Cumbria’s very lucky this summer to have a number of stunning local artefacts on display that we wouldn’t normally be able to see. Tullie House in Carlisle has borrowed the Sewell’s Lane Jug and Embleton Sword from the British Museum; the Dock Museum in Barrow-in-Furness has a hoard of Viking coins until mid July; and the Armitt Museum in Ambleside has persuaded the BM to let them borrow their very own hoard.
The Ambleside Hoard comprises two swords, a dagger and a rather impressive spear head. They were made from bronze in the aptly named Bronze Age and could be 4,000 years old*. That’s right – I said they could have been made FOUR THOUSAND years ago.
The weapons were found in 1741 with two more bronze pieces – another, small blade and a small axe head – in a peat bog somewhere outside Ambleside. We don’t know a lot about prehistoric Ambleside, but it’s not many miles from the Langdales, where fabulous stone axes were made 6,000 years ago.
There is a fantastic stone-cut Bronze Age weapon mould in Tullie House in Carlisle. The mould is so crisp that I’m not sure I’d realise it was so old if I had dug it up in my back garden. It’s an amazing thing, and testimony to the skills of our ancestors.
The Ambleside Hoard was quite famous when it was discovered and clearly much enjoyed by locals and visitors. The finder, Peregrine Bertie, reported that the weapons were ‘so Sharp as to Cut their fingers… They have Tried the metal of them so often on Every Oak Gable in the Parish, That they have a Little Notched and Blunted ‘em’.1 From there, they somehow – we don’t know how – ended up in the Royal Collection and were on display at Windsor Castle for years before being moved to the British Museum in London.
We know that the hoard was found by peat cutters, two feet under the surface. Peat bogs are, to state the obvious, bogs: areas of land that are waterlogged. Investigations are underway to find out where people were digging peat in Ambleside in the mid 18th century to identify which bog in particular. Was it near Windermere, perhaps?
Our ancestors were very keen on placing valuable objects in watery areas. Not usually actual water, but liminal areas that were part earth, part water – like bogs. The Bewcastle Cauldron was found in boggy ground north of Carlisle. The Embleton Sword was probably found in a boggy area near Bassenthwaite Lake. Iron Age, and possibly Bronze Age ‘bog bodies’ have been found on Scaleby and Solway Mosses (moss = bog). And, possibly long before the Ambleside Hoard, we placed stone arrows in watery areas.
Archaeologists often posit that, as many of the metal items found in watery areas are worn, bent or otherwise put beyond use, they were being returned to the earth whence the metal came. This could have been a simple matter of efficient, but respectful, disposal of old weapons. But the Ambleside Hoard had blades that were still sharp, and were seemingly undamaged; perhaps they had just become outdated as iron weapons were introduced. Ironically, the iron weapons themselves, possibly like the Embleton Sword, ended up in the water themselves in due course.
The other common theory is that depositing weapons and other metal good in watery ground was for ‘ritual’ reasons. Welsh mythology talks about the gwragedd Annwn, the ‘wives of the underworld’ who lived in rivers, lakes, tarns and springs, acting as intermediaries between the living and the spirits, who lived below the earth. The significance of Welsh legend to Cumbria is, of course, that we spoke more or less the same language until a thousand years ago and many Cumbrian stories are preserved in Welsh legend.
It seems odd to us, but we should bear in mind that river names are often the most ancient in any landscape. Some, like ‘esk’ and ‘ouse’ simply mean ‘that there watery stuff’; it’s an obvious name for people who might not travel very far, and therefore only know one river. But it’s also interesting that subsequent peoples haven’t felt the name to re-name them, so that the country is chock full of rivers whose names have wonderfully fundamental meanings: ‘River river’ or ‘River water’. Other river names, like Cumbria’s River Ellen and the assorted Rivers Dee and Don around the country go back to an incredibly ancient past and seem to be the names of deities. It seems that our ancestors felt that water was a very special thing, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that even today, we can’t help chucking a few coins into the wishing well.
1. As quoted on the British Museum’s website.
* A number of newspaper articles about the Ambleside Hoard suggest that it’s 5,000 years old. None of them state the source for this, and neither the BM nor the Armitt put an age estimate on the Hoard. The 5,000 year date seems wrong to me – apart from anything else, that would technically pre-date the Bronze Age – it seems likely that a journalist has rounded up the date of the start of the Early Bronze Age and hoped that was reasonable! 4,000 years is still pretty early for bronze, but feasible.
The Ambleside Hoard is on display at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside until the autumn. Don’t miss it!