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The Word ‘Palstave’

  • T. D. Kendrick

I Suppose we are all agreed that ‘Celt’ is not a particularly brilliant name for a stone or bronze axe, even though we continue to use it. It survives, of course, not on its merits, but because we really do need a word other than ‘axe’ to denote these narrowedged prehistoric tools, and ‘Celt’ is at present the only substitute we have. We might, I mean, abolish the name Celt if only Celts looked a little more like axes; but we cannot, because there are many people in this world who do not like an axe to be called an axe unless it is the sort of axe they are accustomed to; whereas if you call a not easily recognizable axe a ‘Celt’ and make rather a fuss about explaining that you mean by this a prehistoric axe, then these same people will probably thank you very much indeed and say that it is all most interesting. In other words we keep on talking and writing about Celts because the public like the word; it is, after all, short and sweet, easy to remember, and devastatingly incomprehensible to the uninitiated. I feel that it is necessary for us to put up with ‘Celt’, and I am only remarking here that we know it is a base word of miserable, mistaken coinage. I ask simply that we do not pretend to ourselves that it is a good word on the grounds that it is oldestablished and familiar; it was a bad word in the beginning and it always will be a bad word, despite its now considerable antiquity and frequent use. Lots and lots of blacks do not make a white, not even if the oldest black is 18th century black.

In addition to this name ‘Celt’ which we apply to most of our stone and bronze axes, we also have the group-name ‘palstave’ to distinguish the members of a particular species of the Celt genus. It is a very useful word and I do not think we could do without it, for though we can talk about ‘flat Celts’, ‘flanged Celts’, and ‘winged Celts’, no one has yet succeeded in substituting a snappy descriptive name like these for the palstave-variety of Celt. I should not dream, therefore, of suggesting that we get rid of ‘palstave’ and, indeed, I have myself a considerable affection for this curious word; but as so few of us know what it means or why it is the name of the prehistoric implements concerned, something may profitably be said about its history. That the word happens to come rather badly out of the enquiry is not, of course, my fault.

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1 Falk, H., Altnordische Waffenkunde, Oslo, 1914, p. 76.

2 See, for instance, the Oxford English Dictionary.

3 Nordens, isaer Danmarks Krigsvaesen, Copenhagen, 1825, p. 231.

4 Danmmks OEdtid, p. 22.

5 Kurze Übersicht-im Kopenhagner Museum, p. 24.

6 Arch. Journ., 1849, 6, 371.

7 Arch. Journ., 1850, 7, 74.

8 Naturally there is much to be said for Mr Yates's view, but the matter of the probable use of the prehistoric palstave does not concern us here. Mr Crawford, however, has reminded me of one important piece of evidence under this heading, namely the discovery of a broken palstave at the bottom of a ditch whose chalk walls bore long spud-scars that fitted the cutting end ofthe bronze implement ; this was in the ‘Angle Ditch’ near Wor Barrow on Handley Down, Dorset (Pitt-Rivers. Crunborne Chase, 4, 104, pl. 263, I). I may also add that some remarks about the possible use of the palstave in making canoes will be found in Antiquaries Journal, 6, pp. 125, 319.

9 Ancient Bronze Implements, London., 1881, p. 71.

10 Karlamagnús saga (ed. Unger), 81.

11 Fornmanna sögur (ed. Copenhagen 1825–35), 7, 265.

12 Njala (ed. Halle), 157; trans. (Dasent), 156.

13 Kgs. 89 (ed. Brenner, p. 105).

14 Kgs. 86 (ed. Brenner, p. 101). The translation of this passage has been made by Mr Jón Stefansson to whom I am indebted for considerable help in the preparation of these notes. There is an English translation of the whole work by Larson, L.M., (New York, 1917).

15 See Walter, Rose, Zeits. f. hist. Waffenkunde, 11, pp. 239, 355; Stöcklein, H. ib., N.F. 11 (1926), p. 17. I have to thank Mr J. G. Mann for these references.

16 Cf. Keller, M.L., Anglo-Saxon Weapon Names. Heidelberg, 1906, p. 215.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
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