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.