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Says a farmers wife to the farmer “should we show him our treasure” a minute later, on cue an axe emerges  from a Morrisons carrier bag wrapped in bubble wrap, its home in recent years.

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This is a big one! Quarried a few miles away or even closer, it emerged one day form the fill of a drystone field wall that had rushed. Fortunately, as the farmer said, his wife was on hand to recognise that the hand of man had been at work here, stopping him chucking it back into the fill of the wall from whence it came.

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But before it was built into this wall where had it been? In the field perhaps, ploughed up like so many other axes hereabouts and picked up by the ploughman following his horse and tossed to the side of the field eventually to be built into the wall when the mass enclosures were in full swing and walls were being built in the blink of an eye or two.

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Before that; perhaps it was lost, left or buried. An offering back to the earth from where with fire and water with stick, stone and bone it had been split from the rock face high in the mountains.

Now we value the object for the histories it holds within it.

Others will value it for the the cash they can make out of it, much greater than its scale; offering it to that modern god, ebay.

Pete

Note: I came across this rough-out axe as I was asking leave to walk some fields surveying for rock art, not quite what I was expecting to find; however later in the day I did find a new cup-marked slab, a god day all round!

Locally a wall rushing is an apposite descriptive term for  the collapse of a drystone wall.

This is most probably a Group VI Cumbrian Axe. Its broad blade suggests it may have been intended as an adze. Other axes that have been polished and are of these proportions have been found within Cumbria notably one found at Mechi Farm near Aspatria comes to mind. These are different to the thinner butted and waisted  iconic “Cumbrian Club’s”, it is possible that these morphological differences could relate to differant social groups rather than purely functional, but that is perhaps the subject of another blog.

Greetings to all readers for a fine 2015! – “Now is the time for fire and wine…” – its elemental…

Darkness; landscape fades, eyes are drawn to the fire cups, intimate in their rocky relief.

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Altitude; changed world – domed profile glimpsed through the notch, upturned axe blade thrust into the earth marking the spot

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Through the vaporous air – Isle of Man – connecting the Neolithic Irish Sea-farers

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Mountains mirrored in mercury water, a place for reflection and offering

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Light; solstice morning, winds blow, the sun hides

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Pete

Notes and references

A  session  themed on “Fire” at the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference at Manchester University this year reminded me of some “experiential archaeology” from a few years back;“Fire Cups” ,the consequence of some discussions with Dave Chapman around simple stone lamps from Late Upper Palaeolithic cave sites in France  which was followed by an impressive demonstration using a home pecked stone-cup-lamp, cooking oil and a plaited moss wick.

http://www.ancient-arts.org/index.html

To the best of my knowledge there is no archaeological evidence of burning within pecked cups on outcrops but this was simulated with enclosed candles. The main problem on a still evening was to get the candles to stay alight; the rock’s  elevated position meant that there were small eddies encircling the outcrop repeatedly puffing the flames out. With perseverance the effect was intriguing, like stars, an eerie sight late in the evening had anyone cast their gaze lake-wards. No cups were harmed in the making!

More on experimental “Burning The Circle” on Arran can be found on Gavin MacGregor’s blog and Northlight Heritage’s website

https://heritagelandscapecreativity.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/burning-circle/

http://northlight-heritage.co.uk/conc5/index.php/sub1/burning-circle/

Pike O’Stickle – site of Neolithic Axe-Factories – although a diminutive peak in the Cumbrian Mountains has distinctive profile which is curiously conspicuous from a broad area.

The quote is from Steve Ashley’s song “Fire and Wine”.

This week I start in distant lands with mountains obscured by clouds. In 1938 mountaineer Heinrich Harrer was part of the team to first ascend the North Face of the Eiger. He was interned in India during the war escaping in 1944 where he made his way into Tibet, a tale told in  “Seven Years in Tibet” where he became an official in the Tibetan Government and personal tutor to the Dalai Lama. On his return from Tibet he resumed his mountaineering activities and in 1962 led an expedition to Papua New Guinea to climb the Carstenesz Pyramid he had heard of before the war. Harrer was fascinated with the tribes he met in Papua New Guinea and wrote a compelling account of his experiences in “I Come From the Stone Age”. Whilst here he met the Dani people of the Baleim Valley in the Western Highlands and was the first westerner to witness the journey to Ya-Li-Me on the Kiembe River, the Andiba rock quarries, used for axe making.

A Dani tribesman sharpening his stone axe

A Dani tribesman sharpening his stone axe

Excitement amongst the Dani men mounts on reaching Ya-Li-Me beside the river; a men only affair as it was taboo for women to visit this place. They then set about building wooden scaffolding up the rock face using twenty-foot poles with great gusto in a haphazard affair and laying slabs of stone on this on which they set a fire abutting the rock face. After some unsuccessful attempts at splitting the rock Harrer was asked to light the fire, as he was now called Ya-Tuan the Stone-Axe Gentleman, and with some ritual, which included a lump of rancid pork fat, he lit the fire. Fortunately this fire had the desired effect and the performance of knapping axes started amid great enthusiasm and injuries which were treated by the expedition doctor, I could go on but you should read the book!

Pike O'Stickle from Glaramara Tarn

Pike O’Stickle from Glaramara Tarn

It is fascinating to think that from the Early Neolithic  around 6000 years ago,even here in Cumbria  people like the Dani, were wandering the high fells prospecting for a specific type of rock from which to make their own axes. One wonders how they did this, were they systematic, following the crags and their scree like their later day explorers Bunch, Fell and Plint; or was it a random affair?

Ruddy Beck: Conchoidal fracturing on Seathwaite Tuff

Ruddy Beck: Conchoidal fracturing on Seathwaite Tuff

Now as I trudged down from my last expedition, subject of my previous blog, I noticed some conchoidal fracturing on blue-green Seathwaite Tuff bedrock here where the glacial deposits had been stripped away. Feeling in need of sustenance I resolved to return another day to take a closer look, to see whether the hand of prehistoric man had been at work here. Conchoidal fracturing means that when struck the rock fractures leaving a scallop shell-like shape on the parent rock; the resultant flake will be the obverse shape with a bulb of percussion on the end nearest the blow. Now this fracturing can happen naturally when rocks tumble over each other but also when struck repeatedly by stone hammers; the challenge is to differentiate the two.

Mineral Level Ruddy Beck/Grains Ghyll

Mineral working level, Ruddy Beck/Grains Ghyll

So, like the latter-day prospectors following mountain streams searching for mineral veins, did the prehistoric people first spot the exposed tuff in the ravine sides or see pebbles of tuff in the streams that had washed down from the mountains and track them upstream to locate the “mother lode”? Indeed as the hard tuff makes for obvious near vertical crags this was almost certainly another landmark the ancient people used for spotting likely outcrops. It was in fact likely that these keen-eyed “first fells-men” used all these methods making trail knaps of rock as they went, some of the early sites identified at Great Langdale were next to Stake Beck.

The Langdale Pikes with the drumlin fields around Stake Beck flowing from centre to left

The Langdale Pikes from the north-west with the drumlin fields around Stake Beck flowing from centre to left

On return to Ruddy Beck it was apparent that where rocky ridges cross the beck there that had been some hammering going that had formed two unnatural notches in the ridge; the rucksack lies in one with the other larger one to its left. There was little water wear apparent and they were well above the water level after a night of heavy rain. This particular site appears to have been overlooked in the surveys undertaken since the stone axe workings were first located in the 1940’s and those in the 1980’s by Reading University and Lancaster University Archaeological Unit; whilst discovering working sites on either side of the Seathwaite Valley on the same strata.

Seathwaite Tuff flaking sites adjacent to Ruddy Beck

Seathwaite Tuff flaking sites adjacent to Ruddy Beck

Using the combination of archaeological evidence and ethnographic analogy Bradley and Edmonds were able to establish that fire had been used to crack the rock prior to extraction at the Neolithic quarry faces on the crags of Pike O’Stickle.This work would have been aided by timber levers and wedges made from wood and cattle bone it is also likely that water was used in this process; these facts are hard to establish from the archaeological record when the acid soils are also taken into account. Now that there would have been a more accessible supply of both timber and water at Great Langdale than the higher, drier and treeless Scafell Pike is perhaps another reason why the quarrying developed on a larger scale here; thus becoming the first Lakeland Industry, it’s a thirsty job being a quarry worker!

Ruddy Beck: vertical faces

Ruddy Beck: vertical faces

Here at Ruddy Beck we can see how the rock fractures off neatly along the bedding planes that have been tilted vertically here, this would make working down the rock into manageable blanks relatively easy. Now whether many of these slabs have been removed by man or nature is hard to say; any spoil that fell into the stream would now be at the valley bottom. However it is quite possible that several may have as we can see flaking scars on the upper surfaces of an in-situ vertical slab adjacent to the right – perhaps like the Dani tribes-men they lit fires against it on stone platforms set in the beck bottom. Were they flaking the rock to divert the water whilst they quarried the rock or just altering the land, are there flaking sites under the turf or is it a trail extraction site? Many questions, further investigations are required!

Pete

Ruddy Beck: conchoidal fracturing on vertical Seathwaite Tuff bedding

Ruddy Beck: vertical shot of conchoidal fracturing on vertical Seathwaite Tuff bedding

Acknowledgements

Heinrich Harrer’s book “I Come From the Stone Age” is a grand read and fantastic photographs of the Dani by Diego Verges can be seen here: http://www.diegoverges.com/blog/?p=103

More about Great Langdale can be read in the excellent volume by Richard  Bradley & Mark Edmonds, “Interpreting the Axe Trade” and Mark Edmonds’ book ” Langdale”. The most recent survey of the area was by Phillip Claris & Jamie Quartermaine, published in 1989 in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 

P.S. As I compose this a collie has been reunited with his keeper, Adam, after four nights lost on Scafell Pike. This has touched a lot of people…and returned from the misty spirit world …the dog god? Welcome back Jasper!

Jasper, Adam and Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team

Jasper, Adam and Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team

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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