Pair of neolithic wooden tridents, Tullie House Museum

Pair of neolithic wooden tridents, Tullie House Museum

Cumbria has a lot of pretty unusual stuff, and has precisely 66.67%(1) of these fork-like items. The other 33.3% are in Ireland, and there’s every chance that even they were made here.

The second thing to note about these forks is that they’re giant – over six feet long. So long, in fact, that I had to perform strange gymnastic manoeuvres to take the picture. That’s my Bic biro alongside to give some idea of scale, although even that’s a bit misleading as it was on top of a foot-deep glass case and, as I said, I was struggling to get an angle on their giantness.

This particular pair of forks – or tridents, as archaeologists prefer – was found whilst the ground was being prepared for the building of the new Carlisle Northern Development Route (a new bypass). The land around here is thick with Roman remains, being close to Hadrian’s Wall and the city of Carlisle, and so the builders asked Oxford Archaeology North to have a good look. Look they did, and west of Stainton(2) village, they found an extensive prehistoric site.

The archaeologists were able to date the beginning of this site to 5500 BCE. Yes, that’s right: people first lived here 7,500 years ago in the Mesolithic era and may well have been about the first settlers to move here after the ice sheets retreated.

The forks, being made of wood, could be dated and the estimate is that they were made between 3900 and 3400 BCE, which makes them neolithic (stone age) and they may well be older than, or a similar age to, our oldest stone circles. They were each made from a single plank of wood from a freshly-cut oak tree that must have been about 300 years old when it was felled. They would each have had three tines, with a ‘step’ above them, and a sharpened point at the opposite end (although how sharp is a moot point).

The people who lived here saw a slightly different landscape. The River Eden wasn’t a single river course but a series of channels, and the ones near Stainton were relatively shallow with a series of islands dotted through them, effectively creating large ponds ideal for fishing. Archaeologists were able to establish from the gnaw-marks on some lumps of ancient wood that this area was frequented by beavers. In fact, there’s a theory that this whole area might have been cleared and created by beavers, who would chew down trees, create dams (and hence ponds) and allow the woodlands to become beaver-managed coppices. Any human needing a staff or a spear or a handle could have just nipped into beaver-land and whipped down one of the newly-grown coppice poles before the beavers started work again.

It would have been a good place for human settlement, as the shallow waters would have made it a relatively easy place to cross the river and the residents would have been able to see who was coming and going from the higher vantage point of the islands. By the neolithic period, the people had constructed a wooden platform to give firm access to the water, as, I guess, we might build a jetty or fishing platform.

The forks were found under the platform. They may have been placed there, or been lost and drifted under there, or indeed they may have been old bits of wood that were used in the construction process. Certainly, the forks seem to have been old when they put down there, as one of them appears to have a couple of tines broken off before it hit the water. Four ancient stone axe heads – three of the local Langdale axe type – were found in the same area.

By the Late Bronze Age, the site at Stainton was abandoned. The river channels were drying up and had become clogged with wood, probably from overhanging branches.

So that’s 33.3% of the available neolithic forks. Cumbria’s other pair of wooden tridents, which, going by the Victorian illustrations, are virtually identical in size and style, were found when Ehenside Tarn was drained in 1869-71. As was so often the case, a keen modernising farmer called John Quayle decided to drain this tarn to create more agricultural land.

‘ In 1869, Mr John Quayle, an enterprising farmer, at Ehenside, determined to drain the tarn and make land. He dug a drain 15 feet deep from the easterly end and thence to the river, and, as the water went away, cut deep drains round and across the bottom of the lake. The lake bottom consisted apparently of peat moss, with many trunks of trees embedded. In 1870, the Rev. S. Pinhorn found in the heaps thrown up by the drainers stone celts and certain wooden objects showing handiwork. Mr Pinhorn laid by some of these…'(3)

The British Museum sent a Mr Darbishire, a solicitor, to perform some archaeology there in 1871. He found the tridents, many axe heads, and a Langdale axe still in its wooden handle (see picture). So, if you’ve ever wondered how these massive axe heads were used, here you have it (and yes, that wood’s at least 4,000 years old!).

Ehenside neolithic axe, copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Ehenside neolithic axe, copyright Trustees of the British Museum

The tridents found at Stainton were painstakingly preserved by freeze-drying, followed by a process whereby the water in them was replaced with a waxy conservation fluid. They are now on display at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, a short distance from where they were found. The Ehenside tridents are in the British Museum’s collection, but in a dusty box somewhere. There were recovered too early for the specialist treatment the Stainton pair enjoyed, so the odds are that they are now in pretty ropey condition. The third pair of tridents were found in a bog in Armagh, Northern Ireland, before 1857 and are in an Irish museum. Presumably they, too, are not now in particularly good repair.

Two questions remain. Firstly: what were these trident actually used for? No one knows. None of them show any particular signs of regular wear to suggest they were used as tools – digging, for example. They were all found in what would have been shallow water courses. It’s not unusual for slightly later peoples (1500BCE onwards) to place items in water, seemingly for ritualistic reasons and there’s lots of examples of that in this blog from bog bodies to giant cauldrons to shiny swords. Or were these used on the water – as fishing tools, or like a gondolier’s pole, for example? Tullie House, who own the Stainton tridents, would like your ideas and there’s a box, paper and pens provided for your suggestions right by the glass case.

And secondly, so ‘Mr Pinhorn laid by some of these…’. Oh. My. Word. Does that mean there were a whole load of axes and tridents dug into the fields, laid under the roads… or in a drawer in a Victorian house somewhere in west Cumbria? Is anyone descended from Mr Quayle? Get searching your attic!

©Diane McIlmoyle 29.07.14

1. Okay, I mean 66.6% recurring.
2. Stainton’s a common village name in Cumbria and across the country. This Stainton is north of Carlisle.
3. Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, Vol XL, Session 1871-71, p 54.

Go and see the tridents for yourself at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

See this link for Oxford Archaeology North’s reports.

What would you like to see on Esmeralda’s? Survey Time!

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore has been running since October 2010, since when I’ve written over a hundred posts. I write about whatever pops into my mind on the day I sit in front of the computer, so it’s been a wild and varied list of subjects taking in everything from serious, little-known Cumbrian history to boggles and faeries to fabulous Cumbrian objects buried in the vaults of The British Museum.

There have been times when posts haven’t quite worked. There’s been just one instance when I took one down because I attracted a few very well-informed visitors who very kindly and subtly helped me to conclude that I was, well, completely wrong (which taught me to look harder at my sources – this particular idea had been running around since the ’70s and it was, when I think about it, a bit bonkers). There was another that came down because it features a picture, plus caption, of a Cumbrian currant slice (you may know it as fly pie). This post was ostensibly a bit of mid-20th century nostalgia, but actually – if you carve a box in my chest and take a look – about the passing of my mother. This post attracted thousands of enquiries… about the recipe for currant slice!  Who knew there was such an unfulfilled demand for local recipes?

My favourite posts, to research, write and discuss, fall into two diverse camps. Firstly, the really old history that no-one here really seems to know. Often people know the folklore versions, and get tangled up with Arthur and slightly mad traditions, but we do have some facts. They’re just well hidden. The other group I really enjoy is those with a mist of another world about them; all those inscriptions to faceless gods and place-names hinting at lost folklore. All in all, I like to look for what has been lost, one way or another.

How people read and inter-act with blogs has changed massively in those three years. People often comment on the Facebook or Twitter links to these posts rather than on the blog – is this because we feel more confident that our comment will be seen there, or is it because of the different levels of public visibility? The spam still comes in – 21,000 comments and counting. Mostly about cheap money (huh!) and cheap branded boots (um) and once, famously, cheap yachts.

Anyway, would you tick a few boxes on this survey for me? I’m looking for guidance on the next 100 blog posts. Tick all you like. All answers are anonymous.

Thank you :D


Cats, bells and old oak trees

I honestly don’t think anyone knows who’s going to read their blog until they get writing it. This one is mostly read by folks with a storytelling bent, whether it’s a local with a romantic soul, a teacher or volunteer guide looking for history’s interesting bits, a journalist, a whole load of spammers telling tales about loans and boots and yachts, a writer of novels, a politician, an historian, a neighbour, or a lover of the discipline of local history, wherever it is found.

Copse, Derwentwater, Keswick

Copse, Derwentwater, Keswick

If you love stories, I can’t recommend a better source of inspiration than a map and a copy of Diana Whaley’s Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names (which actually includes much more of Cumbria, not just the Lake District) or Ekwall’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. There are other books on place names, but a lot of them aren’t very well researched, so do yourself a favour and invest in a good one.

So: see that picture? This is Cockshot Woods at Keswick, but there are several others in the county with the same name.

‘Cocke shott, the Cockshott 1677, 1746… Cockshot Point 1851… a glade or path in woodland “through which woodcocks, etc, might dart or ‘shoot’ so as to be caught by nets stretched across the opening” ‘ (Whalley)

And this very famous view, of Cat Bells (or Catbells, depending on your map). That’s the mountain, for people not familiar with it!

Catbells across Derwentwater, Keswick

Catbells across Derwentwater, Keswick

‘Catbel(close) 1454… Catbels 1794… “the bell-shaped hill frequented by wild cats”… the two summits could explain the plural name.’ (Whaley)

And now, let’s shoot back in time to something rather less ‘oh, of course!’. This is Derwentwater, a lake fed by the River Derwent; there are a number of rivers Derwent around the country, all with the same derivation.

‘(River:) Derventione (applied to Roman fort at Papcastle, on the Derwent), Deruventionis fluvii, 8th century… possibly Derwennydd, late 6th-early 7th century… Derwentfelles 1256… Darwen Isle 1695… Derewentewatre, Derwentwater early 13th century. “(River) with oak trees” traditionally explained from British *derwa “oak” plus suffixes… the names may be still more ancient, ascribably to an “Old European” stratum’ (Whaley)

View from Friar's Crag, Derwentwater, Keswick

View from Friar’s Crag, Derwentwater, Keswick

‘Derwent R, Cumberland [Deruuentionis fluui c 730 Bede, Deowentan stream c 890 OEBede, Derwent] … A British river-name Derventio… derived from the British *derva “oak”, Welsh derw &c. The name means “river where oaks were common”…. From Derwent Cumberland are names Derwent Fells [Derewentfells 1292] and Derwentwater [Derewentewater 1210, Derewentewater 1243].’ (Ekwall)

There are lots of beautiful, old oaks around Derwentwater still, many of which must be several hundred years old. Descendants of the oaks of Derventio, I hope.

Old oak tree, Derwentwater, Keswick

Old oak tree, Derwentwater, Keswick

Copyright D McIlmoyle 14.04.2014



Incoming… incoming… Queries from a BBC programme

It’s evident from the amount of incoming Google queries to this blog that lots of you watched the BBC programme, ‘The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland’ with some relish, which is excellent. If my blog queries are anything to go by, what interested you all most was the concept of kings of Cumbria, and Dunmail in particular (but of course, you’ve all heard of him because of Dunmail Raise on the A591).

Dunmail Raise. Yes, the pile of stones.

Dunmail Raise. Yes, the pile of stones.

So, to cut to the chase, you can find the 10th century King Dunmail’s story on this post. Here is the King Owain (there was more than one) who attended the 10th century Treaty of Eamont Bridge and died at the Battle of Brunanburh. Going back in time and to the first programme in the series, here is the 6th century Urien (who had the bard, Taliesin, who wrote the historical epic poetry recited so beautifully on the programme by Gwilym), his son, Owain map Urien. You can also check out Gwenddoleu and the Battle of Arthuret.

Now, here’s where I tell you that nothing is simple. Especially when you look at early history, where there are few records – so few that you can’t often corroborate stories to feel confident the ancient author wasn’t making it up or biased or just not very good – and that certainly applies to this area in these periods. The TV programme kept showing a map with a ‘Kingdom of Cumbria’ extending from the Cumbrian border to Glasgow. I wouldn’t do that because it’s given you all the idea that Cumbrians ruled half of Scotland, hasn’t it? And this isn’t the case. 

This kingdom was called Alt Clut in the early period, named after the old name for Dumbarton, which was the controlling centre – the capital, if you like – of the kingdom. We’re not sure where its boundaries were. In the later period, it is known as the Kingdom Of Strathclyde , had the same Dumbarton capital, and its boundaries stretched into Cumbria. There are references to it as a kingdom of Cumbria(ns) – but it’s important to understand that all the people who lived in this area were known as ‘cymry’ (pronounced ‘cumry’ – this is where the words Cumbria and Cumberland come from), which was an ethnic identifier meaning ‘fellow countrymen’ in the language of the time – they identified with the other people who spoke the same language. That language was an ancient British language that is an ancestor of modern Welsh, once spoken across this island but by this period only spoken by people who lived in Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria and southern Scotland (it’s the ‘yan, tan, tethera’ language, sometimes alluded to as ‘celtic’). The ‘Kingdom of Cumbria’ moniker does not mean that these lands were ruled by what we understand to be Cumbria; it means that this is where the people who spoke ‘Cumbric’ lived.

So, what is a ‘king of Cumbria’? For the Alt Clut/Strathclyde period, the ultimate answer is the guy sitting on the throne in Dumbarton in Scotland. The history’s frustratingly hazy owing to lack of hard evidence and focus by academia (and I’m certainly happy to trust the academics to do this because of the complexity of the sources) but it seems that the people we think of as kings IN Cumbria – Urien, Owain, Other Owain, Dunmail, et al (but not Gwenddoleu), were either ‘sub-kings’ who owed allegiance to a More Important king at Dumbarton, and others – particularly Dunmail and the later Owains, disappointingly – may have been the Dumbarton over-king on campaign in their southern territories, ie. Cumbria. Perhaps the word, ‘king’ is wrong, full-stop for our actual Cumbrian guys; they were clan leaders in this area (which may or may not have been Rheged in the early period). Whatever the detailed truth was, there was never a king based in Cumbria ruling a territory that stretched over the border as far as Dumbarton; quite the reverse.

We also have a major border conundrum. The Kingdom of Strathclyde’s border was probably the old Cumberland/Westmorland border, at least on the eastern side, so it doesn’t necessarily include the whole of Cumbria. And as for ‘Rheged’… despite what many sources would have you believe, we absolutely do not know for a fact that it was in Cumbria. It seems likely that it was, given we know where it wasn’t – but there is no hard evidence that it was here. It fully merits its inclusion in Norman Davies’s book, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’.

I concur that there has been a distinct, shared culture in the late Iron Age to early medieval extreme north of England and probably parts of southern Scotland and that includes, critically, what we know of the peri-Roman history of these lands, of Venutius and Cartimandua, of the Carvetii and the Brigantes and Parisii. These areas were less susceptible, because of geography, to the trickle, and then flood, of early invaders and they shared a sort of bleak upland territory that drove out similar stories. To the west, we were the last outside Wales (and perhaps Cornwall) to give up the language originally spoken throughout Britain and the culture that went with it. We were, you could say, the last vestiges of an ancient British culture, squeezed on all sides. To say more, though… that may be political.

Copyright D McIlmoyle 07.04.14 (Updated: 03.06.14)


Our history gets a look-in on BBC Radio Cumbria

Yesterday, Dr Tim Clarkson, who has been kind enough to dig me out of many a comprehension hole without making me feel stupid, got a slot on the Mike Zeller show on BBC Radio Cumbria.

Tim Clarkson is an expert – possibly the expert – on the kingdom of Strathclyde, that is to say, the Brythonic (early Welsh)-speaking, ‘dark age’ kingdom that stretched from Glasgow to northern Cumbria, including the sub-kingdom of Rheged, between roughly the 5th and 10th centuries.

You can hear Tim’s bit on the radio show for another 6 days on the BBC i-player on the internet. (Slide the slidey thing along to 48mins 10 seconds to reach this bit).

He talks about:

The meaning of the word, Cumbria and its predecessor, Cumberland, and its ancient links to Wales (home of the ‘cymry’).

The language of Cumbria up until the Norman invasion, which was Cumbric, a dialect of Brythonic, itself a version of early Welsh.

Rheged – here is a guest blog piece on early medieval Cumbria  (he’s not that keen on the locating of Rheged in Cumbria, or at least, not all of it) that Tim Clarkson was kind enough to let me filch from him for this blog.

Urien – the 6th century Cumbria ‘hero’ who led an alliance of northern, Brythonic-speaking kingdoms against the invading Angles, but lost in the end when he was betrayed by an ally.

The Battle of Arthuret – which is the story of Gwenddoleu, and his bard, Lailoken.

Merlin – or, at least, one of the historical bards known as Merlin – who was, in fact, Lailoken.

You can buy Tims’ books here. Support our supporters!


The Vikings are here…

Silver thistle brooch from Flusco Pike, Penrith. British Museum.

Silver thistle brooch from Penrith. COPYRIGHT British Museum.

Just a quick post today, mostly because I’m a bit freaked out by the slew of material on the ‘net yesterday and today claiming that this-that-or-the-other group is x% Viking, or that Penrith is 5% Viking (if you’re a man), or Yorkshire something more. The fact is that if you ask a scientific expert  – for which I recommend Sense About Science for a quickie – they say that it’s not that straightforward. The DNA testing companies that offer you and me the chance to decide we’re Celtic or Viking or Egyptian or whatever are being massively simplistic. We’re all probably related to the Vikings somewhere along the line, never mind the million that the headlines were talking yesterday.

Having depressed you all nicely, I remind you of these rather wonderful, actual Viking things that were found in a field, traditionally known as Silver Field (hah!), near Newbiggin, Penrith. One brooch was Continue reading

Happy Valentine’s Day

Did you get a gift for Valentine’s Day? I got two 70-year-old folklore books, a box of Fondant Fancies and a card. So, the first thing I did (well, maybe the second) was look up Valentine’s Day in my new book.

Advert for Prang's Valentine's Cards, late 19thc

Advert for Prang’s Valentine’s Cards, late 19thc

I was aware that our grandparents’/great-grandparents’ generation – in the extreme north, anyway – set little store by Valentine’s and regarded it as a bit common and certainly inconsequential. I’d no idea why, as my Jackie magazine insisted that we Continue reading