Langdale axes: Cumbria’s prehistoric export

Whenever The Time Team‘s Phil waxes lyrical about flint knapping, arrowheads and axes, you can hear the TV audience willing the producer to hurry up. They just look like uninteresting flakes of dark grey stuff, which you often wouldn’t realise were anything special if you dug them out of your vegetable patch.

Copyright Michael Greenhalgh

Copyright Michael Greenhalgh

Langdale axes, now – that’s another matter. Made from greenish Borrowdale volcanic stone from the central Lake District, even the ‘rough-out’, unfinished axe heads look purposefully-shaped. The polished ones are amazing. They can be 11 inches long, with roughly parallel sides about 3 or 4 inches wide, an oval cross-section, and an almost glass-like sheen where they have been smoothed to perfection over many weeks.1 They are very hard, resistant to breaking, and often much bigger than their flint equivalents. There’s no mistaking these for natural stones; the skill and deliberateness of their manufacture sings down the millennia.

Six millennia. That’s right – some experts reckon that the Langdale axe production site may have started up in 3,800BCE2. Nearly six thousand years ago.

Langdale axes come not from the Langdale Valley floor, but from high in the mountains above it. An area roughly bounded by the Scafell range (including Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England), Hardknott Pass (a high, dangerous mountain road), Wrynose Pass (not much better) and the Borrowdale Fells has a number of sites where there is evidence of axe-making. The stone wasn’t mined, but picked up in lumps from the scree – layers of loose stone piled up on mountain slopes and peaks. The axes were ‘roughed out’ to the right size, then taken down the mountains to be shaped more accurately and polished.

Pike O’ Stickle seems to have been the key production site. Like all ‘pikes’, Pike O’ Stickle has an oddly prominent shape. Its sides are almost vertical in places, and it rises to 709m (2326ft) before breaking suddenly into a shallow, domed top. The summit is littered with axe production debris, although please note that it’s illegal to remove anything!

All of the axe-making sites are difficult to access. They’re away from all main roads, and most minor roads. There are foot paths only in the places that the topography can accommodate; the same foot paths trodden by the axe-makers themselves. These mountains are high, but particularly on the western side, they rise straight from the very low valley floor, so they look even bigger. The views are sensational.

Pike O' Stickle copyright Mick Knapton

Pike O' Stickle copyright Mick Knapton

Langdale axes feel amazing. They are heavy, as you’d expect from a substantial piece of stone. They’re carefully weighted, too, with a thick section at the back, where you’d attach it to a wooden haft. It’s easy to imagine how the weight would shift in your hand as you brought the axe over your head to thump down into your target.

So what were they used for? Their date coincides with a period of substantial forest clearance, so that’s a good bet. They were also in production at the time that some of Cumbria’s stone circles were raised, and three examples were found in Castlerigg stone circle3. These weren’t just local tools, though; they have been found in quantities in the east Midlands, the Thames Valley area, Cornwall, Northern Ireland and even on the continent. In fact, when Professor Bill Cummins examined 1840 neolithic axe heads from all over England and Wales, he found that 27% of them originated in the Langdales4.

Given that Cumbria is hardly a great exporter now, this is surprising. But in the neolithic period, travel was much more difficult, and parts of Cumbria were exceptionally hard to access. Most trade came by sea to Cumbria’s west coast and inwards via the rivers – but the axes are more common on the east of the country, not the west. It’s possible that having been hauled down enormous mountains to valley-bottom communities for finishing, the axes were then taken over mountain passes to the Eden Valley and through the only old route over the Pennines – Stainmore, to the extreme northeast of the county – to the east. People must really have wanted these axes.

At this point it’s easy to conclude that the type of stone the axes are made from must be really rare, for people to go to this much trouble. But it’s not; it’s found in several parts of the country, many of which are considerably lower in altitude and easier to access.

A clue to their appeal comes from the condition of the Langdale axes that have been found. Some show signs of wear, but plenty show none at all3. Some seem to have been interred with the dead, or placed in watery ground, a common ‘sacrificial’ practice in prehistoric Britain (see this post on bog bodies).

Francis Pryor3, the esteemed archaeologist, says that some years ago, he would never have believed that the Langdale axes were anything other than a practical, highly effective and prized tool. Having further contemplated the evidence, he now believes that they had mystical associations. Langdale axes came from a very hard-to-reach area, and the stone had already been fractured into lumps – the scree – by the action of nature. The Pike O’Stickle is an odd, almost otherworldly, shape, and the views stretch down almost to sea level. This was a place where nature was writ large; perhaps it wouldn’t be too far to suggest that these axes were a gift from the gods to our neolithic ancestors.

And if it’s good enough for Francis, then it’s good enough for me.

©Diane McIlmoyle 11.05.11

  1. There are some spectacular examples on display at Penrith Museum, including a rough-out axe and finished axe of 11 inches long, 3 inches wide, on loan from Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum. The finished axe is polished to bring out the natural grain, showing as a circular, greenish mark. If you look closely, you can see fine linear marks near the still-sharp-looking tip, produced either through use, or the remnants of the polishing process. There are also a number of slightly smaller, but nonetheless impressive, examples.
  2. The Stone Circles of Cumbria by John Waterhouse
  3. Ditto
  4. Britain BC by Francis Pryor

 

I would also recommend Prehistoric Cumbria by David Barraclough.

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9 thoughts on “Langdale axes: Cumbria’s prehistoric export

  1. 6000 years – an impressively long time! Is there other evidence of their habitation or was this perhaps a unique place that they came to just for this purpose? Like all snippets of prehistory it invites lots of questions.

    • It is a ridiculous amount of time, isn’t it? There is more evidence of a community of the same era living (relatively) nearby, near Egremont near the west Cumbrian coast. These people seemed to have had the long, long job of finishing the axes. We know this because they chucked the off-cuts and broken axes into Ehenside Tarn (small lake). When it was drained in the 19th century, so many bits came up that people came from miles around to nick axes to use as knife sharpeners… I wonder if anyone’s still got them in their great-great-granny’s kitchen stuff?

      And of course, there are the stone circles not much later than that. Cumbria has a quarter of all the stone circles in Britain.

      Thanks for coming over, as always 🙂

  2. I’ve been to Pike O’Stickle a couple of times but didn’t know it was the main place for Langdale axes. Wish I had known this on my last trip (around ten years ago). I would have mooched around the hill a bit more, instead of dashing off to Stickle Tarn to grab a premier lunching spot.

    • That, I guess, is the problem with such ancient archaeology – it doesn’t always ‘look’ like archaeology! Well done for conquering the pike, though. You’ll have to come back – there are significant sites on Harrison Stickle and even Scafell Pike, too. Thanks for visiting 🙂

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  7. Fascinating – I didn’t know about the mystical associations, although it’s easy to see how the spectacular pinnacle of the Pike O’Stickle could inspire awe and reverence. If axes made from its stone (that nature had already done most of the work on) were found to be so much more powerful than their flint equivalents it’s perhaps no wonder they held a special wonder.

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