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When is a palstave not a palstave?

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I’m sure it’s clear by now that I love the objects that tell a story. I spend a lot of time going through old reports and it’s so intriguing to read previous perceptions of Bronze Age objects.

One such example is the case of a palstave from the Southbrook Estate in Devon. Although the exact findspot can no longer be identified, two palstaves were found in the same field near “Subhill” (which I can’t currently identify on historical maps), between Rockbeare and Clyst St. Lawrence. The first palstave was found about c.1853, while the second was found in 1860.

RAMM-P044 Southbrook Estate (7).JPG

The second palstave survives in the RAMM collections.

While the second palstave currently resides in the RAMM museum in Exeter, the first palstave took a rather different path. It was obtained by an individual who appropriated the palstave “for the purpose of curing wens and other affections of the neck” (Way 1869, 345).

Google’s definition of “wens” is:

a boil or other swelling or growth on the skin, especially a sebaceous cyst.

I’m pretty glad that no images came up when I searched for this!

Still, apparently this palstave was worn around the neck of the owner for several years as a talisman and “the efficacy of the object being held in great esteem, so much so, that it was sent for by sufferers from distant places in the West” (Way 1869, 345)!

Which is just a terrific thought.

The idea that people travelled from across the country to rub this palstave on their skin to cure their afflictions is incredible. But I can’t imagine this was the most hygienic thing to do! Apparently, popular belief considered it a thunderbolt, which I’ve also heard is what the Romans considered Neolithic stone axes.

The location of this palstave was last heard of in the Honiton area, and a drawing was apparently procured, though this also could not be located.

What I think is fascinating about this is simply the way different people conceive and relate to objects. We consider what we find as objects of the past, but we rarely attribute any mythical or magical powers. We quite readily consider what we find as functional, such as a palstave as an axe/chisel implement. But even as late as the nineteenth century, when palstaves were certainly known about, this object from Devon was still considered to having healing qualities.

It’s just awesome.

Though you won’t catch me rubbing a palstave on myself anytime soon!


Since writing this post I have come across another rather amusing description of the fate of this palstave by Rev. Kirwan in 1870 in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol.4:

“The implement here referred to is now used by a quack doctor as a charm for wens.”

Love it.

Notes and Acknowledgements

If anyone knows of any other prehistoric objects with tales such as this, please get in contact through email, Facebook or Twitter as I would love to hear about them!

A full account of the story of the palstave can be read at this source:

Way, A. 1869. “Antiquities of Bronze Found in Devonshire”, Archaeological Journal Vol.26(1), 339-351.

Many thanks go to Tom Cadbury and the staff at the RAMM in Exeter for accommodating access to this object.



1 Comment

  1. […] treated in the past, and how they have since been appropriated. Naturally this conference had me in my element and talks across weekend spanned the Bronze Age through to Romano-British periods discussing […]


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I’m Matt, 26 years old, a glutton for academic punishment, a lover of all things Bronze Age, always willing to continue talking even when my friends have lost interest, and never happy unless overwhelming busy. Find out more here and be sure to follow me on Twitter @mgknight24 and Facebook

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