Stone axes as tools, valuables and symbols (3300-1900 BC)

Jan Turek



1. Introduction

2. Stone axe exchange and inter-regional communication in the late 4th millennium BC

3. Stone axes in the Corded Ware funerary practices

4. Stone battle-axes in the age of bronze

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

This paper is a study on the changing social significance and value of polished stone axes during the Eneolithic period in Bohemia, examining the social context of stone axe production, distribution and consumption. I would like to show how artefacts of originally practical function became important objects of exchange, communication and social interaction. Subsequently these same attributes demonstrate the differences between social categories in burial customs. Finally I am going to look at stone battle-axes as a relic of stone symbols in the age of bronze.

Polished stone axes and adzes appeared in Bohemia first in the Early Neolithic with the Lbk Culture. For the first farming communities stone axes were of extraordinary importance. Since extensive deforestation made available initial areas for agricultural food production, polished stone tools used for clearance became true symbols of domestication. The custom of depositing hoards of stone axes or roughouts had already started in this period (VENCL 1975). This practice may be explained as a reflection of exchange and distribution of raw materials and artefacts or as votive offerings. Soon after their apparent introduction into the material culture of the first farmers, stone axes and adzes that were primarily produced for a practical function became objects of increased value and prestige. Some of the massive shoe-adzes or axe-hammers were obviously too large and heavy to be used as functional tools. They seem to demonstrate the technological ability, to manufacture and produce such an enormous artefact might have some significance in social interactions as a prestigious object.


2. Stone axe exchange and inter-regional communication in the late 4th millennium BC.         

This first study examines the distribution and use of raw materials for the production of polished stone axes during the later stage of the middle Eneolithic period (3300-2900 BC) in Bohemia. Amongst a large collection of stone artefacts I have focused particularly on the significance of polished axes made of green crystalline tuff as a possible medium of social and economic communication between two contemporary Eneolithic Cultures in Bohemia at the end of 4th millennium BC.

The largest part of the examined material comes from various museum collections. However museum collections include mainly finished products such as axes, adzes or battle-axes and only exceptionally some roughouts of a distinctive shape. These finds were discovered through various excavations and field-walking since the 19th century. Unfortunately there is lack of roughouts and a total absence of raw materials and working waste. These indefinite pieces of stone were usually not selected during the excavations and field-walking or not included within museum collections. Because the museum collections do not offer evidence for axe production such as roughout artefacts, working waste or raw material it was necessary to establish another approach - systematic field-walking.

In the locations, which are known to be Eneolithic sites, systematic field-walking was carried out in order to provide evidence for the reconstruction of the form and spatial extent of distribution of the raw materials under study. Systematic field-walking suggests, that some kind of axe production was taking place on most of the Eneolitic (mainly Řivnáč period) hill-top sites in Central Bohemia. Raw material was probably transported or traded in the form of roughouts or semi-finished axes and finally manufactured elsewhere.

The chronology of exploitation of green crystalline tuff was established and the network of its distribution was reconstructed mainly after the evidence and artefacts from museum collections. The fine grain green crystalline tuff was rarely used as a raw material before the Early Eneolithic period. However the greatest quarrying activity took place during the Middle Eneolithic Řivnáč period. The quarry, containing this raw-material is located on the south-western edge of the Řivnáč territory at Vrané nad Vltavou in Central Bohemia. The outcrop at Vrané nad Vltavou is according to microscopic as well as macroscopic identification probably the only area where such rock appears in Bohemia.  Unfortunately the possible traces of prehistoric quarrying on the site were damaged by the construction of a river dam and subsequent erosion of the river bank in 1960s.

It is only possible to reconstruct the development of quarrying activity on the Vrané outcrop according to stratified or chronologically diagnostic artefacts found elsewhere. There is little evidence of early Neolithic exploitation of the Vrané outcrop.  This may be evidence of the limited use of the material from the Vrané outcrop, even before the TRB period, however stones might have been gathered in a pebble form. The earliest quarrying in Vrané may be presumed for the sequence of early Eneolithic Jordansmühl, Schussenried and Michelsberg Cultures and subsequently the early TRB Culture.  Unfortunately this can not be proved by evidence of quarrying on the outcrop, however there are several stratified TRB axes on the hill top site at Baba (District of Praha 6, Havel 1982).  Some of the field-walking finds from the site Kamenný stůl near Vinoř (Praha 9, TUREK - DANĚČEK - KOSTKA 1998) also suggests the possible use of the Vrané material from the earliest Eneolithic period. The exploitation of the Vrané outcrop culminated in the Řivnáč period. Tough enough and easily workable rock became the most popular raw material for Řivnáč axes. The beautiful green-grey colour of the rock with a pattern of darker veins makes a strong aesthetic impression. The specific colour of the Vrané tuff might have caused its high preference and symbolic value of these axes. Their “magic” colour might have been more important than their functional properties and made them appropriate for ceremonial exchange of some kind. In this context it is important to observe that the majority of finds of the Řivnáč axes are concentrated on hill-top sites usually with evidence of some kind of fortification.

The significance of prehistoric fortifications in Bohemia has recently been re-examined by E. NEUSTUPNÝ (1995, 199-201, 205-207). Neustupný disagreed with the interpretation of the prehistoric fortifications as artefacts with a defence function and presents them as symbols of human society. Neustupný also observed an abundance of entrances and other aspects were limiting the practical function of the Řivnáč and Cham period fortifications. The last century antiquarians were trying to find Czech analogies for the megalithic monuments of Western and Northern Europe (stone circles, henge monuments), however they could not find them. I presume it is mainly because they were looking for formally similar structures. The prehistoric hill-forts (in their paradigm the "forts of rulers") might not have been connected with the symbolic function of megalithic monuments. I believe there may be a connection between the social function of the megalithic stone circles of Western Europe and Late Neolithic (Lengyel period) rondels and subsequently Eneolithic fortifications in Bohemia. In both cases these are structures of a symbolic character with some importance in rituals and cult. I presume other activities such as production and exchange of stone axes might have been concentrated on these hill-top sites (Cf. TUREK - DANĚČEK 1997, or stone circles in Britain - EDMONDS 1995, 122-132).

The Řivnáč/Cham hill-top sites are usually of limited area and they are often located in a distinctive geomorphologic position. These factors all limit their suitability as main  permanent settlements, however dwelling structures were excavated on some hill-top sites (EHRICH - PLESLOVÁ 1968, ZÁPOTOCKÝ - ZÁPOTOCKÁ 1990 etc.).

Fig. 2. A miniature axe and a roughout of approximately relevant size from Prague - Bohnice Zámka (material: green crystalline tuff).


I presume that the majority of the population in the Řivnáč and Cham period lived on the lowland sites, which are markedly underrepresented in the archaeological record. It may well be possible that the Eneolithic fortifications in Bohemia were structures of a  symbolic character with some importance in communal events, rituals and cult. Activities such as exchange and possibly also the production of stone axes might have been concentrated on these hill-top sites. The exchange might have certain importance in the mediation of social interaction within and between communities, such as bridewealth presentations or ceremonial transactions. Some parallels for the ceremonial exchange or using axes for paying the brides-price may be found in some ethnographic evidence from Papua – New Guinea or Solomon Islands (POSPISIL 1963, PHILLIPS 1979).  


On some of the Řivnáč hill-top sites the axes made of the green crystalline tuff represent 38-96% of the total amount of stone artefacts found on the site. On the Řivnáč period sites in central Bohemia this material appears in the form of roughouts (see Fig. 1 and 2), working waste and finished axes (see Fig. 2). Contrasting results were achieved during the analysis of stone artefacts from two hill-top sites of the Cham Culture in western Bohemia, where the green crystalline tuff represents only up to 15% of all axes. In comparison to the abundance of roughouts and waste of the crystalline tuff on the central Bohemian sites on the Cham sites only finished axes were found (see Fig. 3). One of the reasons why fragments of raw material do not appear in the archaeological collections from these sites may be the early date of their excavations (such as Bzí by Franc, F. X, 1890 in: ŠALDOVÁ (ed.) 1988, see Fig. 3), however distinctive roughouts found as early as at the end of 19th Century on some of the Řivnáč hill-top sites survived in museum collections.


Fig. 3 A detail of the original illustration from FRANC, F. X, 1890 (ŠALDOVÁ ed.1988) showing the collection of stone artefacts from the Cham hill-top site at Bzí.


Metric analysis of stone axes from Cham hill-top site at Bzí also suggests that those artefacts made of the green crystalline tuff appears to be mainly a particular type of small axes (see Fig. 4) that were probably imported from central Bohemia as finished products. In the context of Řivnáč Culture all sorts of axes of various sizes were made of the Vrané raw material (cf. Fig. 1), however only these small axes were exported into western Bohemia. It seems that the source of this raw material was controlled by the communities of the Řivnáč Culture and the exchanged axes maintained a form of communication between these two regions.

The range of stone materials used for axe production became much more varied after 2900 BC  during the subsequent Corded Ware period. However, up to the present day we did not find one single Corded Ware axe made of the green crystalline tuff. It seems that after more than 1000 years of use, the appearance of Corded Ware material culture in Bohemia finished or diminished the exploitation of the source of green crystalline tuff in Bohemia and the quarrying was never restored to its original extent.

This however was not the only change in the stone axe production in Bohemia. The social and symbolic function of stone axes changed too. Battle-axes became more popular and we find most of the Corded Ware stone tools and weapons had a symbolic role in burial contexts.

Fig. 4. Metric analysis of the Cham stone axes made of green crystalline tuff from the hill-top site at Bzí.


3. Stone axes in the Corded Ware funerary practices

Corded Ware (CW) cemeteries in Central Europe are represented mainly by single inhumation burials in the contracted position. CW female burials were usually placed on the left side, orientated by their head to the east. For male burials the typical orientation was to the west, with the body placed on the right side. As a result of this practice all burials of both sexes faced to the south (see Fig. 5:3, 4). Male and female burials appear to be accompanied by different "gendered" artefacts. Female burials are assembled with necklaces made of perforated animal teeth, as well as, bone imitations of animal teeth. Necklaces were also made from small perforated shell discs. Some “solar“ disc-symbols of fresh water shell were also found in female graves. Among the pottery assemblage the ovoid pots are commonly found with female burials. Male burial assemblages reflect their control over social power symbolically represented by weapons such as stone battle-axes, mace heads or axes. The CW funerary pottery attributed to males is represented by beakers that have been decorated with a cord impression. It should be stressed that “gendered“ artefacts should not be simply read only as a reflection of social category of the deceased person, but in some cases as a symbolic demonstration of the relations between the buried individual and other members of the community. Some artefacts may therefore rather represent the mourners and their relationship with the dead. A beaker or a battle-axe in a Corded Ware female grave may therefore be a symbolic gift from a father or husband, rather than a reflection of the association of an individual with a particular artefact in day to day practice.

The CW funerary practices seems to be more likely a symbolic reflection of the division of labour within the family and a reflection of the different social status of men, women and children. The individuality expressed within the context of a single burial is indicative of an individuals association with a particular social category rather than a celebration of someone's special skills or status achieved during their lifetime. The symbolic expression of the male and female phenomenon in burial rites probably reflects different social roles for each sex within society. Presence or absence of stone weapons seems to play an important role in this male-female symbolic distinction.

The evidence for the Corded Ware burial rite may also be considered as a reflection of social diversification in its initial stage between members of society, including children (TUREK 2000, in press).

It seems very likely that the main feature of the CW burial rites, which is the symbolic differentiation of the male and female distinction even applied to child burials. The sexual dimorphism of sub-adult skeletal remains is not developed enough to enable us to determine their sex. However, the position of the body in the grave, head orientation and "gendered" grave goods seem to keep the same system of sexual distinction.

In order to examine the possible preference of one of the sexes in the context of CW burial rites we have compared the number of children buried in male and female positions. It seems to be well documented that the same positions used for adults for symbolic distinction of the gender of deceased persons were also used for child burials. The number of CW girls and boys buried in Bohemia and Moravia is almost equal, 21 girls (42.9%) and 19 boys (38.8%) plus 9 child burials in sexually non-diagnostic positions (49 burials in total). Similarly in CW there is almost an equal number of child burials in the female position and male position in Central Germany (SIEMEN 1992, 231, Fig. 1a). It seems that boys were buried in equal numbers to girls in both periods. This record challenges assumptions that sexually biased infanticide existed in the Late Eneolithic period in Central Europe. A similar balance seems to exist in the number of grave goods found within male and female child burials in the context of Bohemian and Moravian CW cemeteries (girls seems to be slightly richer). This raises the question: Is there any evidence of differential social status of certain children within the Late Eneolithic burial rites?

Excavations have revealed that stone tools or weapons accompany some of the children’s burials, mainly buried in the male position. In the context of children’s graves these artefacts had clearly symbolic significance, which may well be anticipating their social roles as adults. In some particular cases, in Bohemian and Moravian CW there is evidence for the burials of very young boys (six months to six years old), accompanied by hammer-axes or mace heads. Similar observations were made for the CW period in Central Germany (SIEMEN 1989). In Moravia there is for example the burial of a five year old child from Dětkovice (District Prostějov, ČIŽMÁŘOVÁ - ŠMÍD 1976) with a hammer-axe, or in Bohemia the burial of a six year old child in grave 130/63 from Vikletice (District Chomutov) that included a mace head and also grave 47/64 in the same cemetery that contained a burial of a child in the age category infans II accompanied by a battle-axe (BUCHVALDEK - KOUTECKÝ 1970). Child burials accompanied by objects that may be interpreted as symbols of wealth and social status do not reflect the prehistoric reality of the social relations, simply because these children died so young. Because other male child burials do not include any of such symbolic artefacts, it can be assumed that this group of sub-adult male burials may represent socially favoured individuals of some sort. They might have been firstborn sons potential heirs of social status and wealth within family or of a whole community (?). Similar observations were made by Susan SHENNAN (1975) at the cemetery of the Nitra Culture at Branč (south-west Slovakia). Where a small group of sub-adult women were buried with rich copper necklaces and other jewellery. On the other hand the majority of girl's burials on this site were assembled with ordinary artefacts. S. Shennan assumes that this evidence may suggest the existence of the “System of ascribed hereditary wealth”. It may well be possible that this is evidence of the initial stages of the development of social differentiation, which carried on within the Bronze Age communities. Such social differentiation might have been as a result of progressive changes in the system of agriculture and food production, namely the introduction of ploughing implements, teams and Secondary Products Revolution (NEUSTUPNÝ, 1967; SHERRATT, 1981).

Stone axes and battle-axes disappeared from the burial assemblages in the subsequent Bell Beaker period. Their symbolic role demonstrating differences among social categories in funerary practices was substituted by archery equipment such as flint arrowheads and stone wristguards or copper daggers. They were however only a different way of demonstrating the same concept of social differentiation. Also the burial rites of the subsequent early Bronze Age Únětice period appears to continue this symbolism in a  similar way. Stone artefacts disappeared from the burial assemblages and material culture, however not entirely!


4. Stone battle-axes in the age of bronze

Several stone saddle groove battle axes (see Fig. 6 and 7) were recorded in Bohemia and Moravia. These stone artefacts are usually unstratified isolated finds. Their connection to the early Bronze Age Únětice Culture was established according to finds from a burial context at Polepy (grave 124 see DVOŘÁK 1926/1927) and from a settlement pit excavated in Prague-Ďáblice (NEUSTUPNÝ, J. 1936-38). Their surface is usually purposely coarsened and only these parts that were originally covered with the hafting bondage remained polished. The butt of the battle-axes is usually rounded or slightly pointed resembling a phallus in its shape (see Fig. 7). These battle-axes appear in the fully developed Únětice Culture, when the bronze axes and other bronze made woodworking tools were commonly used. The puzzle is the use of these stone battle-axes in the time of bronze tools. Some interpretations suggest them to be pounders for crouching the copper ore (NEUSTUPNÝ, J. 1936-38; PLEINER – RYBOVÁ 1978, 340 – Fig. 90:20, 364). This explanation does not seem to be supported by the varying dimensions of these artefacts (lenght 7-30 cm) and any traces of wear that could possibly suggest their use for this kind of work has not been recorded. Also the crushing and processing of ore is usually taking place right on the spot, where it was extracted. These battle-axes are however distributed all over the Únětice settled area and they do not seem to concentrate around the known outcrops of the copper ore.  The vast majority of saddle groove battle-axes were made of Proterozoic porhyrite, this igneous rock has its natural appearance in the Křivoklát-Rokycany area. The preference for this type of material is very strong. In the classical phase of the Únětice Culture bronze became the common material for production of tools. After almost two thousand years of knowledge of copper metallurgy in Central Europe, stone was fully substituted by metal. This change seems to have been rapid and happened during some transition period, which was probably the Proto- and Early Únětice Culture. Unfortunately tools and weapons appear only rarely in the burial context of the Early Únětice Culture (MATOUŠEK 1982) and as the evidence of settlement finds is scarce it is very difficult to document this process of transition. Within the Proto/Early Únětice cemeteries in Bohemia only 3 axes were recorded, two exotic flint axes imported from Northern Europe and one polished one. The bronze axes became common in the classical period of the Únětice Culture, however the majority of them are known from hoards. In the classical Únětice graves axes of both materials are generally rare. This means that axes were not used as funerary goods, they however appear in hoards as votive offerings. In the case of stone battle-axes the interpretation of their meaning is limited by the lack of information on the context of their deposition. I presume their use was mainly symbolic, a kind of relic of the old symbols of power as they were used in the Corded Ware Culture. Most of the woodworking was maintained by the new bronze tools so what practical function might these stone battle-axes have had? It may well be possible, that they were used for ritual purposes of some kind, such was the case of flint knives used in Egypt throughout the New Kingdom up to the Roman period for ritual butchering (see discussion in IKRAM 1995, 69-70). This interpretation should be considered in the context of other characteristics of these battle-axes, such as the deliberate choice of the same raw material for most of them, great variability in their sizes, their pecked-roughened surface which seems to be in opposition to smooth metal and last but not least their distinctive phallic shape (see Fig. 7). This may suggest a certain continuity of the symbolism of male patriarch principles, as is presumed for the preceding Late Eneolithic period (NEUSTUPNÝ 1967). The evidence of stone phallic symbols  is known from the Bell Beaker grave from Stehelčeves in Central Bohemia (HÁJEK 1961). The phallic connotation of some prehistoric stone axes has also been considered (PATTON 1993). Male or phallic symbolism of axes seems to be represented in some Neolithic Armorican gallery graves, where female figurines are found in the antechamber and an axe motive in the main burial chamber. M. PATTON also describes a symbolic deposition found in a chamber of the Grand Tumulus of Mané-er-Hroëk in Brittany. Two spherical pendants and a large axe with pointed butt-end are penetrating a polished stone ring. These artefacts are probably supposed to act as a personification of male and female genitals arranged into the position of a symbolic intercourse (PATTON 1993, 31, Plate 2.2.). A similar symbolic expression may be seen in the carving of a “hafted axe” found in the passage grave of Gavrinis (PATTON 1993, 31, figure 2.6.).

It is possible that the battle axes with the saddle groove of the Únětice Culture are a kind of stone relic of Eneolithic symbolism that survived into the period of the fully developed Bronze Age thanks to some kind of ritual or social tradition.


5. Conclusion

Since the early Neolithic period when stone axes were first introduced, they were used as tools or weapons. However, subsequently they were also used as important valuables maintaining trade as well as social communication between individuals, communities and regions. In the period of Corded Ware Cultures, stone axes mediated a symbolic relationship between the body of the buried individual and the respective society. Stone axes served as an important part of the burial assemblage and attributes of particular social categories, indicators of wealth and social status of an individual.

Although technological need for production of stone axes probably did not change dramatically during the Eneolithic period, their visibility in the archaeological record varied. This  may be caused mainly by the changing context of consumption and deposition in different periods. The visibility of stone axes in the archaeological record seems to be directly proportional to the degree of their social importance. The stone axes seem to be more “visible” in the period when they played their role within “arenas of social power” (cf. CHAPMAN 1996) such as in the middle Eneolithic (Cham/Řivnáč) period when stone axes as valuables played an important role in activities including variety of forms of ceremonial exchange. In this period, stone axes appear as objects with a strong relationship to the community and communal places, maintaining social bounds within the community as well as outside.

In the late Eneolithic there is a clear change in the symbolism of stone axes. They appear in a much more personalised relationship as a part of burial assemblages mainly providing the symbolic expression of the male and female in burial rites. Presence or absence of stone weapons seems to play an important role in this male-female symbolic distinction. The importance of stone axes in this period is based much more on the symbolism of personal identities as attributes of a particular social category, indicators of wealth and social status of an individual.

Finally, we can see that even in the period when metal first entered common use, in the early Bronze Age, stone battle axes survived as relics of traditional symbols, values and perhaps ideologies.


6. References

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