Memories of the Ice Age

Speak to me of dead ice
and glacial erratics.

Tell me the tales
of wandering stones* –

granodiorite from Southern Scotland,
Criffel granite, Shap granite, Eskdale granite,
granite from Loch Doon, Borrowdale volcanics,
Thornton limestone, Chatburn limestone.

Speak to me of glaciers that had no names.

Speak to me not of the death of your children
and how they laid their gravestones
in a ritual long long lost to us.

Speak to me not of your sacrifice in shaping this land.

We must be as stone
and not mourn the snowflakes
vanishing from the palms of our hands.

Outside the office at Brockholes Nature Reserve there is a 2.5 tonne boulder made of grandiorite which was extracted from Number One Pit beside the M6. Unlike the sandstone boulders nearby it does not fit with our local geology. This has led geologists to the conclusion it was transported from the Lake District or Southern Scotland by a glacier during the Last Ice Age 115,000– 11,700 years ago.

This reached its maximum 24,000 years ago and two of the ice advances, Heinrich 2 and 4**, extended to and covered Lancashire and Cheshire, whilst Heinrich 1 and Loch Lomond did not. When the glaciers melted they deposited their ‘suspended load’ of ‘boulder clay’ or ‘glacial till’. At Brockholes the sand and gravel were 20 metres thick leading to the area being used a quarry.

With these materials the grandiorite boulder was removed along with other erratics such as granite from South Scotland, Borrowdale Volcanics from the Lake District, and Chatburn Limestone from Clitheroe. The sandstone boulders near the car park may be local or from Pendle Hill or Longridge Fell.

Near Kirkham and Oldham, where ‘the rate of the ice melt’ was ‘equal to the movement of the ice sheet’ for a long period of time, lines of moraine (accumulations of glacial till), were deposited.

The vast volumes of water from the melting glaciers were also responsible for forging the valley of the Ribble – ‘the meander belt between the river cliffs is too wide to have been created’ by the river.

When dead ice was left behind by glaciers, became surrounded by sediment, then melted, it left kettle holes. This resulted in the formation of lakes such as Martin Mere and Marton Mere and the others that formed Lancashire’s Region Linuis ‘Lake Region’ and some of its numerous ponds.***

Since then we have dug out the sand and gravel and drained the lakes yet new lakes have formed in old pits. Number One Pit at Brockholes, where the grandiorite boulder was found, is now a lake and 182 species of birds have been recorded there including bittern, curlew, lapwing, and sand martins.

The Nature Reserve as we know it has originated from a combination of geological and man-made factors. In the shaping of the land during the Last Ice Age I see the work of Winter’s King and his glacial children. When I touch the glacial erratics or watch birds descending onto the lakes I see his hand.

*The term ‘erratic’ originates from the Latin errare ‘to wander’.
**Heinrich events are caused by the the collapse of northern hemisphere ice shelves and release of icebergs which affect the climate elsewhere.
***Most of the present-day ponds in Lancashire formed in former marl pits dug in the 18th century.

With thanks to Geolancashire from whose Brockholes Geotrail Guide I gained most of this information.

Water Dogs

At the beginning of last month, the day after the heavy rain and flooding, I saw an otter. I was crossing a small bridge over one of the tributaries to the Ribble, taking the side route after yet another bridge had been removed or blocked because it had become too dangerous.

As I crossed and looked upstream my eyes were drawn to what, at first, I thought was a tyre. I then realised it was in fact a rump of sleek fur and beneath the water I made out legs and an otter-shape. Thrilled and excited I was torn between the impulses to stay stuck-eyed in this wonderful moment or to try and capture it on the camera of my phone for longevity and unfortunately the latter won out. Having fumbled off my thick gloves, turned my eyes to the screen to enter the pin, and opened the camera, by the time it came into focus, the little hump of the miniature sea monster had all but gone.

I didn’t take a picture at all and, the day after when I returned, the water was much lower – far too low for an otter to swim. I realised the moment I had witnessed had been exceptional, for not often do both heavy flooding and a high tide make it possible for an otter to swim upstream.

Since then I’ve returned to look for paw prints and spraint, but found nothing. I’m guessing I’m unlikely to find anything in areas of the Ribble that might be erased by the tides. Still, I’ve been looking out for other signs such as tunnels in the grass and rolling places. I’m aware the Ribble Rivers Trust have filmed otters on the river and farmland locally.

*

This got me researching the natural history of otters and their cultural representations. Otters belong to the Mustelid family, which includes badgers, weasels, stoats, skunks, and pine martens. They evolved 30 million years ago (in contrast to hominids have only been about for 2.7 million years). There are 13 species of otter and those we see in the wild in Britain are European otters (Lutra lutra).

On average male otters are 140cm long and weigh 10kg and female otters are 105cm long weigh 7kg. The females begin to breed at 2 years old and give birth to 2 – 5 pups. The males leave them to raise the cubs alone and they must be taught to swim and catch fish before they leave home after 18 months. They can live up to 10 years but usually only survive for 5 due to the countless dangers they face.

Otters lead liminal lives between land and water patrolling territories up to 40km long. Within a territory they have a number of holts, underground dens formed in the cavities of tree roots or in old fox earths or rabbit burrow, along with resting-places called hovers, and lying-places called couches.

To survive the wet cold conditions they have developed a thick, thermal, waterproof pelt with two layers – an undercoat of short hairs and a top layer of guard hairs totalling 70,000 hairs per square centimetre.

Their metabolisms are so quick they must eat 15 per cent of their body weight a day – 1 1/2kg. Their favoured food is eels because they move slowly and have plenty of fat on them. They also consume fish, shell fish, and amphibians, turning them inside out to avoid the poison on their skins. Ducklings and rabbits are also occasionally on the menu, along with slugs, snails, and dragonfly larvae.

The end product is spraint, which is used to mark their territories, and is renowned for its sweet smell, like jasmine tea. In an otter’s spraint the shells and bones of their last meals can easily be seen.

In the 1960s it was noticed that otters were disappearing rapidly from our rivers – the result of the use of organochlorines and other chemicals that built up in their reproductive organs and left them blind. These damaging chemicals have been banned and since the 1990s efforts have been made to clear up and restore our rivers. This has led to the reappearance of otters on the Ribble with a 44 percent increase being claimed by the Environment Agency in 2011 (although this was the result of an increase in spraint rather than individual otters). The otter is described by Miriam Darlington as the ‘spirit level’ of our rivers – as an apex predator a measure of their health.

*

The term ‘otter’ derives from the Old English otor which shares similarities with the Norwegian oter, Icelandic otur, and Swedish utter. It originates from the Proto-Indo-European *udrós ‘water animal’.

In the Norse myths we find a dwarf named Ótr who is the son of the king Hreimdar. Ótr takes the form of an otter and is killed by Loki for his pelt. Hreimdar demanded a large weregild for Ótr’s death – his pelt stuffed with yellow gold and covered with red gold. Loki covered all of Ótr but one whisker, which he was forced to conceal with the cursed ring, Andvarinaut. Afterwards greed for these treasures, known as Otter’s Ransom, brings disaster and death to Hreidmar and his other two sons.

In Welsh the otter is known as dŵr-ci, in Irish as dobhar-chú ‘water dog’, and in Scottish as dobhar or beaste dubh (black beast). These names also refer to a folkloric creature known as ‘King Otter’ who, in Ireland, was half-fish and half-dog and resembled an otter, but was five times as large.

The otter is the central character in the literary classics Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. It appears in poems by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop, and recent books by authors tracking its disappearance from and return to our rivers such as Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and The Otter Among Us by James Williams.

In the Wildwood Tarot the otter is the Page of Vessels and John Matthews claims it is one of the oldest animals in the story of the search for Mabon, but I cannot find his source.

However, on a personal level, his claim relates to my desire to craft an oldest animals story for Mabon/Maponos here on the Ribble (where he was worshiped with his mother, Modron/Matrona, upriver at Ribchester and possibly here on Castle Hill). Beside the river are wooden sculptures of five creatures who I perceive to be ‘the Oldest Animals of Peneverdant’ and they are an owl, a dragonfly, a great crested newt, a trout, and an otter, all vital species within our local ecosystem.

The original story of the search for Mabon ends on the river Severn with Arthur and his men riding upriver on the back of a huge salmon to Mabon’s prison in a House of Stone at Caer Loyw.

Overlooking the Severn is a temple to Nodens/Nudd, ‘the Catcher’, a god of hunting, fishing, water, dreams, and healing. Bronze statuettes of dogs were offered to him in exchange for healing dreams. Nodens has no known associations with otters, but seems to share a kinship with them as a fellow fisher. He is associated with dwarves who might, like Ótr, take otter form. In the reappearance of water dogs on the Ribble, after years of pollution, I detect the healing touch of Nodens’ silver hand.

SOURCES

Environment Agency, “More otters living in the North West
than ever before,” August 2011, http://test.environment-agency
.gov.uk/cy/new/132443.aspx
Nicola Chesters, RSPB Spotlight: Otters, Bloomsbury Natural History (2014)
Miriam Darlington, Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, (Granta, 2013)
Paul and Katy Yoxton, ‘Estimating Otter Numbers Using Spraints: Is It Possible?’, Journal of Marine Biology, (2014)

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.

It was not the storm

that broke me or the storm
before it or the storm before it.
Ciara, Brendan, Atiyah, even
distant Ophelia or Freya.

It was not the winter storms
of 2013 – 2014 before storms
were given alphabetical names.
It was not the St Jude storm,

the London or Birmingham
tornadoes, Storm Kyrill – killer
of 11 people, the Great Storm
of 1987 or any of the storms

before I was born in 1981.
It was not the cliché of the storm
within although winds have swept
through my branches broken

my fingers swayed me that way
and this like a sapling turned me over
like a hay wheel rattled me like
a bag on a barbed wire fence.

Rain has flooded my landscape,
rising up over my pagodas and bins,
my fountain and its four nymphs,
washed away all my bridges,

receded to leave a mottle of reed,
rainbow puddles to splash wellies in,
birches surprising in their reflections
like Rimbaud illuminated in 1876.

It has cleaned and cleansed me.
My Taekwondo belt is blue and green.
I am learning O Jang I but I do not
call myself Master of the Wind

for I do not know what broke me –
childhood bullying, a neurotic father,
a defective gene or something deeper
within? But it was not the storm.

*Arthur Rimbaud wrote his Illuminations in 1876.
**O Jang means ‘Wind’ and it is the fifth pattern in WTF Taekwondo.
***I wrote this poem in the aftermath of Storm Ciara during which the Ribble broke her banks at Avenham and Miller Parks and further upriver.

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 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.

Penwortham Lake Dwelling

Stand on the mound on Castle Hill, look northwest, and you will see a very different scene to 150 years ago. The flats and retail outlets visible through the gaps in the trees were built after the closure of Riversway Dockland in 1981. The dock closed after only 100 years of use, having been constructed during the 1880s. During its construction the Ribble was moved several hundred yards south.

Today – courtesy of Mario Maps

OS First Edition 1:10,000 1840s courtesy of Mario Maps

Beforehand you would have been looking out across the fields of Marsh Farm and Marsh Grange toward Penwortham Marsh, the distant Ribble, and across it Preston Marsh and the settlement at Marsh End. This landscape, in turn, would have been different to 400 years ago before the marsh was drained.

Since the melting of the glaciers after the Ice Age the tidal stretches beside the Ribble would always have been marsh. Archaeological evidence suggests people have inhabited this area since, at least, 3800BC.

The excavations for Riversway Dockland uncovered evidence of a wooden lake dwelling. A ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’, a bronze spear head, two dug-out canoes, 23 human skulls, 21 aurochs skulls with horns, 25 red deer skulls with antlers, and bones of wild horse which showed evidence of ‘chop marks’ and gnawing ‘by a large, dog-sized predator’.

John Lamb lists the Preston Docks Findspot as SD12296, meaning it would have been in the northwest of the present dock area, adjacent to the roundabout. Turner et al note that ‘remains were found at various points in the total area excavated’ including ‘two human crania found close to Castle Hill on the south side of the river’.

Riversway Dockfind Spot

For many years it was the consensus that the human skulls provided evidence of human sacrifice – perhaps a mass murder. In 2002 eight skulls were selected for radio-carbon dating. It turned out that five were Stone Age, one Bronze Age, one from the Romano-British period and one from Anglo-Saxon times.

The latest theory, put forward by Dr Michael Wysocki, is that these people were not sacrificed on Penwortham Marsh. Instead they entered the river system miles away. Their heads settled at a slow-flowing point in the Ribble, a tidal lake, and their bodies floated out to sea. Likewise with the animals. Yet the large number of Stone Age skulls suggests that Neolithic people used the river to dispose of their dead. Even accepting this theory I believe it possible some of the human and animal skulls may have belonged to the lake-dwellers and been deposited in the Ribble in ritual acts.

The carbon dated skulls provide a sample of people who dwelled by the Ribble from between 4000BC – 800AD. The oldest skull, of a ‘mature woman’, is dated to 3820 – 3640 BC. ‘Pitting in the orbit of her left eye’ suggests she ‘suffered from anaemia’. Another, dated to around 3,500 BC, belonged to a man of around 40.

Two of the Stone Age skulls show evidence of violent deaths. An ‘older man’ was killed with a stone axe. The skull of a young woman, dated 3710 – 3510 BC, shows ‘clear evidence of trauma to the right and back of her skull’. This surprised me as I’d thought of Stone Age hunter-gatherers as peaceful people.

Yet it would accord with Roman depictions of the people of Briton and Gaul as savage head-hunters and with poems recording the internecine warfare and raiding that took place in post-Roman Britain. (Notably the northern British bard, Taliesin, describes warriors playing football with the heads of their enemies!). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the root of Setantii set- derives from met- ‘reaping’. In medieval Welsh literature we find a tradition of warriors favouring lethal blows to the head*.

The Romano-British skull is small with ‘distinctive male eyebrow ridges’. It is unclear whether its owner was male or female, Roman or British. However, he or she was killed by ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’ I wonder if she was killed in the Roman invasion. A Roman ballista ball was found on Castle Hill, suggesting there was a battle there.

The owner of the skull from the Anglo-Saxon period, a female aged between 16 and 25, also died violently. There is evidence of a cut across her face, damaging her right eye, and a lethal blow to the head. Again it seems possible this woman was killed during the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.

The dock finds show our local lake-dwellers were fearsome warriors and hunters who travelled the Ribble in dug-out canoes and preyed on aurochs, red deer, and and wild horse. After eating them they probably skinned them and used their skins for clothing. Oddly ‘the carbon 13 readings show that their diet consisted of meat and vegetables – but no fish, despite being found near a river’. This fits with the 3rd century Roman writer Dion Cassius’ report: ‘They never cultivate the land, but live on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees; for they never touch fish, of which they have such prodigious plenty’.

It seems very strange that these people did not eat fish when they were plentiful in the Ribble. I wonder whether this is because it was used to dispose of the dead and to eat from it was seen as taboo. We know from the Roman geographer Ptolemy’s writings in the 2nd century that the Ribble was known as Belisama ‘Most Mighty One’ or ‘Most Shining One’ and was seen as a powerful goddess. Maybe fish were held as sacred to her and ‘totemic’ to the lake-dwellers and were not to be eaten.

Setanta, an Irish hero who may have been of Setantii origins, was later renamed Cu Chulainn (meaning Chullain’s hound). The dog was sacred to him and he was banned from eating dog meat. Breaking this geis led to his death. Perhaps the the lake-dwellers saw fish in a similar manner.

Upriver, between the docks and Castle Hill, on the former site of the Ribble Generating Station stands a ring of wooden carvings – a common darter dragonfly, a brown trout, an otter, a smooth newt (which has been stolen!), and a tawny owl. These creatures have likely inhabited the area since the Stone Age and would have been held as special beings to the lake-dwellers too. I wonder if they recall their stories?

*‘he (Geraint)… raised his sword and struck the knight on the top of the head his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls to his knees.’ (Geraint son of Erbin)

‘Peredur drew his sword and struck the witch on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two.’ (Peredur son of Efrog)

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
Alan Turner, Silvia Gonzalez and James C. Ohman, Journal of Archaeological Science, ‘Prehistoric Human and Ungulate Remains from Preston Docks, Lancashire, UK: Problems of River Finds’ (2002)
John Lamb, ‘Lancashire’s Prehistoric Past’, Linda Sever (ed), Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, (2010, History Press)
Meirion Pennar, Taliesin Poems, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1988)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum, Preston (with thanks to the Harris for the information and permission to use the photographs of the Riversaway Dockfinds in this blog posts).