Aspects of Prehistoric Cumbria

Date: Thursday 10th May 2007

A TOTAL of 175 people attended Penrith Methodist Church for a day-long conference on “Aspects of Prehistoric Cumbria”.

This event, which focussed in particular on the Neolithic period, was organised in memory of the late Miss Clare Fell, a friend of many who attended.

The event was introduced by organiser Dr. Jean Turnbull, of Lancaster University’s Centre for North West Regional Studies, and was a joint venture with the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.

Proceedings ran to time throughout, thanks to the chairman, Dr. Richard Newman. CWAAS president Dr. David Shotter followed Dr. Turnbull, explaining that events jointly staged by the two organisations had been running for a number of years.

The first speaker was John Hodgson, senior archaeologist for the Lake District National Park Authority, a prehistorian in his researches, who gave a sample of the vast scope offered by Cumbria’s archaeology and set the period in its historical context.

When the Ice Age ended, the woodland sprang up. Late in the Mesolithic era, the sea rose by about 60ft. Mesolithic flints have been found along the Cumbrian coast. The Neolithic era, when farmers used larger implements, was followed by the Bronze Age, whose stone clearance heaps are visible, for example, on Bootle Fell.

The Bronze Age people inherited the Neolithic stone circles and erected their own henges at Mayburgh and other locations. They also erected timber circles at Summer Hill, near Bootle, and set up summit cairns on many fells.

They built ring cairns, often in pairs, near water, for example at Oddendale.

The stone at Rooking, Patterdale, resembles that in the North Yorkshire Pennines and that at Copt Howe, Langdale, and Newgrange, in Ireland.

The Neolithic people lived in the limestone fells. Their successors left an Irish flat axe at Mosedale and a spearhead near Ullswater.

From the Iron Age come the settlement on Aughertree Fell, Uldale, and the huts at Baldhow End, Matterdale and in Glencoyne Park. An Iron Age bridle bit was also found on Place Fell.

Each talk was followed by comments from the floor and coffee was served in the church hall. This was followed by Jamie Quartermaine, senior project officer for Oxford Archaeology North, based in Cumbria.

His talk was on “The Elusive Iron Age in Cumbria”. This referred to the relatively low number of Iron Age sites to be found in the county.


The known sites include along the south side of Glencoyne Park, huts and farm stock pounds on Askham Fell and a refuge hill fort at Castle Crag, Haweswater, and a site at Castlesteads, in Lowther.

Some think that the top of Carrock Fell is an early Neolithic causewayed camp and others that it is dated to the Iron Age, about 2,000 years later.

Farmers in the Iron Age, which was still going on at the time the Romans came to Britain, cleared many trees, and many of their settlements were in use for 500 years or more.

Dr. Aubrey Burl, a close friend of Clare Fell, spoke on the subject of Cumbrian stone circles, his interest for 50 years. He spoke of their mystical side. In the late Neolithic era, entrances were not just to gain access by, but had symbolic importance.

The last item before lunch was the launch of the book in memory of Clare Fell, Studies in Northern Prehistory, edited by Peter Cherry.

The main speaker was Mary Burkett, who described Clare as a happy, smiling, approachable person, always encouraging to novices, many of whom were now leaders in their field nationally. Her nephews, John and Alex, were present and were each presented with a copy of the book.


After lunch, one of her protégés, Mark Edmonds, professor of archaeology at York University, spoke on “The Neolithic in the Central Fells”. He brought with him three fine Neolithic axes belonging to a private collector.

Axes had many uses, not least those of identity and status. Mark Edmonds had made axes himself in the past, discovering that a large axe took a day and a half to grind and polish.

After tea, Dr. Helen Loney, of Glasgow University, gave the European perspective, such as rock art in south and west Sweden, and Celtic fields in Scandinavia, Denmark and Holland.

Dr. Loney’s work has also seen her helping to survey Glencoyne Park.

Closing the conference, Dr. Newman said that prehistory is less alien than many people may think. Its material finds and ideas relate to us now. Its small scattered communities had far-ranging contacts. Many commented that Clare Fell’s dynamic spirit lives on.