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Green Axe

7 April 2010

The New York Times (www.nytimes.com March 29th ) has a story taken from the BBC Radio 4 series, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. It is striking, it notes, how many objects discussed by the series were symbolic rather than functional. For example, the famous ‘gold cape’ that was equisitely impractible, or an elaborate bronze bell from 5th century China that could hardly have been used in a practical way. An axe found near Canterbury and roughly 6000 years old was made of polished green jade (or jadeite). It is still smooth and glossy and there is no sign of a blemish on the surface. The blade is still sharp and it has the appearance of being virtually new – it was never meant to be used. It was a supreme object of desire but what is even more interesting is that the green stone used to make it came from the Italian Alps. That indicates long range trade routes along which such desirable objects were passed from hand to hand. Even more fascinating is the axe came from a deposit near the top of a mountain – even though a beautiful axe could have been made from stone in a more accessible location near the base. Why? One clue is the colour of the stone – it was green. The other clue is that the high location was closer to heaven – the celestial world inhabited by the gods. The axe was a symbol of lightning and shooting stars. Green was the colour of aurorae – but also of shooting stars.

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