handle and blade made of a single piece of rock) as pioneer Southeastern archaeologist C. C. Jones suggested in 1873, in “Antiquities of the Southern Indians”. The Mississippian culture existed in much of the Southeast after about AD 1000 to the earliest historic contact. More recently Gregory Perino noted the similarity of the Mississippian monolithic axes to an example of a wooden handle recovered from the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma. Although apparently modeled after wood handles, at least some of the monolithic axes represent handles that are embellished for display purposes in ceremonial contexts.

The known Eastern Woodland wood hafts and Mississippian monolithic axes show that the stone blade was inserted into a handle which usually has a notable bulge around the celt with an extension protruding forward of the blade.

— By James Krakker


Jones, Charles C.
1873 Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes. New York: D. Appleton.

Perino, Gregory
1969 Some Hafted Celts-Ordinary and Effigy. Central States Archaeological Journal 16(1):4-9.




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Celt Handle

Two views of the handle. It has a total length of 42.5 cm (16.7 in). The handle is 35 cm (13.8 in) long from the celt to the end. The thickened section around the celt is about 16 cm (2.35 in) long, 5.85 cm (2.3 in) wide and 3.7 to 4.0 cm (1.4 to 1.6 in) thick. The handle has a round cross-section about 3 to 3.25 cm (1.2 to 1.3 in) in diameter.



This stone celt has a total length of 15 cm (5.9 in) and a bit width of 5.9 cm (2.3 in). It has a total weight of 668.6 g (1.47 lb).


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