In Search of a Stone Age Axe

High in the Lake District lies a neolithic axe factory, where 5,000 years ago, Stone Age craftsmen made prized stone axes. But Dave Hamilton discovers that these mountains are no place for a slightly unfit, 40-something writer...

3rd May 2024 | Words and pictures by Dave Hamilton

One summer, I drove up to the Lake District on a holiday with a difference. I had one goal in mind. I wanted to find a particular item not touched by human hands for over 5,000 years. This piece of archaeology was not in a museum or in the hands of a collector, and if everything went to plan, I would not even have to dig for it. Yet finding this ancient artefact would be far from straightforward.

The trip actually formed part of the field research for my second book in the Wild Ruins series, Wild Ruins B.C., subtitled ‘An Explorer’s Guide to Britain’s Ancient Sites’. Inspired by Julian Cope’s gloriously Day-Glo coloured classic from 1990, The Modern Antiquarian, this was to be a gazetteer of neolithic sites. My aim was to summon up the spirit of adventure in the readers of my book in much the same way that Julian’s book had for me.

This particular adventure was a search for a specific item: a rough-cut greenstone axe, discarded by neolithic craftsmen almost two and a half thousand years before the pyramids were built. The rough cuts were rejects; the wrong shape, broken in the process of being made or simply not what the stone workers were looking for. Discarded back onto the scree-slopes of the Langdale fells, they have lain untouched for five millennia. Other, more suitable stones would have been picked up in their place. Worked into shape, polished and mounted onto a wooden handle, the axe heads that made the cut, if you’ll pardon the pun, would have been traded across the region and beyond, to become the pride and joy of their new owners.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

It’s easy to project our modern sensibilities onto the people of the past and see an axe as nothing more than a simple cutting tool. After all, if we need an axe today, we just head to the nearest outdoor shop, DIY store or builder’s merchant. But 5,000 years ago, possessions were few and far between. What little tools and possessions neolithic people did have would have been hard to come by. So, greenstone axes were highly prized and traded all over the British Isles and beyond. Remarkably, it has been found that just under a third of those traded between 4,000 and 3,500BC came from Langdale. We have no cultural equivalent today, but an axe made from Langdale greenstone may have been as desirable as a Swiss-made Rolex watch.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

Why was this? Well, many historians believe that the beauty of the Lakeland Fells, the physical exertion involved in quarrying and working the stone and the mystique of the greenstone axes were all intrinsically linked with one another. These greenstone axes were quarried from mountains high in the clouds and made of a stone which was nationally scarce. Some archaeologists think that the common belief at the time was that these axes were taken from the sky itself and brought back down to earth.

The site of the neolithic axe factory is on the shoulders of Pike of Stickle, in the Central Fells of the Lake District. At 709 metres or 2,326ft, it isn’t the highest peak in the country (there are 106 taller ones in England alone) but it is significant. I knew that the axe factory site was perilous; almost every entry I’d found for it told me as much. But I wouldn’t really know is what was in store for until I got there. Leading up to the trip, I’d already experienced more than my fair share of peril. I had been stuck in bogs, caught in a sandstorm, walked close to gunfire during an estate shooting party and almost came to blows with an incensed landowner in Orkney – all in the name of research. This was to prove another memorable adventure.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

With an idea of what might lie ahead, I’d taken mostly ‘easy wins’ on the trip so far. I’d intentionally visited caves in Yorkshire that were not too far from the road and taken in a handful of sites which had their own dedicated car parks. What troubled me was that during these short walks, on even the most modest ascents I was soon out of breath. Months of desk research had taken its toll; I really wasn’t in the best shape. On top of the sedentary work life, my youngest son was still a baby and the sleepless nights had led me to comfort-eat. Looking back at photos of that time, I must have been carrying at least an extra stone in weight. Circling back round the Langdale fells that night to reach my hostel, the hills suddenly felt Alpine in size.

Unless you are someone of means, it's vital to keep cost low when doing field research. Stay in a luxury hotel every night and a travel book will never pay for itself. A YHA shared dorm is often the best choice for a budget traveller. It’s cheap, you escape the worst of the weather and have a shared kitchen to cook in. On the downside, a good night’s sleep is very much dependent on who you share a dorm with. A couple of fence-builders (or ‘fincers’ as they put it) from New Zealand had been staying all season and recommended earplugs and sleeping pills to get a good night’s rest. Unfortunately, I had neither. At 2am after the door had banged 30 times or more and the room’s snoring was reaching its crescendo, I jammed some toilet tissue into my ears and got something resembling sleep.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

Langdale itself is a deep carved glacial valley flanked by huge, rugged rounded mountains, towering as high as the clouds. Grazing has kept the treeline down in much of Cumbria since the Viking period. But aside from those lost trees, the topography of the landscape has remained unchanged since the last Ice Age. It was then, just as much as it is now, one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

The path to the Langdale peaks is a long and steady one. I was glad of the camera as it gave me an excuse to stop and take pictures. I didn’t the rush the walk up. I couldn’t if I’d tried! At one point on the ascent, someone passed me coming down who I swear had already passed me on their way up. My lack of sleep and poor fitness began to catch up with me two-thirds of the way up. My breathing became laboured, and my heart was doing double time. With my chest burning and my legs turning to jelly I reached for my water bottle and realised that I hadn’t screwed the top on properly. What I thought was sweat running down my back was actually the last of my day’s hydration. I cursed how unprepared I was. Not sure whether to carry on or turn back, I sat down trying to regain my breath. I felt ridiculous. Other people with a good twenty years on me were managing this climb. I wasn’t much over forty, but clearly I didn’t have the resilience I’d had when I was younger, when I could climb Snowdon on a whim. I managed a pained smile and a hello to a passing trekker from Holland. We got talking and something in my eyes must have said ‘help me’, as she offered me some Kendal mint cake and a gulp of her water. Before she left, she topped up my flask and left me with an apple she had going spare. It would be an over-statement to say she saved my life, but she certainly prevented a humiliating walk back down the mountain to find food and water. Revitalised, I carried on up, finally making it to my destination, not far from the summit.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

Most of the rough-cut axes have been found a little way down from the peak on a scree slope running down the side of the mountain. I would later write, “The slope is not for the faint hearted, or the inexperienced climber as the loose scree is perilous.” I remember looking over the edge down into the valley below. Although an experienced walker, I live in South West England, where 250m is considered a tall hill. I had climbed mountains but had never descended a scree field before, and I must admit, it filled me with dread. Looking down the steep slope of loose volcanic greenstone I remember it feeling like I was looking over the edge of the world. Taking a deep breath, I walked over the edge onto loose rock. After two triumphant steps, I fell flat on my arse.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

Using my camera tripod as a makeshift walking stick, I made slow progress down the mountainside. Wedging the tripod into solid ground under the scree, I’d take a couple of steps, then repeat the motion. Occasionally I slid a little but as I was looking for axe heads my descent had to be methodical. The axes of course were the same size and often shape as the loose stone. On top of this I only had a rough idea what I was looking for. I knew the heads wouldn’t be smooth – they would be worked stone like the finished article – but aside from the that, I was at a loss. My hope was I’d know one when I saw one.

Tantalising stones kept appearing, but none were quite right. At one point I found a stone which had obviously been worked. It fit perfectly into my hand and had a cutting edge on one side. Was this a hand axe? It might have been, but it was a dark coloured grey rock, so not the greenstone axe I’d been looking for.

Losing my footing I slid a good couple of metres, bruising both my arm and ego. This felt like madness. What was I doing here? It was impossible to find anything! The scree was beginning to run out and still I hadn’t had any success. Convinced I would go home never having seen an ancient axe, I carried on down the hill, kicking stones in one last futile attempt to uncover a neolithic artefact. Nothing appeared. Slipping over again, one last humiliating time, the rocks around me shifted in such a way as to reveal a green veined piece of stone distinctly worked by human hands. I picked it up. This was it – I’d finally found one! Holding it in my hand, shivers ran up my spine. This may have been last touched by human hands five thousand years ago. I ran down the last section of mountain whooping with joy, coming to a stop in the valley below.

In Search of a Stone Age Axe

For me this was one day on the side of this mountain but for those neolithic stonemasons this must have been their whole way of life. A cave near the top of the peak would have provided some shelter from the elements but aside from this they spent day after day on the scree, painstakingly carving the axes. I left with both an insight into and sense of respect for the lives of these stone age craftsmen, who eked out a living on this perilous mountainside so long ago.

Dave Hamilton is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he writes for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, and Walk magazines.

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