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Stone axes and art

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Mystery in the mist;

Glinting in a clint,

Offered to the mountain?

Well traveled whiteness.

Void between volcanic rock,

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Exploded out of the earth the dust settles

In water forming

Patterns of the past

Layered

In

Deep

Time

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A light released from the land

The hand moves to draw

With chalk of childhood

Sediment writes itself

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Alien fragment on lofty Pike

Released from bony white matrix

In Grimes, Wolds, Wessex or Antrim

Remote lands – with still echoes

Of times long gone

Hidden in hollow hills.

Mind wanders to downs and dales

Memories held guide the hand

Moved to make a mark,

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Diamond lozenges, tightening skins

Scraped by flakes,

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The beating bodhran calls

Rhythm of the wind – resonating rock

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Through heavy brow

Owl eyes bring a sharper focus –

Clouds clear

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Elemental tumbled sculptures emerge

Mountains making their own art

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Look close – layered,  lichen

Reflecting  clasts cast in stone

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No scribe engraved these forms.

Red rememberings of hard nicked hands that

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Split sharp hornstone,

Ancient prospector for mysterious XI,

Its unknown source – found?

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Cris-crossed with rhombic faultlines

Weathered scallops patinated to grey

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Crack,

Hiatus,

Time shifts

Settles again

Present

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Falling back into the earth

Joining the ancestors

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Scattered all around,

Crag-high memories now burnt bone offering

Crumbling to constituent carbonates

Merging with the future

Acknowledgements, notes, etc

This chance meeting with a flake of chalk took place on top of Scafell Pike, a place full of modern monuments and offerings, to the dead mainly, many of whose ashes lie around the summit cairn, and older structures that could be interpreted as monuments; the Neolithic Axe working sites. There is a continuity here in this wild place, others have discussed the offerings left by people in the Neolithic period at prehistoric stone working sites including Peter Topping, but here we have a modern offering – for reasons unknown. More recently I was reminded of this by a paper given at BRAG by Andy Merion Jones and Marta Diaz-Guardamino which directly inspired this blog following my serendipitous encounter with the white rock. The title of their presentation was Making the Mark: Imagery and Process in Neolithic Britain and Ireland and included a discussion on the Folkton Drums, below.

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The motifs of the owly heavy browed eyes and lozenge hatching are now being found more regularly as a symbol in the Neolithic period from the West Country to Orkney.  But I was particularly impressed by the detail revealed on the Folkton Drums,see here. Although probably not actually representing drums, these were found in a Neolithic round barrow by the good Canon Greenwell in the Yorkshire Wolds, which region demonstrably had a strong connection with the Cumbrian Mountains on account of the large numbers of Cumbrian Stone axes found there, and this got me thinking…

Pete

Here in Cumbria late September was glorious for the annual C-art fortnight, an event where artists and crafts people open their studios and workshops to the public. This year one art installation was set on top of Scafell Pike, the highest art installation in England. The title was intriguing so this seemed like a good chance to take advantage of the Indian summer and get out on the fells to take a look; it appeared rather roughed up by the elements.

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On my walk up here from Sty Head along the Corridor Route I had been thinking about the connections that this installation had to other activities that have taken place here. Over  the millennia this place has seen a variety of “performances” taking place, from the musical “clink-clink” as stone was knapped into stone axes over  5600 years ago to Alice Fancis’  “The Hilltop Rest Hotel …a boutique hotel which provides a welcome break for nature-loving and travel weary birds alike” which I am told was carried up here in procession.  So too the roughly shaped stone axes knapped up here might well have been carried down the mountain in procession, secure in their leather bags or baskets.

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Like the characters drawn on the hotel wall the hunt for the source of the rock from which stone axes were made  had something of a “Boys Own” adventure about it as archaeologists and climbers scoured the screes for evidence of the prehistoric prospectors.  These axes, found across Britain, were known to be made from volcanic tuff which had its origins in the Cumbrian Fells and can be worked like flint; however they were originally thought to have been made from boulders that were glacially transported further afield.

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The first clue of a production site in the Fells was in 1918 when palaeontologist Professor DMS Watson, who was working on fossil plants in the North East’s coal measures, observed the hand of man had been at work on some stone eroding from the peat on Mart Crag, Great Langdale; a small excavation established that it was indeed a small stone axe working site. They were getting warmer, but it was another thirty years before Ulverston couple Brian Bunch and his wife discovered the iconic Stone Axe Factories on Pike O’Stickle whilst on holiday in Langdale. It took several more years for climber and Secretary of the Wasdale Climbing Club, Dick Plint and friends to identify where the first “Fell and Rockers” working sites were on the summit plateau of Scafell Pike, finding roughed-out axes as seen  in the foreground of this picture.

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In the period in Britain known as the Neolithic, axe making was likely a right of passage for young people to prove themselves on this wild and barren plateau. Perhaps they slept up here for a night or two but even in summer with the climate a little warmer back then, this would have been a hazardous place to work. Strewn with weathered and fractured rock with hardly any green to be seen, exposed to the elements, heightening the sense of drama with only the elders knowledge of the safe paths avoiding the precipices to guide people back to the security of the valley and their coastal settlements where the axes were finished. Many of the axes found are beautifully polished and unused, ethnographic research in New Guinea has shown that there is a strong element of ritual in the way that stone axes are handled. Thus with Cumbrian axes we find them deposited in bogs and rocky crevices sometimes unused at the end of their or their keepers lives.

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As I linger on the summit around me small performances take place; a man asks me to take his photo as he strikes up a suitable heroic pose, a group takes the inevitable selfie. On just about every day of the year people perform small ceremonies here on the summit cairn of Scafell Pike; from cracking open of a can of beer to the scattering of human ashes that percolate down into the frost shattered rock.

Walking back across Broad Crag I see a newly split block where some 21st century rock prospector had been at work. A fine-grained tuff – people don’t change that much do they?

Pete

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Acknowledgements

The C-Art project is run by Eden Arts http://www.c-art.org.uk

Alice Francis can be found at http://www.peoplespalace.net/home.html 

The polished stone axe appears courtesy of Keswick Museum

Further information on the Stone Axe Factory discoveries can be found in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society http://cumbriapast.com/cgi-bin/ms/main.pl?action=transactions

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