Local BBC Sites

Page last updated at 12:48 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010
Potent link with Cumbria's past
Belinda Artingstoll
Belinda Artingstoll
Special Features Producer
BBC Radio Cumbria

Neolithic stone axe
Neolithic stone axe from the Lake District, Cumbria.

This stone axe may not look much but it is in fact a potent link with the people who lived in Cumbria 5000 years ago.

It is also easy to underestimate the skill and time it took to transform a lump of rough Lakeland stone into the polished and tactile object you see here.

The stone axe we are featuring is on display at Tullie House in Carlisle and was found not far from the city at Scaleby Moss.

Tim Padley, the keeper of archaeology at Tullie House Museum
Tim Padley is the keeper of archaeology at Tullie House

They have several on display as do some other museums in Cumbria. Tim Padley, the keeper of archaeology at Tullie House, says he thinks it is no accident that the Scaleby Moss axe was found in a wet place as these locations were often seen as symbolic and sacred.

Other objects are often found in similar places and Tim says as they are not damaged and appear to be carefully placed in their chosen location archaeologists assume that it was a deliberate act to put them there.

Symbolic purpose

This takes us to the heart of the discussion over the purpose of these axes. Some were used as tools for cutting down trees and basic carpentry.

But many experts believe they had a more symbolic purpose and that the stone some of them were made from would not have been strong enough to cut.

Decorative axe head

Aaron Watson, an archaeologist who specialises in the Neolithic period, is a big believer in the symbolic theory. He says it would be very easy to use stone from the lower slopes but there's evidence of stone being taken from much higher up.

He says such places were seen as special, perhaps nearer to the gods, and that made the axes themselves special. But other experts say the areas where the stone came from were seen merely as primitive quarries or "factories" and not symbolic at all.

Valuable objects

But Aaron Watson thinks the axes are beautiful and wonders why they were so highly polished if all they were going to be used for was to cut down trees. He thinks they would have been valuable objects.

And indeed another theory is that they may also have been used in trade and barter. Axes made in Cumbria have been found as far afield as Northern Europe which shows that Neolithic man was travelling outside his immediate area.

But no-one is entirely sure what he was getting in return for his axes. It could have been cattle, grain, pots or something else.

Brian Cowper
Brian Cowper, a sculptor who lives near Penrith

Incredible workmanship

Brian Cowper, a sculptor who lives near Penrith, is also passionate about the stone axes. He says the workmanship of the ancient stonemasons is incredible.

They would have spent many hours, first chipping the stone into a rough shape, and then polishing it with increasingly finer grades of sand to get to the finished item. Brian makes stone axes himself but he is not a historical reconstructor. He adds other materials and objects to the axes to turn them into works of art.

And so, 5000 years on, these ancient stone axes continue to fascinate and inspire us.


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific