Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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The Double D 17th August 2006 08:42 PM

Zulu Axe
I bid on several lots of East African weapons at an auction this past weekend. I was only sucessful in getting one lot this axe.

It's always hard to tell what you are getting when you are looking at pictures and can't physically view the item. The blade looked right but something about the haft seem wrong. It looked like someone just stuck a stick on it.

The axe should be here tomorrow.

I was going through a packet of newspaper clippings this evening of the 1979 Centennial memorial of the battle of Isandlwana and found this picture Chief Gasta Bethelezi at the memorial. Look what he has in his hand

It's about as good a confirmation of ethnicity as you can get to see a Zulu Chief hold the same pattern axe. Even down to the shaft that I was skeptical of.

Is it tomorrow yet?

Congoblades 17th August 2006 09:15 PM

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some old zulu battle-axes (from the book, Zulus, Ian Knight)

katana 17th August 2006 10:22 PM

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In my experience, as Congoblades has pointed out axes are not commonly associated with the Zulu....there is a strong possibility that it is Swazi.
Below is a picture of a Swazi ceremonial axe....notice the blade design is very similar ....although the shaft is more ornate

Swazi Ceremonial Axe; Between sixty and eighty years old. The blade may be older. When the owner dies, normally the wooden shaft would be broken at the grave. Then the son will use the blade to make a new axe

The Double D 18th August 2006 07:34 AM

There are some subtle difference between the pictured Swazi Axe and the one I now call a Zulu axe. The difference may be only because they were made by two different persons or they may be cultural. I don't know.

Bryant in The Zulu People does say the Zulu's made axes or iZembe. Were these axes the type we see here or something else all together, he doesn't say. Krige in The Social System of the Zulus refers to a battle axe or iZenze. She says there is no record of them used in battle since Shaka's days, and she references Samuelson Long, Long Ago. I don't have Samuelson.

Bryant further clouds the issue by saying the "battle-axe of the the Sutus, Swazis and other neighbouring Bantu, though known to the Zulus by importation (and called imBemba) was never one of their war weapons"

I agree that there was a good deal of trade and taking of spoils going on in the area. The Tsongas, Zulus, Swazis and other Bantu were all neighbors. It seems natural they would have each others weapons.

And of course the display by Chief Buthelezi of the Axe in a public setting might be just a fantasy symbol.

I do note however that the axe I bid on and won seem to have the same charactoristics in blade shape and haft as the Chiefs.

Bill M 18th August 2006 08:03 AM

I know little about Zulu, but have bought some good pieces from this seller before. He seems very knowledgeable.

I have an old Swazi axe like the above also. It is my understanding that these were ceremonial.

aka Naga Basuki

The Double D 18th August 2006 06:48 PM

I found this photo in my personal collection. It is another picture of Chief Buthelezi in front of the Zulu impi at the Isandlwana Centennial.

He is holding the same pattern axe as I have acquired. I'm convinced that the axe I have acquired is Zulu. It is no were near as fancy as the others from neighboring tribes, but has it's own similar but distinct characteristics.

I think these things are more like scepters than weapons.

Now if the express courior would just deliver it.

Chief Buthelezi is an interesting person unto himself Chief Buthelezi

katana 18th August 2006 10:23 PM

DD, I am sure you are right that this design of axe is more ceremonial than functional. The central fixing point looks to weak/thin for such a wide blade. If this is indeed a Zulu forged/made axe......and bearing in mind the close proximity of the Swazi ...I'm wondering whether the axe head 'V' shape has any cultural or symbolic meaning? I don't remember seeing this design attributed to central or Northern Africa.......that isn't to say that isn't the case.....I sure I'll be corrected if I'm mistaken. ;)

Mapico1 19th August 2006 09:09 PM

Hi,I bought some like that from Gordon(collectingspears)and he sold them to me as "Swazi axes"
Danny :)

Tim Simmons 19th August 2006 09:45 PM

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To me it looks as if the type that Douglas has is a symbol of rank and ceremonial. Does it have or has ever had sharp edges?

Of the styles of axe found in S.Africa, I am sure they were used by all peoples at one time or another either through trade or just neighboring influences and an axe is a handy close quarter tool who ever forged it. It strikes me as a little confining to say one is this or that especially when the form is used in a ceremonial manner, its origin surely coming from the fighting weapon. This one of mine is a light weapon and has been sharped many times changing its shape as can be seen. The haft is also not a lot more than a stick thick at one end, though the wood is quite hard and strong. Sadly the nights are drawing in and I now have to use the flash when taking pictures.

The Double D 20th August 2006 07:54 AM

All the people in this area are Bantu's and closely related, so similiar patterns would be expected. The differences I believe are just a difference in how the local blacksmith makes things.

Sam the Swazi Spearmaker does it one way, Zed from Zulu fine Cutlery does it another, Tsonga Tom's Custom Blacksmithing have their version of the standard patterns. No different than any number of modern customs bladesmith have dozen different ways to make a drop point hunter.

It would be nice to give you folks some nice close up photos and good desrcriptions of this particular axe, but it hasn't arrived yet.

I don't know why, it was shipped by courir Thursday and it's only 500k from Pretoria to Durban. It isn't like it is in backwoods of the US or something.

The Double D 22nd August 2006 06:50 PM

Well it finally arrived. Wow, this thing is big. It definitley is not a functional axe.

Here it is with my iKlwe.

The tiles on the floor are 13 inch/33 cm. The overall length is 43 1/2 inch/ 110 cm.

The blade is 13 inch/33 cm from tip to tip. The nose of the blade is 5 7/8 inch/15 cm from the haft.

The blade is attached through a hole in the haft and secured with metal wedges.

It appears to have been hand forged with crude tools.

Since I am in no position to dispute Chief Buthelezi's use of this axe, I am going to call it a Zulu Chieftains axe. Ethnographic, but definitely not antique, from late 20th Century.

And the best endorsement, my wife thinks it's neat.

Freddy 22nd August 2006 08:12 PM

I found a description of a Zulu axe in the book 'The Anatomy of the Zulu Army from Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879' by Ian Knight (1995)

Here is what the author writes :

"Lastly, the Zulus also knew of the battle-axe, although it was usually only carried by men of status, and as a ceremonial weapon rather than for fighting. Lacking the technology to pierce metal or work it into a tube, most southern African groups employed an axe blade which fitted into a wooden handle, rather than the other way round. Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe and the Sotho groups of the interior, axes with half-moon blades were common; the curved edge was the cutting edge, whilst a tang emerged from the straight back and pierced the handle horizontally, a few inches below the top. There is some evidence that such axes were traded into Zululand, although the true Zulu axe - known as 'ISIZENZE' - seems to have been a heavier weapon, with a steeply angled blade, the top edge projecting noticeably above the handle. When employed in battle, it was wielded with a chopping movement, and the lower portion could be used to hook the edge of an enemy's shield, and pull it aside."

Unfortunately, there are no pictures in this book of such an axe.

Here is my axe. I bought it as a Swazi axe. Total length is 91,5 cm. The axe blade measures 41 cm from top to bottom, with a cutting edge of 56 cm. The stem of the axe blade has been twisted and is inserted in the shaft in the usual fashion. In addition, three strips of woven copper wire (?) embellish the handle.

katana 22nd August 2006 08:43 PM

Comparing the three axes posted......Tim's appears the most likely used as a weapon. The haft thickens at the axe head end, adding weight and providing a thicker fixing point for the head. The protruded 'blade' beyond the haft suggests it could be used as a stabbing impliment as well as the 'shield hooking' function mentioned on Freddy's post.

They are all nice examples....however, IMHO Tim's is the one I like the most....purely because it is more functional than ceremonial...

Freddy 22nd August 2006 08:51 PM

I agree with you. Tim's axe is the most functional piece.

The shaft of my axe is made of some kind of light wood. And also the decoration points more in the direction of a ceremonial piece, just like the one on the picture of the dance Chief Butheleze.

The Double D 23rd August 2006 08:20 PM

I agree that Tim's is most likely a weapon, where the other are most likely ceremonial. What they all share is basic blade shape, but not much else--chevron and shaft. Hafting is different.

Freddy could I impose upon you to scan in Knights biblography in a PM to me. I have learned since living here in South Africa that Knight is a writer and he has a circle of researchers and experts that he consults with. I found one gentlemen I have been shooting with is in that circle. Perhaps I will know someone on his list and can talk with them about this axe.

Chief Buthelezi is no dance chief. He is a direct descendant of Cetshwayo and is the chief of the 20,000 strong Buthelezi clan in the Zulu tribe and could be considered the first person in rank under King Zwelethini in the monarchy. His carrying of this type axe would seem significant. The picture posted was taken at the offical state ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle Isandlwana. It was also taken during a period of aparthied when the display of cultural weapons was an issue. I think this axe is something more than a cultural prop even though I don't think it is a true weapon. Just my WAG.

Freddy 23rd August 2006 09:51 PM

I will send you a scan of the bibliography of Ian Knight's book this weekend when I have more time.


FourBlades 24th August 2006 04:34 AM

Double D,

That is a beautiful piece for sure. The way that the head is attached
to the shaft does not look like it would hold up under repeated blows in
use. It looks like the head of the axe would be pushed through the shaft.
It seems like more practical battle axes are attached using a ring surrounding
the shaft. But then I am no expert... :)


The Double D 24th August 2006 06:05 AM

Agreed Four blades, this a symbolic axe or scepter nothimg more.

Freddy, that would be great, and apppreciated.

The Double D 13th September 2006 07:53 PM

I have it on great authority that the axe in this picture and the axe that I acquired is in fact a Zulu War axe. It is used by a Zulu leader as a symbol of his authority to lead his people to war. It is a symbolic war axe and not a battle axe for fighting. It also is similiar but not the same as the Swazi axe in the same manner that the Zulu's and Swazi's are similiar and not the same, they are cousins.

My authority Chief Mangosuthu ("Gatsha") Buthelezi the gentlemen shown carrying the axe in this photo. I met him at a reception this evening. I felt like an hero worshipping schoolboy talking with him. As far as I am concerned this is the definitive word on this axe.

Is this not cool!!!

katana 13th September 2006 10:47 PM

DD you name dropper.... :p ;)

The Double D 14th September 2006 06:01 AM

Yes, yes, I am...I about choked on my drink when he walked in, and when he walked over to me while making the circuit....well I was beside myself.

When a real Zulu Chief tells you something, you far as I am concerned it is the gospel on my war axe! :D :D :D

Ian 14th September 2006 06:25 AM


Originally Posted by The Double D

These guys' footwear is interesting.:D

Rinaldo 27th September 2006 10:07 AM

looks more like the hilo hilo region's zulu faction (swaziland) in my opinion.

Tim Simmons 7th February 2009 06:00 PM

Another one to compere?
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This axe was on ebay and failed to reach its reserve. The seller lived only 40 miles away so I contacted him. This all coincided with me selling a few things so I was just about able to afford to get it. Why it did not sell I do not know, perhaps the high starting bid + the lack of detailed pics put people off. There were no pictures of how the flat ends of the haft were finished. I can say it 100% right. I can add pictures if need be.
It seems to have iron, brass and copper wire on the haft. It is heavy enough to be a weapon and does have an edge however I do not think it has ever been battle ready when compered to the other axe shown before. That has iron wire with lead pegs in the half and has been sharpened many times. I have read that the southern African peoples were and had been familiar with the drawing of copper and iron wire for centuries. Would it be wrong to clean the wire work?

Lew 8th February 2009 12:42 PM

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This one is possibily Zulu or Shona?

Tim Simmons 8th February 2009 06:48 PM

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Nice axe Lew. I was offered that axe and part of me wanted it but it meant giving up one of my PI pieces which are not the most common this in the UK. It has a Shona look but as we have found out many different peoples often used pretty much the same weapons. I need one like this now.

I have cleaned the metal on this latest axe. From the handle upwards brass and steel, copper and brass, copper, copper brass and steel, and around the axe head copper and steel.

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