Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

BATTLE-AXES in Eastern Iran
(1,261 words)

Battle-axes made of bronze appeared in Eastern Iran during the Bronze Age. One such object comes from a burial at the Sapalli-tepa settlement in southern Uzbekistan.

BATTLE-AXES in Eastern Iran. Battle-axes made of bronze appeared in Eastern Iran during the Bronze Age. One such object comes from a burial at the Sapalli-tepa settlement in southern Uzbekistan. It has a shaft-hole, an elongated hammer butt, and its cutting edge largely widens towards the lower side. It is dated to the middle of the second millennium BCE (Askarov, p. 72, pl. XXVII/2). Battle-axes remained in use throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages (Litvinsky, 2001, pp. 418-24).

The Avesta contains information about battle-axes called čakuš; the description of Mithra’s chariots in Yašt 10.131 mentions “well made double-edged iron axes” (Gershevitch, p. 139; cf. Jackson, p. 116; Herzfeld, II, p. 783). Yašt 1.18 also mentions battle-axes among other weapons. In both cases, the term čakuš is used, and its exact New Persian correspondence is čākoš, (‘hammer’ or ‘mallet’; see Jackson, p. 116; Malandra, p. 273). In Tajik, čakuš means ‘hammer’ or ‘mallet’; the verb čukidan means ‘to hammer’ or ‘to thresh’, and čukanda stands for ‘hand threshing tool.’ ; In the Old Persian, the terms isuvā (of unknown etymology, see Brandenstein and Mayrhofer, p. 127; Kent, p. 174), and, probably, vaçā (Malandra, p. 281) were used to describe battle-axes.

Another reconstructable Old Persian term for the axes, namely *paraΘu, goes back to the common Iranian *parasu (Abaev, p. 451; Bailey, pp. 13-14). For the battle-axe, Middle Persian used the term čakuš, as well as tabar and tabarzēn (Tafazzoli, pp. 188 and 192).

To describe the pole-axes used by the Central Asian people, Greek authors used the term sagaris (Litvinskiǐ and P’yankov, p. 39). Copper pole-axes of the Massagetae (Herodotus, 9.215; Strabo, 9.8.6) and those of the Sakas (Herodotus, 7.64) are known. Quintus Curtius mentions double-blade pole-axes used by the Barkanians (Girkanians; see Curtius, 3.2.5).

Archeological excavations at the sites of Central Asian nomads have produced metal battle-axes used by the Sakas and the Massagetae. A whole series of such battle-axes derives from the Sakas burials in the eastern Pamirs (Litvinskiǐ, 1972, pp. 121-25; Litvinskij, 1984, pp. 46-48, fig. 10). Their forms vary greatly (Plate 1), which makes it possible to distinguish several types. Two bi-metal pick-axes (with a bronze bush-ear and an iron blade) have been found in burial sites nearby the Aral Sea. The earliest objects of this type (dated to the 6th century BCE) include bi-metal axes and a double-edged axe which has a long, slightly curved faceted blade with a head on one side and a long narrow blade on the other. Other axes are dated to the 5th-3rd centuries BCE. These battle-axes have a wide range of similarities among the battle-axes from the Black Sea coast, the northern Caucasus, the Kama River region, Kazakhstan, southern Siberia, and northern China (Litvinskiǐ, 2001, pp. 420-24). Central Asian battle-axes closely resemble Achaemenid battle-axes known from iconographic materials and archeological finds.

In eastern Iran, settled peoples continued using the battle-axes in warfare. Thus, iron battle-axes and an elongated silver pickaxe of an intricate shape with gilding have been found at the Old Nisa (Invernizzi, pp. 129-38, pl. H). Peculiar pickaxes, one made of bronze and several of iron, of the Indian ankuśa type, have been found at Ay Khanum (Francfort, pp. 56-69, pls. 21, 25, XXI, and XXXVI). Pickaxes and battle hammers are presented in Central Asian and Inner Asian (northern India included) iconography, as well as on coins of the late Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic times (for detailed lists with bibliographical references see Invernizzi, pp. 137-38). A warrior depicted on a plate from Orlat holds in his hand a double-edged pickaxe (Ilyasov and Rusanov, pls. IV/1 and XIII), but this is already early 3rd century CE.

Iconography and archaeological finds testify that battle-axes were still in use in the 5th-8th centuries, both as a weapon in battle and as a symbol of power of a ruler or a military commander. A silver dish from the Kulagysh village contains the scene of on-foot combat which shows broken battle-axes with a rounded cutting edge and with the butt-end in the shape of a long blade (Orbeli and Trever, table 21). Similar objects can be found in the paintings of Pendjikent. An iron battle-axe with a rounded narrow blade and a small butt was found in the layer of the 6th-7th centuries at Aktepe of Yunusabad near Tashkent (Terenozhkin, pp. 123-24, fig. 25/7; Raspopova, pp. 77-78).

Ceremonial maces existed too, they frequently appear in wall paintings. A real object of the type with the upper part executed like a male head has been found at the Azhartepa (Berdimuradov and Samibaev, p. 40, figs. 93-94).

Battle-axes of various types continued to be manufactured and used in Eastern Iran up until the Late Middle Ages (Mukminvoa, p. 114).


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A. Askarov, Sapalli-tepa, Tashkent, 1973.

H. W. Bailey, “Āriana. Dress and Equipment,” Orientalia Suecana IV, Uppsala, 1955, pp. 3-18.

A. E. Berdimuradov and M. K. Samibaev, Khram Azhartepa (Azhartepa Temple), Tashkent, 1999.

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H.-P. Francfort, Le sanctuaire du temple á niches indentées. 2. Les trouvailles (Fouilles d’Aï Khanoum, III), Paris, 1984.

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J. Ya. Ilyasov and D. O. Rusanov, “Study on the Bone Plates from Orlat,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 5, 1997/98, Kamakura, 1998, pp. 107-60.

A. Invernizzi, “Sculture di metallo da Nisa. Cultura greca e Cultura oranica in Partia Lovanii,” Acta Iranica 20, 1999, pp.1-236.

A. V. W. Jackson, “Herodotus VII, 61, or the Arms of the Ancient Persians Illustrated from Iranian Sources,” in Classical Studies in Honour of Henry Drisler, New York and London, 1894, pp. 95-125.

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B. A. Litvinskiǐ and I. V. P’yankov, “Voennoe delo u narodov Sredneǐ Azii v VI-IV vv. do n. è.” (Art of warfare among the Central Asian peoples in the 6th-4th centuries BCE), VDI, 1966, No. 3, pp. 36-52.

W. W. Malandra, “A Glossary of Terms for Weapons and Armor in Old Iranian,” Indo-Iranian Journal 5/4, The Hague, 1973, pp. 264-85.

R. G. Mukminova, Ocherki po istorii remesla v Samarkande i Bukhare v XVI veke (Essays in the history of handicrafts in Samarqand and Bukhara in the 16th century), Tashkent, 1976.

I. A. Orbeli and K. V. Trever, Sasanidskiǐ metall. Khudozhestvennye predmety iz zolota, serebra i bronzy (Sassanian metal. Artistic objects made of gold, silver, and bronze), Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.

V. I. Raspopova, Metallicheskie izdeliya rannesrednevekovogo Sogda (Metal artifacts from early Mediaeval Sogd), Leningrad, 1980.

A. Tafazzoli, “A List of Terms for Weapons and Armour in Western Middle Iranian,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 3, 1993/94, Kamakura, 1994, pp. 187-98.

A. I. Terenozhkin, “Kholm Ak-tepe bliz Tashkenta (raskopki 1940 g.)” (The Ak-tepe mound near Tashkent [Excavations of 1940]), Trudy Instituta istorii i arkheologii Akademii Nauk Uzbekskoǐ SSR 1, 1948, pp. 71-133.

Cite this page
Boris A. Litvinsky, “BATTLE-AXES in Eastern Iran”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 18 September 2021 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_10433>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 00000000

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