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.

Barbed Points

An antlered skull
over

a
slither
of eternity

two bare feet

the
grooving
splintering
of bone

plucked
from your crown
and worked

into
a point
of beauty
and

barbarity

killed
and killer
as one

In 11,500BC Horace the Elk was killed by a combination of flint-tipped instruments and a barbed point that had lodged in his rib cage. Another barbed point was found embedded in the metatarsal bone in his left foot. The lesion formed around it suggests it had been there for around two weeks.

The barbed points used to kill Horace the Elk are the oldest known in Britain. Because they have only one barbed edge they are known as uniserial rather than biserial. Uniserial barbed points have been found across present-day England and Scotland and have been dated to between 11,500 and 8000BC.

All the barbed points were made specifically from red deer antler with a few examples from elk. I have been unable, as yet, to find out what material was used to killed Horace, but as elk and reindeer were the predominant species rather than red deer in 11,500BC, I suspect it was elk antler.

What intrigues me is the use of antler rather than other bones. This suggests antlers were chosen by the logic of sympathetic magic. As the primary ‘weapon’ of the elk and deer stags they were likely to have been seen as imbued with fierceness and strength and perhaps with the spirit of the dead animal.

Barbed points were made by the ‘groove and splinter’ technique. This involved cutting grooves lengthwise along the antler then splintering out long strips of bone. Afterwards, though processes of cutting, scraping, and filing, the barbs, tip, and haft were shaped before the point was fastened to its shaft.

For an animistic people this was no doubt a sacred process in which the maker of the barbed point engaged with the spirit of the dead animal and perhaps called for aid from the ancestors and hunter gods. A hunter deity may have been seen as a tutelary figure, perhaps part-human, part-animal, who passed on the knowledge of hunting to his or her people. The finished product would have been viewed as alive, inspirited, having its own personhood.

Barbed points have been referred to as ‘the dominant symbol’ of the Mesolithic like the stone axes of the Neolithic. At Star Carr, in the Vale of Pickering, in north Yorkshire, 191 barbed points were deposited in Lake Flixton along with 102 red deer antlers and 21 antler frontlets that may have been used in hunting rites. The points may have been made from the antler removed from the frontlets. Their return to their place of manufacture seems significant as does their ‘making whole’ by their deposition.

Star Carr was occupied from 9335 – 8440BC. It was a place where the identities of human and deer were intertwined. Where dead deer were brought to be eaten, barbed points for hunting deer were created from their antlers, and to which the points were returned. The start and end point of a cycle based around the lives and deaths of humans and deer.

The shift from the Mesolithic barbed point to the Neolithic axe as the primary deposition symbolises the change from the focus on hunting to shaping the land and from the use of bone to stone. Stone was no doubt easier to get hold of and perhaps stronger, but not linked to an animal. The sacred connection between killer and killed was severed and, with the later discoveries of bronze and iron, would not be revived again. An early step on the way to our loss of an animistic worldview and our relationship with the animals we kill and eat and with the hunter gods.

*My main source for this post was Benjamin Joseph Elliott’s massively informative PhD thesis ‘Antlerworking Practices in Mesolithic Britain’ (University of York, 2012).

Elk Prints

The Harris Museum

I.
I lean down
to touch
them

like

an
ancient
huntress
taste

not
blood
but paint
still follow
the trail
of red

(do I detect the hint of a limp?)

up the stone steps
past paintings
depicting

your hunting
like the Stations
of the Cross

(watercolours)

those old old hunters
we will know as the Dwellers
in the Water Country

semi-amphibious
blue-limbed
against
the green
of the fenlands

(it is 11,500BC)

bows drawn back
like the grins
of wolves

the madman
with the axe who
severed your tendons

before you limped on
dripping red

your pain
sucked up by
the sedge

the last
shudder of
your thick skin
not enjoyed by midges
at mid-winter
in a pool.

II.
On the
second floor
in the Discovery Gallery

where your skeleton stands
beyond hunting trophy
beyond Messiah
beyond icon

I pause for breath imagining

flints tips against ribs
heaving lungs

the loneliness
of your
heart.

III.
When I press
the red button that blasts
out your roar

the city trembles

breathes in and breathes out

the paddle of a dug-out canoe
splashing a reminder
of aurochs, deer,
wolf, elk…

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for the images.

The Hunting of Horace the Elk

He’s the centrepiece of the Discover Preston Gallery at the Harris Museum. He’s become iconic. His skeleton stands at around 2m at shoulder height and he might have weighed up to 700kg. By his palmate antlers he can be identified immediately as alces alces – a Eurasian Elk. His bones have been radio-carbon dated to 11,500BC, making him one of our oldest ancestral animals at 13,500 years old.

The remains of Horace the Elk were discovered in the 1970s when John Devine of 365 Old Blackpool Road in Carleton, near Poulton-le-Fylde, demolished his old bungalow and began digging the foundations for his new home. He first spotted the skull and a broken antler. With help from his neighbour, Tony Scholey, and Jim Audus of Poulton Historical Society, followed by a more formal excavation carried out by John Hallam, Ben Edwards, Tony Stuart, and Adrian Lewis, Horace’s skeleton was recovered from layers of mud.

Examination revealed that he was four to six years old and, because he was due to shed his antlers, he was killed in winter. He had 17 injuries mainly caused by flint-tipped instruments to the ribs (highlighted by the triangles below).

Most intriguingly two barbed points were found. One of these was with a rib bone. The second was in the metatarsal bones in his left foot. The lesion, which would have taken 1-2 weeks to form, evidences that Horace was injured in an earlier hunt and had managed to escape his hunters on an earlier occasion.

Soil analysis revealed the presence of both ‘tree pollen’ and ‘tiny freshwater shellfish’ showing that Horace died in a shallow lake that was surrounded by trees. This suggests that Horace either fled into or was chased into the water and died from the collapse of his lungs caused by his injuries. Frustratingly for the hunters, but luckily for us, his corpse must have sunk before they could recover it.

Horace’s remains are of national importance because they provide evidence not only for the existence of elk around the end of the Ice Age, but also for our earliest local hunter-gatherer people who were known during the Iron Age as the Setantii and later as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

Elk became extinct in Britain in during the Bronze Age. The bones of the last known elk were recovered from the river Cree in Scotland in 1997 and have been dated to 2829-2145BC. In other countries of Europe such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, they have survived, as well as in Asia and North America. Outside of Britain they are somewhat confusingly called moose whereas waipti are called elk.

When I began researching the lifestyle of elk I was fascinated to discover that, like our human ancestors, elk have been described as ‘semi-amphibious’. Their long limbs and broad feet make them particularly suited for traversing wetland landscapes and they are able not only to swim through water but dive down underneath it and eat submerged plants at depths of up to 5 metres below the surface!

At this time there would have been a mixture of birch-pine woodland, alder carr, fen woodland, reed beds, and reed swamp at the edges of the glacial lakes. Through the summer months elk would have fed on aquatic plants and in the winter they would have survived on the twigs and bark of trees. Elk are capable of rearing up and pulling down trees of up to six foot tall to access new growth.

The rutting season for elk is early September to late November. During displays they approach their rivals, tipping their antlers left and right, and calling in rhythm to their steps. Once they’ve defeated their rivals and mated their testosterone levels fall and they lose their antlers. It was at this point in his life that Horace was killed. Calves are born between April and July. The cows are fiercely protective of their offspring having been known to ‘face down wolves, bears and even helicopters’. It is possible that Horace’s sons and daughters wandered this land for several thousand years.

The severity of Horace’s injuries provides evidence both for the determination of the hunters and his will to survive. He was firstly injured by the barbed point of a harpoon which had stuck in his left foot, managing to limp away and survive for 1 – 2 weeks before the second hunt. It seems likely the flint-tipped instruments which struck his ribs were spears and additionally the barbed point of a harpoon lodged in his rib cage. David Barrowclough also speaks of an injury with an axe severing his tendons suggesting that his hunters, at one point, got very close. Perhaps this was how they managed to strike him 17 times in total before he dived, fell, or was chased into the lake.

A male elk in his prime would have been a prized kill. His massive body would have provided food for days, his thick hide clothing, and his bones may have been used to make more barbed points or perhaps elk bone mattocks akin to those used by the people of Star Carr 1000 years later.

How those ancient hunter-gatherers would have viewed these magnificent animals remains unknown. The deer-antlered headdresses from Star Carr are suggestive of rites in which the hunters became one with the animal they hunted, knowing it intimately, acting out its behaviours. It is possible they believed acting out a successful hunt would bring about success in he future.

Of course it’s less likely similar elk dances would have taken place due to the fact elk antlers could grow up to two metres and would have been incredibly heavy. Yet they would have been familiar with the elk’s lifestyle and one can imagine that the preparation for an elk hunt and the hunt itself were highly ritualised acts dependent on the will of the elk as a physical and spirit being and the guidance and support of the hunter deities.

Unfortunately, if a sacred and reverential relationship between elk and humans existed, it did not prevent the extinction of elk from Britain. They died for two main reasons. The first was that the weather grew too warm for them as thick-hided cold-adapted creatures used to surviving snows. They no doubt survived in Scotland for longer because it is cooler. The second reason was human hunting. If the ancient hunter-gatherers were aware of their plight they did not place it above their own needs. Like the equally monumental aurochs they hunted them into extinction.

Elk have not been seen in the British Isles for more than 3000 years. However they were reintroduced at the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands in 2007. A pair were flown by plane from Scandinavia and their first calf was born in 2011. It has been predicted that they will not only enhance biodiversity but tourism and opportunities for hunting in the area.

SOURCES

Alexander Fraser, ‘Country life today: how elk could save the Scottish countryside’, Country Life, (2019), https://www.countrylife.co.uk/news/country-life-today-may-31-2019-197056 (accessed 26/11/2019)
Benjamin Joseph Elliott, ‘Antlerworking Practices in Mesolithic Britain’ (PhD Thesis), University of York, (2012)
Clive Aslet, ‘After 3,000 years, the Highlands delivers a bonny baby elk’, The Telegraph, (2011),https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/countryside/8555072/After-3000-years-the-Highlands-delivers-a-bonny-baby-elk.html (accessed 26/11/2019)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)
Boards at the Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for the information and the images.