Monsters of the Mere

In Beowulf, after the protagonist has defeated the monstrous Grendel in the hall of Heorot, he travels beyond the safety of its walls to the mere from which the monsters come to slay Grendel’s mother.

Beforehand, Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose hall Beowulf is defending, describes ‘the haunted mere’:

‘a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.’

When Beowulf and his warriors arrive they find:

‘… The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes of the cliff,
serpents and wild things…’

These quotes reflect a view of the wild land beyond the hall as uncanny and peopled by monsters. Beowulf is set in sixth century Scandinavia, but was composed in East Anglia during the seventh century and written down in the tenth century. I believe it was popular amongst the Anglo-Saxons due to the similarities between the landscapes and beliefs in Scandinavia and England.

Grendel is described as a ‘dark death shadow / who lurked and swooped in the long nights / on the misty moors’. The ‘shadow-stalker’ comes ‘In off the moors, down through the mist bands… greedily loping’. His mother is a ‘monstrous hell-bride’, a ‘hell-dam’, a ‘swamp thing from hell’, ‘a tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’, a ‘she-wolf’, and a ‘wolf of the deep’ who lurks in the mere. We find repeated associations between monsters and an untamed landscape viewed as hellish.

No doubt the descriptions of the Danish landscape and its monsters resonated with the people of East Anglia with its extensive fenlands and lowland moors and bogs and its many meres – Trundle Mere, Whittlesey Mere, Stretham Mere, Soham Mere, Ug Mere, and Ramsey Mere, now sadly drained.

It’s likely the Anglo-Saxons and the Brythonic people whose culture they replaced here in Lancashire viewed the Region Linnuis, ‘the Lake Region’, where Martin Mere (at twenty miles in diameter once the largest lake in England), Shoricar’s Mere, Renacres Mere, Gettern Mere, and Barton Mere once lay, as similarly haunted, before they were all drained with the bogs and marshes.

In the fourteenth century Middle English story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the protagonist battles against an array of monsters as he travels north ‘into the wilderness of the Wirral’ and beyond.

‘He had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves,
Warred with wild trolls that dwelt among the crags,
Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times,
And ogres that panted after him on the high fells.’

Memories of Grendel-like monsters might be retained in Lancashire’s rich boggart lore. Boggarts are malevolent spirits who haunted the bogs then later the farmhouses when the land was drained. Some merely caused mischief, scaring children with their penny-whistle like voices, breaking pots and pans or curdling milk but others made livestock lame or ill and even killed animals and humans.

King Arthur’s Pit, on the shore of Martin Mere near Holmeswood Hall, was haunted by ‘boggarts and ghouls’. There are traditions of ‘shadowy night-time figures passing marl-pits near the old mere edge’.

Roby records the story of a ‘mermaid’ or ‘meer-woman’ abducting a baby from its natural father then leaving the child with a fisherman who gives him to a Captain Harrington to be fostered. This puts me in mind of the monstrous claw that steals a foal and, implicitly, Pryderi in the First Branch of The Mabinogion then leaves the boy in the care of Teyrnon who raises him as a foster-father.

Coupled with Martin Mere’s associations with the nymph, Vyviane, disappearing into the lake with the infant Lancelot du Lac (who is said to give his name to Lancashire) and with Arthur’s sword we might intuit these stories originate from the presence of a female water deity or monster who stole children.

During the digging of the sluice to drain Martin Mere ‘human bodies entire and uncorrupted’ were found and its seems possible they were deliberately deposited in the water. From the surrounding area we have evidence of bog burials at North Meols and, further afield, Lindow and Worsley Man. Lindow Man was sacrificed, dying a ‘three fold death’, and others may have been sacrifices to water deities.

Bog burials took place from the Bronze Age through the Romano-British period in Britain and were common across Germany and Denmark showing shared practices and beliefs surrounding wet places.

Unfortunately we do not know for certain who these sacrifices were to or how these people perceived their deities. It is clear that by the sixth century, due to the influence of Christianity, both Grendel and his mother and the wild landscape they inhabited had been heavily demonised.

This is evidenced by the Christianised explanation of the origins of these ‘fatherless creatures’ as springing from the exile of Cain for killing Abel with ‘ogres and elves and evil phantoms / and the giants too’.

The pagan beliefs of the Danes are referred to and condemned in Beowulf:

‘Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell.’

Yet these explanations come up against the conflicting belief these ‘huge marauders’ are ‘from some other world’ and that their origin ‘hidden in a past of demons and ghosts’, defies explanation.

The grendelkin, like the later boggarts, occupy liminal places in the landscape and between the worlds. A wonderful verb, scripan, ‘meaning a sinewy and sinister gliding movement’ is used to describe the way they move and may also apply to the way they shift between the worlds. The dobbie, our northern British waterhorse, a similar kind of being, ‘is described as a big, black, horrible, misshapen thing that “slips about”’ and is ‘more likely to be seen out of the corner of the eye’.

Here, in Lancashire, the deities of the lake were not slain by a dark age ‘hero’ but met a slower, more ignominious end at the hands of the wealthy landowners who drained the mere. The first was Thomas Fleetwood who secured an Act of Parliament in 1694. He employed 2,000 workers to dig the 1.5 mile channel known as the Sluice to the coast at Crossens. His draining of the mere was completed by 1697.

Fleetwood died in 1717 and the following is written on his monument in the church in Churchtown:

‘He wished his bones to be here laid, because he made into dry and firm land the great Martinesian Marsh, by the water having been conveyed through a fosse to the neighbouring sea – a work, which, as the ancients dared not to attempt, posterity will hardly credit… These labours having been accomplished, he at length, alas! Too soon, laid down and died, on the 22nd April, A.D. 1717, in the 56th year of his age.’

Fleetwood’s success was short lived. The flow of the water was not strong enough to prevent the Sluice from silting up and the floodgates were breached leading to winter flooding. In 1778 Thomas Eccleston employed Mr. Gilbert (who built the Bridgewater Canal) to redesign and rebuild the drainage system, which again was successful for a while, until the mere was inundated by the Douglas.

So continued the cycle of rebuilding and flooding until the new pumping station at Crossens was built in 1961 which is capable of 373,000 gallons per minute and is already running to full capacity at peak times.

This leads me to wonder whether the deities of the mere and its monsters are dead or merely waiting beyond the lumbs and deeps of the mere bottom in places ‘never sounded by the sons of men’.

The Re-Emergence of Saint Benedict

All around me in my local landscape, in my parents’ garden, a persistent three-leafed plant. Wood avens (Geum urbanum), otherwise known as colewort, Herb Bennet, and St Benedict’s Herb. My mum wants me to get rid of this common ‘weed’ but, like with the cleavers and the nettles, I give it a small patch as it provides nectar for the bees and is the food plant of the grizzled skipper caterpillar.

I do not know how wood avens came to be associated with Saint Benedict. Only that it was considered to drive off evil spirits and was used to treat the poisonous bites of snakes and rabid dogs. It has been suggested its three leaves and five flowers are reminiscent of the trinity and the wounds of Christ. Whatever the case, it seems like a good plant to have around in a time of pandemic. Its leaves make a tasty addition to salads and it’s possible I’d try using its roots to flavour soup.

Interestingly, with the emergence of Saint Benedict’s Herb into my life, my awareness of the influence of the Order of Saint Benedict in my locality and what feels like either past life or ancestral memory has been growing stronger.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Benedictine Priory which was located next to St Mary’s Church on Castle Hill in my home town of Penwortham. It was founded in the 1140s as an obedience of Evesham Abbey, dissolved in 1539, rebuilt as a mansion, then demolished in the 1940s to make way for housing.

On my daily walks I’ve been repeatedly drawn to St Mary’s Church and the Benedictine Monastery in Bamber Bridge. The latter was founded by the Order at Ampleforth Abbey in 1780 and closed in 2016.

I’ve felt the Benedictines, with their motto of ora et labora ‘pray and work’, and their slow prayerful way of life organised around eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime), has something important to say to a world in lockdown due to coronavirus.

This feeling was confirmed when I learnt that the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fidélité de Jouques in France had released six days of their Gregorian chants of the offices in Latin for free via Neumz for Holy Week to help people in isolation. Their singing and the sound of the bells and organ is beautiful and calming and the perfect antidote to the stresses of this turbulent time.

The re-emergence of Saint Benedict has brought back to the forefront my own monastic leanings. A couple of years back I really wanted to be a nun but could not reconcile the demands of living by a rule with my own unruliness or the renunciation of worldly pursuits with sharing awen as an awenydd. I also felt uneasy adopting a lifestyle originating from the Christian religion, which played a major role in extinguishing British pre-Christian beliefs and demonising my god, Gwyn, and his spirits.

Yet my craving for a life of prayer and work has not gone away but has grown stronger. Since the beginning of the year, when I stopped drinking alcohol and thus having drunken evenings and lie-ins and going to the pub, my life has been structured around prayer/meditation/journeywork, writing and study, physical work in the house and outdoors, and exercise including a martial art.

Since the lockdown the biggest changes have been the cancellation of my volunteer work parties with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, my Taekwondo classes, my monthly drumming circle with the Way of the Buzzard, and the Damson Poets event, and not being able to see friends. I’ve dealt with this by replacing my practical conservation work with gardening, practicing my Taekwondo moves and patterns alone in the garden, participating in the Way of the Buzzard online drumming circles, and keeping in touch with friends and the other members of Damson Poets by email and text message.

Slowly I’ve been developing a semi-monastic routine based on my natural rhythms and my duties to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of Peneverdant rather than the rule of a Christian saint. It is helping me stay focused through these days of isolation and to build a deeper relationship with my land and my gods.

5.30am – Dawn prayer and breakfast
6.00am – Morning prayers and practice
7.00am – Writing, study, blog
10.00am – Housework/shopping/cooking/gardening
11.30am – Dinner
12 noon – Noon prayer and study
1.00pm – Housework/gardening
2.00pm – Exercise (walk, run, or cycle, Taekwondo)
4.30pm Afternoon prayer and bath
5.00pm – Tea
5.30pm – Emails and news
6.00pm – Housework and water plants
6.30pm – Evening prayer and meditation in garden
7.00pm – Study
9.30pm – Night and bedtime prayers
10.00pm – Bed

Ribble Ancestors

Fists of Stone

The face of a Stone Age man from the North West… about 40 years old when he died
The Harris Museum

They’ve given you a face.

Taken your 5,500 year old skull,
added facial tissue and facial muscles –
temporalis, masseter, buccinator,
occipito frontals, nose, lips.

Decided upon your expression.

It’s 2019 and the ‘ug’ caricatures
and Flintstones references are behind us
yet there is flint and stone in your jaw.
Your shoulders are like a boxer’s

so I imagine you ‘putting them up’.

Fists of stone – you were a prize fighter.
You would have been the strong man
of your day, felling old bog oaks
with your rough stone axe,

pulling them two at a time,

the muscles in your back –
trapezius, rhomboideus, serratus,
teres minor
and major, thoracolumbar fascia
straining as your broad feet sucked
in and out of the marsh.

Your children swinging from
your broad arms like long-tailed tits –
countless, twittering, as you tossed them
like juggling balls into the air.

Your wife liked to massage out
your knots and twists – tighter more oaklike
as you aged, treating each muscle
in turn like a polished stone,

tending to your calloused hands –

bathing your blisters, dabbing ointment
on your cracked knuckles, mending
your broken fingers with oaken splints.

When you fell like a tree,
not in battle but quietly on
your way back from the woods,
little birds in your branches,

muscles knotting one last time,

she did not carve your head but your fists
in stone, cast them into the river
with the oaklike log
of your corpse.

The little pebbles
of your pisiform bone,
metacarpals and phalanges
can be found on the riverbank
where she once grieved.

~

Cribra Orbitalia

This is the oldest skull so far dated – to between 3820 and 3640BC… This woman may have suffered from anaemia, indicated by an area of pitting in her left eye known as cribra orbitalia.’
The Harris Museum

You were a pale child.

Always the first to tire
on the walk from camp to camp,
struggling for breath, clutching at your chest.
You said your head was light as a wisp of smoke
before you lay down and floated away.
You said you were a feather.

The reddest of meat failed
to bring a blush to your cheeks,
to keep you to the ground.

Often you touched the ridge
of your left brow and pressed
as if probing for the lesion.

When your skin turned yellow
as the beak of a whooper swan,
your eyes eerie and wolf-like,

you were exalted and they listened

to your visions of flying white-winged
to the distant north where frost giants fought
with fists of ice and the claws of bears
were hungry for your children.

When you returned with
seven cygnets ghosting from
beneath your right wing

they walked on egg shells
fearing you were the daughter
of the God of the Otherworld.

When you were found
with a single feather on your breast
it was said you flew with him to Cygnus,
rising on your last swan’s breath.

Now instead they point to the pitting
of your left eye and speak of cribra orbitalia –
the hypertrophy of red bone marrow, megabolasts,
megabolastic anaemia, lack of intrinsic factor,
the uptake of coblamin (vitamin B12).

And I try to hold both science and myth
in the cavelike porosities of your left orbit….

~

Shades of Blue

‘an older man who may have lived in the Stone Age as there is evidence that he has been killed with a stone implement, similar to the axes displayed’
The Harris Museum

You had a violent reputation.

It travelled with you across
the Water Country like the flies
on the back of the aurochs

who buzzed around the heads
of your enemies clotting like blood
around their pecked out eyes.

She always knew when you
were coming back by the noise
of the bluebottle… zzz…???

A flicker across the rush light.
Zzz… zzz…. zzz… unmistakeable.
A rush of dread as it was lit up on
the wall shiny iridescent blue.

When she was little she counted
its colours and gave them names like
New Dawn Blue, Noon Blue, Happy Blue,
Deep Waters, Dwellings in the Sea-Sky Blue.
As the shadows of her marriage darkened
she named them Twilight Blue, Indigo,
Bruise Blue, Black Blue of Murder.

Her hand went to her broken cheekbone.

She took the children to the Whistler in the Rushes.

In her hands she took the sharpened stone.

Nobody questioned or regretted your death:
“A crash in the night – so many enemies.”

Except the bluebottle who buzzed in circles
around your head, spiralling, spiralling upwards.
Death Blue, Decision Blue, Tear Blue, Last Bruise,
River-mirror Blue, Bright Blue of Freedom.

It disappeared as you sunk into eternal blue.

~

Loose Tongue

‘Experts disagree whether it is a skull of a woman or man. It’s smaller than other skulls found in the dock, but it has distinct male eyebrow ridges. There is evidence that this person may have died by from a weapon entering their skull. It may be the skull of a Roman settler or someone born in Iron Age Britain.’
The Harris Museum

No-one knew
if you were Roman or Briton,
noble or commoner, male or female,
only that you were not from the North.
The names of the gods mixed on your tongue
like wine and mead in the fortresses of the Otherworld.
“Vindos-Dis, Mars-Nodens, Apollo-Maponus,
Belisama-Minerva, Taranis-Jupiter.”

Your tongue got you into trouble
stirring the desires of the young but
allowing none to lift up your robe.

Everywhere you went there was gossip.

You’d come to the High Hills in purple
wearing sandals, golden bangles, golden rings
on your fingers and toes and a jewelled golden crown.
Come back down like madness to the Water Country,
ragged as a beggar, preaching of a world where
Roman and Briton lived in unison with no
divisions between man and woman or
wrong places to put one’s tongue.

A parochial chieftain hated your
androgyny and the hateful looseness
of your tongue so it was not long before
you were stripped naked and fishlike
beside the river before the gods.

The spear thrust into your mouth
did not stop your brazen tongue from
wagging on as the water embraced
you as both daughter and son.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photographs.

Remembering Penwortham Marsh

In the Doomsday Book my home town of Penwortham is referred to as Peneverdant. It has been translated by Rev. Thornber as ‘the green hill on the water.’* The name refers to Castle Hill, which stood on Penwortham Marsh, a tidal freshwater marsh frequently flooded by the river Ribble.

The marshland developed after the Ice Age and its water levels changed with the tides and the rise and fall of sea levels. During the Bronze Age there was a wooden lake dwelling evidenced by the remains of a ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’.

It seems likely people inhabited this milder lowland location in winter and, in the summer, when there were lots of midges, moved to the uplands, following the aurochs. (There are echoes of this tradition in the people of Penwortham pasturing their cattle in Brindle, in the foothills of the Pennines, up until the 14th century, when Brindle separated from Penwortham parish).

During the marine transgressions of the second millennium BC, when the weather got colder and wetter, Castle Hill would have been part of the Ribble estuary and quite literally ‘on the water’. In the Romano-British period the sea levels fell again and have remained relatively stable until now.

The vegetation of Penwortham Marsh was likely to have consisted mainly of common saltmarsh grass (pucinellia maritima), with saltmarsh rush (juncus gerardii) and red fescue (festuca rubra), areas of reed (phragmites communis) and reedmace (typha latifolia), and perhaps water crowfoot (ranunculis aquatis), lesser spearwort (rannunculus flamula), and yellow flag iris (pseudacorus).

Breeding birds would have included redshanks, dunlins, oyster catchers, grebes, curlews, shelducks, mallards, lapwings, egrets, herons, and cranes. Over-wintering birds such as pink-footed geese, Bewick’s swans, whooper swans, widgeon, teal, knot, pintails, bar-tailed godwits, black-tailed godwits, sanderlings, and golden plover would also have been seen and their calls heard across the marshland.

This remarkable species-rich habitat remained untouched until the 16th century. Its draining began with land on the south of the marsh at Blashaw close to the medieval boundary ditch. Land north of Castle Hill was also reclaimed at this time. A survey of the Farington estates from 1570 refers to the Corn Marsh of 28 ½ acres and Little Burgess Marsh, which was fenced off with posts and rails. In the 16th century, from Howick to the foot of Castle Hill, a band of marsh was enclosed as ‘large square fields’. Finally, in the 17th century the marsh at Howick closest to the river Ribble was drained.

The newly reclaimed land was used for arable agriculture from the 16th until the 18th century. In 1725 the Corn Marsh was renamed Pasture Marsh showing it was used for grazing instead. The name Cow Gate Marsh is also suggestive of use for pasturage. Other field names include Innes Marsh, Little Marsh, Middle Marsh, New Marsh, and Long Marsh. The small strips that remained as intertidal marshland beside the Ribble were called Out Marsh and Great Marsh.**

The greatest change, in the 1880s, was the movement of the Ribble 500 yards south from its original meander at present-day Watery Lane to bend sharp west then flow in a concrete channel straight out to the estuary. This had the effect of cutting Penwortham Marsh off from Castle Hill, and from Penwortham, making it part of Preston. The marsh was then dug out to form Riversway Dockland.

There is now no sign Penwortham Marsh ever existed. Not even a street name. People who visit the docks are largely unaware they are walking on a former marshland where early Britons dwelled amongst reed, rush, waterfowl, mighty aurochs, and their gods, spirits, and ancestors.

Unlike with other intertidal marshlands beside the Ribble which, following, their draining have been rewetted, such as Hesketh Out Marsh, there is no way that Penwortham Marsh can ever be restored. Its separation from Castle Hill by the river and the digging of the docks has irreversibly destroyed it. Ironically the dock only functioned for 100 years before the Ribble silted up (Belisama’s revenge?***).

Along with climate change, the destruction of Penwortham Marsh and the channelling of the river are now causing flooding upriver at Broadgate. If the Ribble had been left to her old course and the marshland had remained as a buffer zone we would not need to be building higher flood defences.

Drained and dismembered, Penwortham Marsh cannot be put back together again. Yet it can be remembered. Its memories continue to speak from beneath the dock. When we look on those concrete walls, the restless waters brimming with green-blue algae, we can recall the marshland stretching away to Castle Hill, whistling with the calls of birds, and hear the voices of our ancestors.

They speak their warnings of a time when the green hill will once more be on the water again…

*Thornber claims ‘Peneverdant’ is of Brythonic origin from ‘pen, werd, or werid and want, as Caer Werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water’.
**The draining of Penwortham Marsh is recorded with a map in Alan Crosby’s Penwortham in the Past.
***Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble.

The Elk Pool

The elk found under a bungalow provides compelling evidence of a hunt in early winter 13,500 years ago. The badly injured elk escaped but died in a pool, whilst his human hunters went hungry.’
The Harris Museum

It was a time of hunger for hunters and for elk; all skeletal, ragged hip bones, like the naked birch. Snow fell on the heads of reeds, on bulrushes, on spiky sedge. The elk limped on, broad-footed, in his rolling gait, in spite of the barbed point stuck in the bone of his left foreleg. His hunters followed. For them with their two legs the wetland was treacherous, each patch of ice an unknown depth. Hunger, the gnawer of bellies and deadly as a spear in the guts, drove them on, following the prints.

At sunset they saw him illuminated before the blood-red sun and dug deep into a place beyond our understanding of endurance, readied bows, spears, called for blessings from the gods and spirits of the hunt. And they ran, as quickly as two-legged beings can, leaping between frozen tussocks of grass. For the elk had slowed and when he looked back at them they had seen his death in his eyes. The icy puddles and the pools glinted red with the sun’s reflection. Startled widgeon flashed up in a whistling flock and fled toward the coast. Somewhere a curlew called and called and did not stop calling.

The hunters ate the distance between them and the injured elk and also, it seemed, between them and the huge red sun. The elk limped and plunged. They released their flint-tipped arrows, singing through the air, thudding into his ribcage with thumps that sounded like the last heart-beat before death.

Stalwart, the fastest runner, the strongest hunter, sprinted up and thrust his spear into the elk’s chest. Its barbed point he had splintered from elk antler, carved, nocked, blessed, for this very moment in response to a dream. He clung onto the haft as the elk’s forefeet plunged onto ice, through ice, into water, as down he dove into the icy pool. With a crash, a splash, a splintering and bucking, both elk and hunter disappeared. All that was left as the sun sunk was a red pool and the curlew’s bubbling call.

The cold of the ice stole Stalwart’s breath before his lungs filled with freezing water. Something told him to let go of the spear, to swim up, to swim away toward the dim red light, yet he could not. It was if his hands were glued to it with birch bark tar – his fate and the elk’s bound together. They shared their final agony, the filling, the burning of lungs, the darkness of the deep growing darker, warm bodies entangling and growing colder as they floated down to rest together in a muddy bed.

***

When Stalwart opened his eyes the whole sky was crimson and the watery landscape a vivid blue. There was an elk-shaped hollow beside him, elk-prints leading away, reminding him briefly of something. Prompted by the hunting instinct within he got up and follow the prints through a landscape both strange and familiar – birch trees who greeted him with open arms, widgeon whose whistles contained messages he could not quite decipher, two long-legged cranes dancing in the distance.

As the light bled from the sky Stalwart lost sight of the prints. In the inky indigo of twilight the landscape became stranger, terrifying. A group of alders shaking their cones when there was no wind. One moment the grove was on his left and then it was on his right. Dark shapes began to pull and splash themselves out of the water. He began to run, tripped over what he thought was a root then realised was the leg of a man, lying face down, arrows and a spear-haft protruding from his ribs.

A memory tugged at him. Like a barbed point lodged within his chest. But fear drove him to flee. On and on, sinking waist-deep, feeling something slimy-cold and eel-like brush his leg, staggering out trembling. On and on not sure where he was going or whether he was getting anywhere. On and on until he looked back and was appalled by his guilty relief when he saw far behind him the dark creatures crowded around the dead man, necks sinking, heads rising, sharp teeth full of flesh as they fed.

As the light ebbed out of the sky flickering campfires flared up where he was certain no camp had been with the scent of smoke, and drumming – a beat that awoke something within him like a heart.

Its thump bore his steps, walking on water, to the camp of elk-skin tents. Lining each side of the way to the central tent, which was topped by a mighty pair of antlers, were people with drums and rattles, clad in elk-skins, with rattling bone necklaces. The men wore antlers and the women did not.

Some of the younger men and women were dancing ecstatically and all were shouting their welcomes.

“The Chief of the Herd returns.” “The Chief of Elk.” “Our Chieftain.” “The Timekeeper.”*

As Stalwart looked about him for this regal figure the crowd descended on him as one, fighting to touch his flesh. They lifted him up high, yanking him up by his armpits and waist, many hands on his thighs, knees, and lower legs, bearing him upright to the central tent and the woman before it.

She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was tall. Long auburn hair flowed over strong, broad shoulders. Her eyes were dark and liquid. Her lips looked soft as her large, bare breasts.

“My love you have returned,” she spoke softly as he was set down and she cushioned him in an embrace. After she kissed his stiff then unresisting lips and stepped back she said, “you are much changed.”

“I… uh… I think there’s been a mistake…” Stalwart stammered weak at the knees.

As the woman looked at him uncertainly an older man, with heavy antlers, leaning on a staff, reassured her, “Chieftess, he has spent long on the Otherside. Memory loss is common. Once he has eaten our food, drunk our drink, been re-crowned, our Timekeeper will recall himself and our stories.”

The Chieftess of the Elk took Stalwart’s hand and guided him gently into the central tent. She sat him beside her on a fur at the head of the tent and the rest of the herd seated themselves cross-legged on furs in a circle around the warm fire that blazed in the centre. How so many managed to fit into the tent, which suddenly seemed so warm and womb-like, so large and spacious, he could not guess.

Children entered with wooden bowls filled with birch leaves wrapped around mashed up bark. Stalwart knew he shouldn’t eat the meat of trees, the food of the Otherside, but he couldn’t remember when he last ate. He was so, so hungry. So he tucked in, chewing with strong molars, savouring the bitter taste, dimly aware of the chomping of the herd around him. The meal was washed down with cups of the blue, blue, water, the sweetest, clearest, purest water he had ever tasted.

“Now for his re-crowning,” spoke the old man. The herd got to their feet and cheered and roared as the antlers from above the tent were carried in and set upon Stalwart’s swimming head. They didn’t fit, they felt too big, they reminded him of something kicking in the water, yet he did not resist as they were forced down and stuck on fast. A heavy weight, an unbearable weight, for an imposter.

“Now, Timekeeper, do you remember?” asked the old man with a show of long yellow teeth.

A man, stuck with arrows and a spear face-down in the water, the dark things eating him. “No stories.”

“Perhaps,” said the Chieftess, glancing meaningfully around the gathering, “I may have a chance to revive his memory.

The herd exchanged knowing glances. When they had departed Stalwart slept with the woman. As he watched their shadows cast by the fire on the tent-walls he almost remembered someone else’s face.

When they were done she took his chin in her hand, turned it toward her, forced him to look into eyes filled with the shades of her strange land. “Do you not remember anything? Do you not feel?”

“No,” said Stalwart helplessly. “Nothing at all.

“You will,” the Chieftess embraced him fiercely, “you must,” almost crushing him. “For the fate of the herd depends on it. Only our stories maintain the Elk-Scape, keep the Dark Ones of the Seas at bay.”

***

The next morning Stalwart and the Chieftess left their tent with elongated faces ending in dexterous lips, thick furred coats, on four broad-footed legs. By day, at the head of the herd, they feasted on long tussocky grasses, reared up to tear down leaves from the highest birches, plunged deep into the pools and rose dripping with green tresses of underwater plants hanging from their mouths. When the crimson light began to fade and the dark things beneath the water to stir they set up camp.

After they had eaten and drunk, “last night,” said the old man, “we were lucky. Although another poor storyless soul was not. The Dark Ones feasted well, were well fed, on one newly passed, but tonight they will be hungry again. One of our herd, a piece of the Elk-Scape, will be lost if we have no stories.”

“Timekeeper.” “Chieftain.” “Please.” The herd implored Stalwart. “Our people are dying.” “Our land shrinks.”

Stalwart shuddered with guilt and fear as he recalled that horrible feast. “Is this true?” he asked the Chieftess.

“Yes,” she replied, squeezing his hand. “Please try to remember. For our people. For me.”

“Perhaps if you tell me a little about the Dark Ones that will jog my memory?”

“You once told us,” said the Chieftess, “that they are the last remnants of the primal waters of Old Mother Universe, the birthing and devouring goddess, from whose womb our world was born.”

Two bodies tangled together in the darkness and the tugging of a bond between them like conjoined twins.

“That the god who can not only control them but rides their fury is the Hunter, Lord of Death and the Deep.”

A dream of the Hunter gifting him an antler, guiding his hands as he carved and blessed the barbed point.

“He who favours neither man nor beast, hunter nor hunted, nothing but the thrill of the hunt, its finale. When we complained that antlers were not enough to defend us from the Dark Ones he gave us stories, and when they began to fail you went to the Otherside to the Man-Scape, to find new tales…”

“So I did,” it was not Stalwart who spoke but his story which seized his tongue. “I was born a man.”

The herd gasped in collective disbelief.

“A small boy in a land of water and ice. Three days after my birth a Wise Woman proclaimed that I would grow up to be a mighty hunter, and so it was, for I was shooting arrows before I could walk. Widgeon rained down from the skies and my barbed spears felled all my prey in one throw, but one elk.

“He haunted my dreams standing on the red horizon looking back at me with his death in his eyes. The Hunter said the hunting of the Chief of Elk was my destiny. The Wise Woman told me that it would be my undoing. I… fell in love…” he glanced guiltily at the Chieftess. “I had seven children. My herd, I mean my people, were hungry, we had nothing to eat. I swore I’d give my life to save them.

“When the Chief of Elk finally appeared I couldn’t believe I missed. That’s when the Hunter appeared in my dream. For seven days and seven nights and seven days again we tracked him and on the seventh night I killed him yet I lost my own life in the pool and here I am and…” as the realisation washed through him, “before he could make it back to his people he was eaten by the Dark Ones.”

“The Chief of Elk became a man?” “A man the Chief of Elk?” “Who is who?” “Are you truly our Chief?”

“I… really don’t know,” admitted Stalwart.

As he spoke laughter began to echo around the tent. Laughter that shook wooden bowls, rattled necklaces, like the wind tore away the tent flaps leaving only a mightier set of antlers above and their wearer on the back of a black water-horse with countless legs churning the skies, gnashing its teeth.

“Well, that’s a story to keep the Dark Ones at bay,” said the Hunter. “They’ll be fuddled for days and days can last forever in the Elk-Scape where the light and the land are held together by a good story.

“Yet on the Otherside the people you swore to stand by, for whom you gave your life, are starving. They too need stories, their Timekeeper, to stop the Dark Ones rising from the pools and from the Seas.”

As the first crimson light appeared Stalwart found himself submerged beneath bloody waters. This time he let go of the spear-haft that bound him to the man who had been eaten by the Dark Ones of the Seas. Lungs bursting, he struggled up, up and away from the sinking elk toward the patch of light.

His wife, Sinew, pulled him out, an auburn-haired, strong, broad-shouldered woman. His people roared and cheered, although they lamented their loss of the elk. They ate little but roots and bark that night, but Stalwart told them a story beginning, “I’m not who you think I am… I should explain…”

Afterwards the Timekeeper moved between the worlds, between man and elk, maintaining the stories. For many thousands of years the Elk Pool was known as a special and sacred place. When the last elk on the Island of Britain was killed he returned to the Otherside and his tales were forgotten. Since then there has been no-one to stand vigil at the pool and no words to hold the Dark Ones back.

When the bones of the Chief of Elk and the barbed point that bound two hearts together were dug up the Timekeeper returned from the Elk-Scape and my rattling fingerbones were seized by his story.

*The elk in the Harris museum has been nicknamed Horace from the Latin ‘Hour in Time’ or Timekeeper’.
**With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the image from a video display about the hunting of Horace in the Discover Preston Gallery.

The Water Country’s Severed Heads

the severed head represents a discrete category of bog deposit, which appears to be particularly well represented in Lancashire
David Barrowclough

Until recently it was believed that the 23 human skulls found on Penwortham Marsh during the excavations for Riversway Docklands provided evidence for human sacrifice or a mass murder. This was based on the premise that they were all contemporary with the Bronze Age spearhead, the remants of a wooden lake dwelling, and two dug-out canoes, which they were found with.

Since then a sample of the skulls have been radio-carbon dated to between 4000BC and 800AD. Four are from the Neolithic period, one the Romano-British, and one the Anglo-Saxon. The range shows these people died at very different times. This has led professor Mick Wysocki to put forward the theory that the skulls belonged to people who died upriver, their corpses floating down to a tidal pool at Penwortham Marsh where their heavy skulls sank whilst their bodies washed out to sea. Wysocki’s theory is widely accepted among historians and archaeologists.

I believe that, for many cases, Wysocki might be right. However, considering the surrounding evidence, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that some of the skulls were purposefully deposited in Penwortham Marsh. Lancashire (the historic county) has many examples of ritual depositions of severed heads.

On Pilling Moss was discovered ‘the head of a woman with long plaited auburn hair… wrapped in a piece of coarse woollen cloth and with it were two strings of cylindrical jet beads, with one string having a large amber bead at its centre.’ The jet beads date it to the Early Bronze Age. Another female head with plaited hair, from Red Moss, Bolton, remains undated.

From Briarfield, on the Fylde coast, we have the head of a man aged less than 50 years ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ and dated to the Late Bronze Age. Another male skull, of a similar age and date, was found on Ashton Moss, Tameside. A skull from Worsley was dated to between the Bronze Age and Romano-British periods. Found near the famous Lindow Man, the head of Lindow Woman has been dated to 250AD. Heads, as yet undated, were also found at Birkdale, near Southport.

The purposeful deposition of the heads, without their bodies, suggests they were deposited for ritual purposes. The plaited hair of the females seems significant. The jet and amber beads with the woman on Pilling Moss implicates she was an important figure among her people. These burials appear to have been made with great reverence. I wonder whether they are suggestive of the belief that the head is the seat of the soul and if it is treated in a certain way the soul might remain present so that a group of people can commune with the deceased until the time of its burial.

The existence of this belief within Brythonic culture is supported by ‘The Second Branch’ of the medieval Welsh text, The Mabinogion, in which Brân the Blessed’s head continued to speak for eighty years before its burial beneath White Hill in London to protect the Island of Britain from attack (until it was dug up by King Arthur who couldn’t stand anyone defending the country but him). It seems possible these heads also had a apotropaic function, demarking territory, repelling enemies.

Whilst the two female heads appear to have been buried reverently, the head of the man from Briarfield was badly mutilated – defleshed and and the mandible removed. David Barrowclough suggests the ‘separation of the mandible’ might show it was a ‘battle trophy’. That the removal of the flesh and the mandible might have been representative of one group or person over this person. One can imagine this gory spectacle as a symbol of glory over a defeated foe and a warning to an enemy.

Again this tradition is hinted at in medieval Welsh mythology. In Culhhwch and Olwen, prior to his beheading and the placement of his head on a stake the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, had his ears cut off and his flesh was pared down to the bone. In Geraint there is an enchanted game where heads on stakes stand in a hedge of mist and it is implied that any who lose the game end up losing their heads.

In The Red Book of Hergest exists a poem attributed to Llywarch Hen in which the sixth century northern British ruler carries his cousin Urien’s head back to the kingdom of Rheged after his assassination:

A head I bear by my side,
The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army–
And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched…

A head I bear from the Riw,
With his lips foaming with blood–
Woe to Rheged from this day!

It has been suggested that Llywarch Hen ruled Ribchester in Lancashire (amongst many other places!)

Ritualised beheadings, burials (and unburials) of heads continued in Britain until 1747 when the Jacobite leader and Scottish clan chief, Simon Fraser, was publically beheaded at Tower Hill.

I therefore believe it is possible that some of the heads from Penwortham Marsh were ritual depositions. It seems to be of no coincidence that, of the six examined, three died violent deaths. A Neolithic man was killed by a stone axe and a Neolithic woman by ‘trauma to the right and back of her skull’. A Romano-British person (the sex cannot be determined) met his or her death through ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’

These people could have been killed and their corpses deposited in the Ribble upriver. Or they might be the heads of people in the group of lake dwellers who at one point built a wooden structure on Penwortham Marsh. Perhaps they were locals killed in battle or enemies whose heads they had taken.

A further possibility is that they were human sacrifices. The Lindow Man famously died a ‘three-fold death’. He was struck on the head (with a blow that fractured his skull), garrotted, then drowned. Lindow Man was buried whole, but only Lindow Woman’s head was buried. The reasons why, in one instance, a whole body was deposited and in another only the head remain unknown.

Perhaps examinations of the other 17 skulls from the Riversway Dock Finds would provide further clues?

Another tradition that has lived on here is the deposition of stone heads (perhaps modelled on an ancestor?) rather than the heads of the dead in the Ribble as evidenced by this specimen in the Harris Museum.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for permission to use the photograph.

SOURCES

David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)William Skene (transl.), ‘Red Book of Hergest XII, Four Ancient Books of Wales, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fab/fab060.htm (accessed 12/01/2020)
Display in the Discover Preston gallery in the Harris Museum

The Broadgate Polished Stone Axe

In the Harris Museum there is a beautifully polished stone axe which was found in the Ribble at Broadgate. The stone is smooth and grey-greenish. The larger cutting edge is sharp and rounded (although it looks like the lower portion may be broken) and the hafting end smaller, round, and smooth.

Hominids have been making axes for over two million years and they have taken many shapes and forms. These ubiqutous tools were used for felling trees, coppicing, in the crafting of dwellings, fencing, wooden walkways, and dug-out canoes, and in battle (one of the skulls found whilst exacavting the Riversway Docklands belonged to a Neolithic man killed by a blow to the head with a stone axe).

Polished stone axes are a Neolithic phenomenon and were made between 2750 and 2000BC. Most of the examples found in Lancashire originate from the Langdale axe industry and were made of Langdale tuff (a ‘greenstone’ formed from volcanic ash) collected and quarried from Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle, and Scafell Pike, on some of the highest fells in Cumbria.

These axes would have been recognised not only as special but as sacred due to the qualities of the Langdale tuff and the effort put into shaping and polishing it. Axes were polished with polishing stones, which can be recognised by the grooves made by polishing, and range in size from slightly bigger than the axe to standing stones within the landscape bearing multiple grooves.

Later oral traditions such as ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ listing artefacts such as ‘The Sword of Rhydderch Hael’, ‘The Knife of Llawfrodedd Farchog’, and ‘The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudclyd’ suggest the axe may have borne the name of its most illustrious owner.

After use, having been passed down through generations, polished stone axes were deposited purposefully. In Prehistoric Lancashire David Barrowclough records depositions on the north coast of Morecambe Bay ‘in fissures and gaps in the out-cropping stone’and in a limestone gryke at Skelmore Heads. Nine were discovered on Pilling Moss. At Crookabreast Farm an axe was found with four polishers, one of which was pushed ‘into a cavity in the roots of an oak tree… presumably a “moss stock” or “bog oak”’.

Barrowclough notes: ‘rivers and wetlands were important places for deposition and it is notable that the axes from Lancashire have a definite riverine and mossland distribution… many of the axes must have been deposited deliberately… wet places, whether river or bog, had a specific significance.’

Gaps, grykes, fissures, rivers, wetlands, and mosslands/bogs were seen by the ancient Britons as places of access to the Otherworld and as associated with its gods and spirits and with the ancestors. It seems possible that the Broadgate axe was an offering to Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’ or ‘Most Mighty One’, the goddess of the Ribble.

What brought about the decision to deposit the axe in the Ribble remains unknown. Perhaps the last of its lineage of owners died and it was deposited with his or her body in the waters (Mick Wysocki suspects the Neolithic people disposed of their dead in the river and their passage out to sea might have been seen as representing their passage to the Otherworld which was later known as Annwn ‘the Deep’).

Another possibility is that it was offered to Belisama as a petition to prevent the rising of her waters. Between 2300 and 2000BC the climate grew colder and wetter and the Broadgate area would have been inundated at times of high tides. Again we are entering a period when the waters of our seas and rivers are rising, this time due to man-made climate change, and the Broadgate polished axe might be seen as a symbol connecting us to our ancestors and the shared dangers we face.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photograph of the axe.

The Blade-Makers

Take a walk
before sunrise
before the Capitol Centre

and you might hear them on the Flats –

the slow chip, chip, chip
of hammerstones
striking flint.

This is the sound of patience.

This is not Christmas shopping
nor is it factory or industry.

They are not pigmies or elves.
They are our ancestors –

a father teaching his son,
three brothers in competition,
a broad-shouldered woman
honing her blade alone.

Sometimes they sit in a circle.

Sometimes they sing a song
that sounds like blackbirds at dawn
in words we half-remember

that have been cut away by sharp edges.

When we refer to their ‘cutting edge technology’

they are gone and we are left standing amongst
the Smartphones, the Hotpoint dishwashers,
the tough shockproof waterproof
freezeproof cameras

that will likely break
within a year let alone survive 10, 000 years…

Walton-le-Dale Mesolithic Blade Industry

It’s well known that the Capitol Centre at Walton-le-Dale was built over a Roman industrial site (which, if it had been preserved, might have been a major place for heritage and tourism) on the Walton Flats between the Ribble and Darwen beside the Roman road between Wigan and Lancaster. Less has been said about the significance of the Mesolithic material found beneath the Roman layers.

In Prehistoric Lancashire David Barrowclough records: ‘The material is local pebble, Pendleside chert and white Yorkshire flint… There were a total of 160 pieces with the flint to chert proportion in an approximately 2:1 ratio. Included in the assemblage were 2 cores, 22 blades, 7 knives, 2 scrapers and a scalene point indicative of the later Mesolithic period. The general characteristics of the Mesolithic assemblage suggest a blade, rather than a flint industry, whilst the inclusion of larger, broader blades reflects a combination of types of blade industry, possibly of different phases of occupation.’

The evidence suggests the ‘larger, broader blades’ have their origins in the ‘broad blade industry’ of the Early Mesolithic (10,000 – 7,000BC) and that the rest of the assemblage, particularly the ‘scalene point’, originate in the ‘narrow blade industry’ with its ‘smaller geometric Mesolithic forms’ in the Late Mesolithic (7,000 – 4,000BC). Thus the site may have been used by the earliest people of present-day Walton-le-Dale on-and-off for thousands of years through to the Roman period.

Most Mesolithic tools are made from flint or chert. Chert is a hard, fine-grained rock consisting of very small ‘microcrystalline’ crystals of quartz. Flint is a hard rock composed of nearly pure chert which occurs only in nodules of chalk and limestone and is of a higher quality to chert. It is renowned for chipping into sharp-edged pieces which can be utilised to make cutting instruments.

It seems likely the ‘local pebbles’ came from the Ribble. The Pendleside chert would have originated from the Pendleside Limestone Formation. This was lain down during the Lower Carboniferous around 350 million years ago. It occurs throughout the Craven Basin between Lancaster, Skipton, and Preston. Pendleside limestone can be seen near the side of Pendle Hill in the gully north-east of Burst Clough. As yet I have been unable to find out anything about Yorkshire white flint.

As there is no evidence for the mining or quarrying of either flint or chert in the Mesolithic period in this area it might be assumed that most of the material was found in river beds or loose where sedimentary rocks such as chalk and limestone form natural outcrops within the landscape. It seems indubitable that, when discovered, these stones were recognised as special due to their unique qualities.

Hominids have been making and using stone tools for at least 2.6 million years. The earliest evidence in Britain (and in North West Europe) is a hand-axe found on the beach near Happisburgh, Norfolk, which is 700,000 years old. Flint tools were discovered at Boxgrove, Sussex, dating to 500,000 years ago.

The broader Mesolithic blades at Walton-le-dale would have been created by striking a pebble of flint or chert with a harder hammerstone (these are usually ovoid in shape and made of sandstone, limestone, or quartzite). A core is what is left over after the flakes, which form the blades, have been removed. The narrower blades and points would have been made by striking the pebble with a ‘soft hammer’ made of deer antler and the finest most precise work on the smaller pieces done with antler tine.

It seems strange to us now that these blades were quite literally the ‘cutting edge’ technology of the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic, allowing them to hunt, skin, and eat their prey. It is of interest that no axes were found at this site showing that it was used predominately to make hunting equipment.

Use of this site in the early Bronze Age is evidenced by a pit containing 31 fragments of pottery belonging to the same vessel, likely a funeral urn, along with ‘a barbed and tanged arrowhead south of the site and of a scale-flaked knife to the north’. The Romans continued to use it for pottery and evidence of forges suggests that blade-making continued. I will be covering these periods in later posts.

It is notable that ‘Walton-le-dale’ was known as ‘Waletune’ in the Doomsday Book. This comes from wahl – Anglo-Saxon for ‘foreigners’ which also gives us ‘Wales’ – and tun ‘settlement’. This is suggestive that there was a strong Brythonic presence during the Anglo-Saxon and perhaps the Norman conquests. I wonder whether those Britons continued to tell the stories of their ancient ancestors and pass on ways of blade-making here where less needful and superficial industries bloom?

*Please note the assemblage pictured here is of ‘seventeen Mesolithic – Neolithic blades’ from Wikipedia. As yet I’m unsure of the location of the Walton-le-Dale Mesolithic finds as they’re not on display in the Harris or South Ribble Museums. I’m currently trying to contact the curators to find out more.


SOURCES

Anon, ‘Flint Factsheet’, Tees Archaeology, http://www.teesarchaeology.com/projects/Mesolithic/documents/Flint_Factsheets.pdf (accessed 20/12/2019)
Anon, ‘Pendleside Limestone Formation, British Geological Survey, https://www.bgs.ac.uk/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?pub=PDL (accessed 20/12/2019)
A. Harrison, ‘Field Guide to the Geology and Quaternary History of Pendle Hill), Lancashire Geologists, (2015) http://www.lancashire-geologists.co.uk/ESW/Files/Pendle_Hill_(final_-_full_size).pdf (accessed 20/12/2019)
Collie Mudie, ‘The Happisburgh Hand Axe – The oldest handaxe in north-west Europe’, Museum Crush, (2017) https://museumcrush.org/the-happisburgh-hand-axe-the-oldest-hand-axe-in-north-west-europe/ (accessed 20/12/2019)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)

The Oldest Northerners

My research on the hunting of Horace the Elk has led me to look into whether there is any evidence in the surrounding area for his hunters. David Barrowlclough says: ‘a winter camp must have existed within eight to ten kilometres of the find spot’. I have found nothing in the Fylde region of Lancashire from 11,500BC. However, further north, in caves overlooking Morecambe Bay, animal bones, tools, and weapons dating to slightly later provide evidence for people who hunted elk and reindeer.

Bones of elk (chewed by a wolf or large dog), horse, and the mandible of a lynx dating to around 11,000BC were found in Kent’s Bank Cave. A pair of elk antlers from Kirkhead Cave, near Grange-Over-Sands have been dated to 11,027 – 10,077BC. Lithic materials from Kirkhead Cave and a flint blade from Badger Hole Cave, on Warton Crag, date to 1100 – 9500BC. 80 lithic implements of a similar date were excavated from Bart’s Shelter, Furness, with bones of elk and reindeer.

There is nothing beside what has been found in caves. It seems likely this is because after the Late Glacial Interstadial (12,670 – 10,890BC) the Younger Dryas Stadial (10,890 – 9650 BC) brought cooler weather and the return of the glaciers. This not only drove people south but obliterated evidence of their existence from everywhere but caves and the depths of lakes and peat, which the ice didn’t touch. (The remains of Horace the Elk were found at the bottom of a former lake).

After the climate began to warm up again people returned. There is plentiful evidence for the inhabitation of north-west England during the Early Mesolithic period. At Bart’s Shelter microliths and a ‘bone or antler point’ were found. Perhaps the most significant discovery was a fragment of human leg bone belonging to ‘the oldest northerner’ in Kent’s Bank Cave dating to 8,000BC.

This can now be found in a small window in the cave-like ‘Stone Axe, Blood Axe, Conquest’ display in the Dock Museum at Barrow-in-Furness alongside the lynx mandible and a flint labelled as ‘the earliest worked tool found in Cumbria’. It is about four inches long, of a slightly yellow colour, flecked with dark spots. As I crouched beside it with a dramatic image of a lynx looking over me I had the sense of this ancient person having received a new burial with the same constant guardian.

It is noted with the bone that it is contemporary with the cave burials in Somerset. In Aveline’s Hole 70 to 100 skeletons dating from 8,200 – 8,400BC were found along with ‘a rare example of a biserial antler harpoon’. This cave is referred to as our earliest Mesolithic ‘burial site’. Another is the famous Cheddar Man from Cheddar Gorge whose features have recently been reconstructed to show he had dark skin and blue eyes. Perhaps the oldest northerners shared his appearance?

Unlike in the Harris Musuem, where Horace the Elk and our ancient ancestors have centre place, the 11,800 years of our prehistory occupy only that small cave-like space in the Dock Museum. The rest of the displays document the development of Barrow’s iron, shipping, and nuclear submarine industries. The museum itself stands in the shadow of a BAE Systems hangar that is huge as the hills.

A BAE Systems poster boasts: ‘The royal navy has maintained a ballistic deterrent submarine at sea 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, since 1969’.

As I walked around the dock and past the vast hangars and numbered shipyards with their metal gates and ‘No Entry’ signs I found myself pondering what the oldest northerners, who were also a sea-faring people, would have made of these manufacturies and the new astute class of Dreadnought nuclear submarines…

Would they agree with the the BAE Systems video for the launch of the Audacious this is ‘inspired work’?

SOURCES

Anon, ‘Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Coombe’, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1010297 (accessed 11/12/2019)
Anon, ‘Aveline’s Hole’, Discovering Blackdown, http://www.discoveringblackdown.org.uk/node/142 (accessed 11/12/2019)
Anon, ‘Oldest Northerner’, The Dock Museum, http://www.dockmuseum.org.uk/Oldest-Northerner (accessed 11/12/2019)
BAE Systems astute class submarine: ‘Audacious Launch’, You Tube, (2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP9yTuckmsA (accessed 11/12/2019)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)Kerry Lotzof, ‘Cheddar Man: Britain’s Mesolithic Blue-Eyed Boy’, The Natural History Museum, (2018) https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/cheddar-man-mesolithic-britain-blue-eyed-boy.html (accessed 11/12/2019)
Display boards at the Dock Museum

*With thanks to the Dock Museum at Barrow-in-Furness for permission to use the photographs from the ‘Stone Axe, Blood Axe, Conquest’ display.