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.