Neolithic Axe from Whitley Rigg

Neolithic polished stone axe from Whitley Rigg, Stanhope, in the Weardale Museum.
Source: Weardale Museum
Copyright: Weardale Museum

Helen Skelton brandishing axe

BBC Countryfile’s Helen Skelton (with AONB Archaeologist Paul Frodsham) wields a hafted replica Langdale stone axe during filming of the Altogether Archaeology excavations at Long Meg Stone Circle, Cumbria (2015).
Source: North Pennines AONB Partnership.
Copyright: North Pennines AONB Partnership.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: Whitley Rigg, Stanhope Common
Current Location: Weardale Museum, Ireshopeburn
Theme: Industrial, agricultural, ritual
Period: Neolithic
Date: Roughly c.5000 BC

What is it?
Neolithic polished stone axe found by schoolboy Henry Robson (c1908) at Whitley Rigg, near Parkhead, Stanhope, and loaned to the Weardale Museum by his daughter Mrs Molly Goodacre.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
These polished stone axes were produced during the Neolithic period, by the first communities to take up farming. Although they were clearly of functional use, for example to clear woodland for agricultural fields, and for a variety of woodworking tasks, they also seem to have been of peculiar ceremonial significance in a way that is impossible for us to appreciate today. We know, from careful analysis of many hundreds of examples, that they come from particular quarries often located at remote, inaccessible and sometimes spectacular places in the landscape, even when comparable stone was available much more easily. This example is from Langdale in the Lake District, where stone axe quarries were located high on Pike O’Stickle. Axes from here found their way all over Britain and further afield during the Neolithic.

The nature of this ‘axe trade’ is not well understood, though communal gatherings at the great Cumbrian stone circles may have played a significant role; pieces of worked Langdale stone were found during recent Altogether Archaeology excavations at Long Meg which was probably a key site in the ‘export’ of axes form Cumbria across into Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, and possibly also for flint heading from Yorkshire into Cumbria.

Ethnographic research into pre-industrial societies at various places throughout the world, for example in New Guinea, suggests that stone quarrying and axe production were imbued with symbolic significance, and had to be done correctly; stone outcrops could, for example, be considered as the bones of the ancestors, so in peoples’ minds the axes were literally being made ‘of the ancestors’. We will never know the detailed ethnography of axe production and use in Neolithic Britain, but something along these lines is highly likely.

We know very little about Neolithic activity throughout the North Pennines, but axes like this demonstrate that people were here, clearing the land for farming. Several other examples are also known, including a flint axe from Harwood in Teesdale (the flint is probably from Yorkshire), an axe of Cornish stone found near Bowlees, and others of Langdale stone from Rookhope, Cowshill and Egglestone. A few axes, including one from St John’s Chapel in Weardale, appear to have been manufactured of rock from the Whin Sill; these may conceivably have originated at a quarry somewhere in the North Pennines, though other locations, such as the Northumberland coast, are equally probable. A particularly intriguing example, now sadly (but hopefully only temporarily) lost so unavailable for detailed analysis, was found in the early 20th century at Cauldron Snout waterfall in Upper Teesdale; when originally published this was said to be of jadeite, from the Alps.

Why is it important?
This ancient axe is an important artefact in its own right, but also as a relic of the time of the first farmers in the North Pennines, when large swathes of wildwood were cleared using such implements to enable the setting out of the first agricultural fields. It also represents the fascinating Neolithic ‘axe trade’, demonstrating a link between people here in the North Pennines and the axe quarries of Langdale in the Lake District. Although we will never fully comprehend what it meant to the people who made and used it, it is certainly an object for us to enjoy looking at and thinking about.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Bradley R. & Edmonds, M. 1993. Interpreting the Axe Trade. Production and exchange in Neolithic Britain. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.
  • Cummins W.A. & Harding A.F., 1988. The petrological identification of stone implements from north-east England. In Stone Axe Studies volume 2. CBA Research Report no. 67. London: CBA.
  • Young, R. 1994. Polished stone axes between the Tyne and the Tees. Durham Archaeological Journal vol 10. P1-12.

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