Polished stone axes

A number of Neolithic axe working sites were recorded by targeted field survey in the Lake District National Park (C) (Schofield 2009). The programme of work was intended to inform and guide upland footpath conservation work and, specifically, to ensure that the winning of stone for nearby path repair would not affect any archaeological resource. Some of the sites were new identifications. Previously known sites received detailed examinations of their condition.

Groups of Neolithic stone axe factories were recorded on Scafell Pike, Great End, and Fairfield Summit. Most of the sites represent primary working of naturally detached rock but, significantly, some of the sites are physically removed from the source outcrop, and the source rock was probably carried to the site. As such, they would appear to reflect camp sites, and the presence of one of them on an easterly orientated access route, would suggest that this was a route used in antiquity (Schofield 2009).

Clare’s (2009) study of the stone axe trade recommended systematic petrological analyses of other lithics in addition to the axes themselves, and he noted that the trade in stone axes and their sources of procurement probably developed out of preceding Mesolithic practices. Although trade patterns probably changed during the Neolithic, it does appear that Group VI axes were being exchanged over long distances by the end of the earliest Neolithic. Clare suggests that the stone axes may have been traded in exchange for perishable commodities, possibly domestic livestock.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)  has recorded 60 Neolithic polished stone axes from North West England since the scheme started. These are chance finds and should be considered in addition to those recovered in excavated assemblages. Although most of the PAS finds have come from Cumbria, there are also a few from Lancashire, Merseyside and Cheshire.

Cowell’s distribution map of pollen sites, excavations and finds spots for Mesolithic and Neolithic archaeology in the Mersey Basin (mainly M) and adjacent areas (L, GM and Ch) shows that Neolithic stone axes are widespread throughout the area. His map includes excavated items as well as chance or single finds (Cowell 2010, Fig 16).

The quantity of new information indicates that synthetic work, accompanied by petrographic analyses of artefacts and potential sources, would provide a useful overview and potentially new insights into the methods and routes of extraction, production, reuse, recycling, and deposition of polished stone axes and the sources of their materials.

Other lithics

Cherry (2009) reviewed finds of prehistoric worked flint and tuff in Cumbria, and identified the strong possibility that two, largely exclusive, exchange networks operated in Cumbria between the Late Mesolithic and the Early Bronze Age.

He also notes that during the period in which large numbers of stone axes of Lake District origin were being accumulated in eastern Yorkshire, substantial quantities of flint of presumed Yorkshire origin found their way into Cumbria.

Cherry (2009) makes useful suggestions for topics deserving further investigation: (1) St Bees VIII has an unusual industry based on chalk flint that might derive from Antrim, not Yorkshire (and he notes that the site is adjacent to some waterlogged deposits that might repay palaeoenvironmental investigations), (2) The area around Ambleside Roman fort offers the first prospect of finding significant prehistoric lakeside activity in central Cumbria, potentially contemporaneous with the Langdale axe factory sites, and (3) Aughertree Fell shows potential for Neolithic upland activity comparable with that from eastern Cumbria, and which can place the identification of a possible causewayed enclosure into better context.

The small assemblage (N=51) of worked lithics from the very Early Neolithic site of Holbeck Park Avenue (C ) mainly consists of pieces of raw material that could all have come from local beaches and glacial drift (ie pebble flint, chert and tuff) although the ultimate sources are further afield. But there are also two non-local pieces from a Yorkshire chalk or till origin (Cherry 2009).


At Holbeck Park Avenue (C), fabric analysis of the Early Neolithic carinated bowls identified two different fabrics, both of which could have been made using locally available sources of clay (Sheridan et al 2018).

Sheridan et al’s (2018) study of the 15 pots from Holbeck Park, plus ceramics from several other sites within and beyond the region, has highlighted the frequent presence of very early forms of Carinated Bowls (‘traditional CB’) in the Furness peninsula. These ceramics are indicators of mainstream styles and technology that were a widespread new tradition introduced by Continental potters in the very early stages of the British Neolithic. They also note that it would be useful to revisit several other assemblages from Cumbria, which might also contain very early Early Neolithic pottery.

Nationally, there has been some work on potential maritime routeways around the western coasts of the British Isles, around the Irish Sea, and along the Atlantic seaboard. Some have looked at changes in relative sea levels (eg Sturt et al 2013), which affected access routes inland along estuaries and tidal creeks such as those on the Furness peninsula, around Morecambe Bay, Walney Island and the Solway. Others have looked more at seasonal changes in tidal and wind patterns that would affect or facilitate boat travel (eg Garrow and Sturt 2011) and some have looked at cultural parallels suggesting contact between people on these potential routes (eg Cummings 2017).

In total, a minimum of 10 Early Neolithic vessels has been identified by Young (2017) from New Cowper Quarry (C). They are all rather friable and it is not possible to ascertain whether the bowls are simple, plain round bottomed vessels or whether any of them were carinated. They are all, probably, of Grimston/Lyles Hill ware. One of the pots is associated with a hazelnut shell radiocarbon dated to 3650-3510 cal BC.

Evidence for activity continuing into the Middle to Late Neolithic comes from two vessels of Mortlake style impressed Peterborough ware and a rim sherd of possible Grooved ware.

Twelve definite Beaker vessels including five All Over Cord (AOC) decorated pots and two Long Necked Beaker type pots were recovered from New Cowper Quarry, making this a substantial and important assemblage for North West England. Young (2017, 80) notes that the Long-Necked Beakers have regionally distinct and unparalleled decorative repertoires, and that all of the material came from domestic settlement activities rather than funerary monuments.

Levens Local History Group commissioned petrographic analysis of some Beaker sherds to try to assess the minimum number of Beaker vessels represented with the central inhumation burial at Levens Park (C). The excavator in the early 1970s (David Sturdy) thought that there were three, but Turnbull and Walsh (1996) thought there were only two, of Developed/Late Northern Beaker type. Although all four analysed sherds have fabrics that share some characteristics and two of them are very probably from a single vessel, there are three different fabric types. Either one of the pots was constructed from two different types of paste, or three Beakers are represented (Quinn 2018).

At Overby Quarry (C), ceramic studies of Early Bronze Age cremation urns identified a combination of manufacturing and decorative traits that suggest that one person made some of the pots, with the whole assemblage possibly being the work of two, perhaps three, potters (Vyner 2017).

Similarly, at the Early Bronze Age barrow cemetery at Church Lawton (Ch), distinctive characteristics of the decoration on a Collared Urn and a Cordoned Urn that were found in the same area of Monument B may have been made by closely related potters (Reid et al 2014).


Major new work on Bronze Age trade and production concerns the prospection, extraction and use of copper ores, both within and close to North West England.

At Alderley Edge (Ch), where there is evidence for multi-period exploitation phases of metal ores (see Prag 2016), the National Trust recently commissioned a landscape and condition survey to inform their management plan (Oxford Archaeology North, 2018).  The geology is complex, and ores include copper, lead, silver, arsenic and iron. The site is vulnerable to erosion by the impacts of weather and visitors, and in 2007 an archaeological evaluation was undertaken to determine the nature, extent and condition of surviving archaeological deposits (Mottershead and Wright 2008).

Evaluation at Stormy Point 2007, Alderley Edge, Cumbria (courtesy of Graham Mottershead)

This work comprised topographic, geophysical and XRF surveys, and hand dug test pits followed by environmental analysis and AMS dating. The evaluation revealed that archaeological deposits survive across the whole of the Stormy Point site including a Bronze Age prospection pit, a second prehistoric possible prospection pit, and at least one previously unknown prehistoric mine working with a collapsed ceiling. Evidence was found of intermittent periodic ore processing and dumping with a date range from the Early Bronze Age (1690-1510 cal BC for the prospection pit) to the Medieval period (Mottershead and Wright 2008).

Just outside of the administratively-defined North West region, Timberlake has recorded similar Bronze Age activity at Ecton Hill, Staffordshire (Timberlake 2014), and James (animal bones, 2011) and Williams (metal ores, 2018) have completed PhD theses on material from the Bronze Age copper mines on the Great Orme near Llandudno, Conwy.

Timberlake (2014, 2017), O’Brien (2013) and Roberts (2013) all review the evidence for Bronze Age copper exploitation in the British Isles, and draw attention to its focus in Ireland, North and central Wales, and North West England (eg Alderley Edge, Ecton Hill).

Williams (2018) analysed the chemical composition of the Great Orme copper ores and found that, contrary to previous claims, the ores do contain significant impurities of nickel-arsenic. Comparisons with all existing data on Bronze Age metalwork assemblages, suggested that there was a peak of large-scale production in the Acton Park assemblage phase (1600/1500-1400 BC). This was followed by many centuries of very low production. Artefacts of types made from Great Orme ores were distributed across Britain including all parts of North West England, mainland Europe and into Brittany and the Baltic area (possibly linked to the amber trade).

The Portable Antiquities Scheme database (accessed 18th March 2019) is not always able to discriminate between Bronze Age sub-periods (NB there are eight Late Bronze Age swords listed from the region, two from Lancashire and six from Cheshire). The 74 specifically Early Bronze Age records are dominated by 57 axe heads (mostly flat) plus seven daggers and occasional other finds including a spearhead and a chisel. The 91 Middle Bronze Age finds include 32 palstaves, 22 axe heads (almost all flanged), 18 spears, and less than five examples each of swords, daggers, rapiers, dirks and other items.

The combined new information from mining sites, excavations and PAS finds suggests considerable scope for further research including metallurgical analysis, and synthesis of Bronze Age copper-based metallurgy.

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