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.


9 thoughts on “Forks

  1. I’m torn between a tool used on the water, ie fishing or ritualistic or a combination of both. I guess that being that large they would have been handled by men. Our imaginations can run riot. Fascinating, perhaps one day we will discover their use.

    • Hi Carol! It is intriguing, isn’t it? Much of the problem is that there are so few of them. My idea is that, given they are always (so far) found in pairs and always near water that they are some sort of propulsion tool to help you get a low coracle through the marshy river, especially as it silted up a bit. The Eden’s never (as far as we know) been very navigable but you would want to try if you lived there. I hadn’t thought until you pointed out that they’re not just massive, they’re actually a lot bigger than most people – and in those days of course people were shorter (like one half of this conversation 😉 ). Thanks for coming over 😀

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