17th February 2022:

Cumbrian polished stone axes and waterlogged wooden finds from Oxford Archaeology North’s excavations at Stainton West on the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) in 2008 will be amongst important artefacts from across Europe featuring in a major new Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum in London.

The World of Stonehenge exhibition focuses on trade and exchange links across the British Isles and Europe during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age 6000-4000 years ago. Apart from 35 UK contributors, including Oxford Archaeology North and Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, objects on display have been lent from the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.

Oxford Archaeology North’s excavations at Stainton West ahead of the construction of the Carlisle Northern Development Relief Road (CNDR, opened in 2012, for Birse Civils Ltd (now part of the Balfour Beatty group), Cumbria County Council, and Connect Roads) revealed a wetland-edge site on floodplain islands on the banks of the River Eden. The excavations identified significant evidence for later Mesolithic and Neolithic occupation between around 6000 and 3000 BC. The period is an important one in prehistory, as it spans the transition between hunting and gathering and the more settled lifestyles associated with domesticated plants and animals.

Scientific analysis of the finds and ecological data from the excavations have allowed reconstruction of an ancient, wooded landscape of the edge of the low-lying Solway Estuary which was altered by the melting of glacial meltwaters and associated sea level rises. This caused inundation of a back-channel of the river, which had preserved organic remains including rare timber artefacts deposited at the water’s edge.

Neolithic pottery, flint arrowheads and four stone axes had been placed in association with a large wooden platform. Among the timbers were a pair of three-pronged wooden ‘tridents’, over 2m long, carved from green oak planks and radiocarbon-dated to about 3650 BC. On show at the ‘World of Stonehenge’ exhibition, the original use of the enigmatic tridents is unknown, the only other known examples having been found in Ireland and at Ehenside Tarn, between Egremont and Seascale.

The CNDR waterlogged timber platform became part of a beaver-dam, showing the symbiotic relationship between humans and the furry damn-builders. Painting an atmospheric picture of the landscape at the time, a beaver-chewed log and an oak trunk marked with a bear’s claw mark are also included in the exhibition.

Wood clawed by a bear (left) and beaver-knawed wood (right), both from CNDR and featuring in the Stonehenge exhibition

Cumbria, well-known for its Neolithic stone axe quarries in the central lakes, and its numerous stone circles, was part of a wider network of contacts stretching to southern England, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Europe, where Lake District axes have been found. One of the most significant results of the CNDR excavations was the mapping of long-distance social networks rarely recognised in the preceding Mesolithic period, when hunter-gatherers moved around to exploit seasonally available resources such as fish and game, communities separating and coming together at certain times and places. Stone tools found at the site included Arran pitchstone, Scottish chert and flint from the east coast of Yorkshire, as well as various types of Cumbrian stone. Together with samples of the stone tools, a map image included in the exhibition highlights social and material networks across the north.

Fraser Brown, Regional Manager at Oxford Archaeology North said: “Stainton West is an amazing site that has completely changed the way we understand the late Mesolithic period in the region. The 300,000 pieces of worked stone retrieved, provide evidence for a well-organised hunter-gatherer camp, on the banks of the Eden. This was revisited by relatively large congregations of people, over many generations. The variety of stone types present shows that this community was connected to other groups spread over the north of England and Scotland.”

Elsa Price, the Curator of Human History at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery said: “This is an immensely proud moment, not just for Tullie House but for Cumbria in general, to know that items from our really important prehistory collection are being celebrated in the British Museum alongside other world-famous archaeological sites. These items demonstrate that people were engaging with Cumbria as early as the Mesolithic period and from then on it has been an important site of migration attracting people from Scotland and Yorkshire to meet and make these important tools.”

The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum opens on 17th February and continues until 17th July.