Excavating at Copt Howe day 11: The end of the excavations

The final day of the project dawns bright, and it is soon 30 degrees centigrade in Great Langdale. This does not help the task of backfilling the two remaining trenches by hand.


Above: Everyone helps by filling buckets with spoil and carrying them to the trenches (Photo: Aaron Watson)


Above: Backfilling Copt Howe in a heatwave (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2018)


Finally, the heavy work is complete, concluding our excavations at Copt Howe. The process of  analysing the finds and refining our interpretations has yet to begin, but it has been an exciting couple of weeks.

We have answered many of our questions, and the findings have far surpassed what I hoped we would achieve. We found unrecorded rock art, and this appeared to have been sealed behind a rubble structure that was built sometime in the Neolithic - most likely early in the third millennium. During this process a series of stone slabs and artefacts were placed near to the rock surface. Remarkably, these included a set of tools which may have been used to make the rock art. For me, the hammerstones foreground the making the motifs. Copt Howe was a place of action in the Neolithic. Perhaps people gathered at the Boulders to watch the symbols being shaped. In this location there is a sense of spectacle, with the impressive Boulders framing the mountains beyond. Add to this the sound of percussive hammering echoing from the stones, the dust and newly revealed colours in the rock. This was a multisensory experience.

Copt Howe is foremost a natural place, but I think it was chosen for special treatment because a number elements combined to make it significant in the Neolithic mind. The Boulders themselves are monumental, and the two largest are fortuitously separated by a gap, creating a wide passageway. This has a resonance with Irish passage tombs, and might help to explain why the Boulders were decorated in a way which echoes those structures. Also akin to many tombs, Copt Howe's 'passage' is aligned towards the movements of the sun. Viewed from the Boulders, the midsummer sun sets behind the Langdale Pikes, a rugged group of fells which were the location of major stone quarries earlier in the Neolithic.

Above: A time-lapse animation of the midsummer sunset viewed from Copt Howe in 2017 (Video: Aaron Watson, 2017)


Overall, the Boulders created a portal into Great Langdale, and this could have acted as both as an entrance and a barrier. The images that Neolithic people carved there must have been potent symbols, since they had such strong associations with monuments in Ireland which contained the dead. They are quite different to the cup and ring marks that are found widely across the landscapes of upland Britain.

I do wonder whether the movements of people along Great Langdale, and into the central Lake District, was monumentalised because this was not an ordinary journey. Instead, this landscape might have had special or even potent associations . Mountains are frequently understood as sacred and powerful places, and the extraordinary experiences entailed in visiting these high places, including the Neolithic quarries, is something I have investigated for many years. Indeed, this might help to explain why the Lake District as a whole came to be surrounded in the later Neolithic by a concentration of special monuments, including henges and many large stone circles.

There will no doubt be further thoughts and insights as the analysis of the excavation archive begins.

The excavations at Copt Howe were directed by Richard Bradley and Aaron Watson. Many thanks to Yvonne Luke, Diane O'Leary, Nick Russell, Ronnie Scott, Kate Sharpe, Moyra Simon, Peter Style, Sally Taylor and Emma Watson for helping us with the fieldwork.

Thanks also to Historic England for granting permission for us to work at this scheduled monument, and to the National Trust for their support throughout. The excavations were funded by the Prehistoric Society and the Royal Archaeological Institute.

I will update my website with further information as the analysis and interpretation of the excavation continues.