Elizabeth Norton

Polished axes: object biographies and the writing of world prehistories

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

My thesis uses polished axes as a window into the British Museums collections, collecting practices and the place of polished axes in Neolithic archaeology.

Start Date: October 2011
End Date: October 2015
Theme: Objects, meanings and knowledge
Research discipline: Anthropology, Museum studies
Locations: Americas, Europe, Pacific, UK
Staff member: JD Hill
Department: Department of Prehistory and Europe
University and department: Archaeology (Humanities), University of Southampton
University supervisor: Clive Gamble and Yvonne Marshall

How did the British Museum create knowledge about prehistory?

The British Museum created knowledge about prehistory through displaying artefacts, swapping and loaning artefacts with other museums and being a base of scholarly research.

Who collected polished axes and why?

From the 17th Century, polished axes have been collected by antiquarians, archaeologists and anthropologists, who studied them to observe trade and society in prehistory.

Why are ethnographic artefacts used to write European prehistory?

Ethnography is used as inspiration for the use of material culture in the past. I will be showing how ethnographic fieldwork has been used to inform European archaeology.

About my research

The research has focused on the British Museum’s collection of polished axes from Oceania, Europe and the Americas.

Objects associated with the axes, including hafts, labels, diaries, letters and catalogues have been used to reconstruct the “biography” of each collection of artefacts. This makes it possible to show how the British Museum’s collections of polished axes were built and how they have been used to write the prehistory of the world from a Western perspective.

Aims of my research

There are three main aims to my research. Firstly I aim to better understand how the British Museum acted as a site of knowledge making during the construction of prehistory as a concept and the construction of archaeology as a discipline.

Secondly, I aim to show how ethnographic and archaeological artefacts have been used together, both inside and outside the British Museum, to write world prehistories. Finally, I will show how polished axes have been used to write world prehistories which have influenced archaeologists for generations and to show object biographies may inform world prehistories in the future.


Southampton Postgraduate Research Archaeology Symposium 2012, 2013, 2014 “The Collector and his Circle” at the Wallace Collection 2nd July 2014.