Neolithic of Northern England conference

Long Meg and Her Daughters stone circle at midwinter (Photo: Aaron Watson)

Last weekend I attended the Neolithic of Northern England conference. It's been quite a few years since there has been a gathering of this scale devoted to the North, and it was amazing to see how both evidence and interpretations have moved on. When I was a student the Neolithic of counties such as Cumbria appeared somewhat neglected, so it was heartening that this conference was hosted by Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

On Friday evening I was joint key-note speaker with Richard Bradley. Our paper, titled 'Axes and Images', sought to capture an overview of new interpretations of the connections between stone axes, monuments and rock art - especially in the light of new discoveries and radiocarbon dating. Here is our abstract:

Axes and Images by Richard Bradley and Aaron Watson

In the 1980s and early 90s stone axes made in the Langdale Fells provided some of the best evidence for the extent of long distance contacts in the Northern Neolithic. Since that time the situation has changed and our contribution will consider some of the new developments. Its starting point will be the production of Cumbrian axes, but in 2016 they must be viewed in a different light. New dates for samples from the production sites suggest that their main period of operation was between 3800 and 3500 BC, although Group VI tuff was also used to make ‘wrist guards’ during the Beaker phase. Just as important, the revised dating of Impressed Ware (Peterborough Ware) means that some of the contexts associated with Cumbrian axes can no longer be considered as Late Neolithic, undermining any direct connection between henge monuments and the distribution of these artefacts. If they were exchanged at major monuments, causewayed enclosures provide more plausible candidates. The results of field walking in the Vale of Eden can shed some light on this question.

Another discovery since the excavations at Langdale is the rock art at Copt Howe on the valley floor. Recent work has shed new light on the character of the images, showing that they are related to Irish megalithic art rather than the cup and ring carvings that area so common in other parts of Northern Britain. Because they are similar to the designs associated with passage tombs, it is unlikely that any of them were contemporary with the main period of axe production at Langdale. Instead they may be contemporary with Grooved Ware and its associations, with early henges and perhaps with the rock art close to the monuments around Penrith. Related designs were shared between communities on either side of the Irish Sea and were distributed from Orkney to Wessex.

This suggests the existence of at least two separate and possibly successive networks during the Northern Neolithic, one of them associated with the interchange of portable objects, and other more strongly connected with the sharing of ideas represented by a distinctive style of rock art and its counterparts in other media. It involved a heightened concern with special places and with a distant past, both of them epitomised by the history of the Cumbrian Mountains. That is why our paper is called ‘Axes and images’.

Every paper over the weekend presented exciting new discoveries and ideas, from long barrows in Yorkshire to the dating of Long Meg and Her Daughters stone circle. It was fantastic to see the momentum and enthusiasm which now grips Neolithic investigations in a region once dismissed as a backwater, being remote from perceived centres of action in Orkney and Wessex.

A big thank you to the Royal Archaeological Institute and Tullie House Museum for being such great hosts, and to the other speakers for their contributions and subsequent discussion.

The full conference programme is available here:

The conference was staged by the Royal Archaeological Institute in collaboration with The Prehistoric Society and The Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society.