Much of prehistory is a complete mystery to us. There are so many unanswered questions. Practically everything we know about the Neolithic comes from the few objects that have survived the intervening centuries, and how we have subsequently interpreted those finds. But if we had to choose just one object to be the iconic symbol of that age, the prehistoric invention that changed the game completely for our ancestors, I think it would be the stone axe. This tool transformed the way people lived, the way they interacted with their environment. It moved us towards ‘civilisation’, as we understand it. And the axe heads that we have unearthed today are a magical, tangible, palm-sized link back to the people of the past. From one hand to another.
At this point I should emphasise that I am certainly no axe expert, (in fact I can confidently say I am not an expert of anything really!) but in this article I want us to take a look at this simple, functional object and its place in Cornish culture, history and society. My own questions came from a visit to an unassuming woodland near Camborne which was once a Neolithic greenstone axe factory – Polstrong Valley.
Polstrong Valley is close to the villages of Penponds and Baripper, just a couple of miles from Carn Brea. Here in a small area of quiet woodland are a number of natural greenstone outcrops. Giant boulders amongst the trees where millions of years ago the igneous rock was forced to the surface.
At first glance these boulders appear to be nothing particularly special. But many generations into the past they were a valuable resource and perhaps also held a spiritual significance.
Carn Brea Finds
In the summer of 1895 the first ever major excavation of Carn Brea was undertaken by Thurstan Peter and Robert Burnard. As the labourers they had hired did the heavy work, digging out tons to soil and detritus from in and around the numerous features on the hill the two men pottered about retrieving the various finds. In the end the excavation uncovered 83 hut circles on the outcrop and an enormous cache of objects which included masses of pottery fragments, 500 flint arrowheads and one perfect greenstone axe head, as well as more than a dozen broken pieces of others.
In the years that followed Thurstan Peters’ discoveries many other archaeologists have revisited Carn Brea and attempted to piece together its Neolithic story. We know that at sometime before 3000BC the first people settled on this rocky summit, which at that time would have risen above a sea of thick woodland. The hill would have attracted them because of the safety it provided and the resources they found in the area.
These people made themselves a walled settlement with thatched huts inside and then they set about clearing land for cultivation. They cut down the trees using greenstone axes they had made from a source of the stone they had found just a short walk away – a small valley where unusually natural greenstone outcrops push through the forest floor, Polstrong valley.
The Power of the Axe
Stone axes made with so called ‘ground cutting edges’ appear to have first developed in Australia, where some axe fragments have been found to date back at least 44,000 years. However, the innovation of the sharp ground-edged axe seems to have reached Europe much later, in the Neolithic period around 6000 years ago.
Obviously the axe was a functional object developed for practical reasons. It has been described as the “most necessary and useful working tool” in the life of the Stone Age people but axes were also extremely symbolic objects and valued as such. For instance, over 100 axe heads of polished jade quarried in the Italian Alps have been found in Britain, none of these items were ever used, they were purely votive offerings.
“The significance of the axe in early Neolithic Europe is not simply a matter of function. Its material is also significant. John Chapman of Durham University proposed that certain materials were, in many societies, intrinsically ‘enchanted’ especially when they were well crafted, and so reinforced ritual connotations and became charged with cosmological power. He suggest that there is ‘a Neolithic aesthetic based on colour and brilliance, light and luminosity.”David Miles, The Tale of the Axe, 2016
Greenstone was not only valued for its strength, its colour, its aesthetic was important too.
These objects, while important for daily tasks, were also ‘socially charged emblems’ and part of a system of proto-currency where one group of people could trade resources and valued items with another. And this trade, this exchange of ideas and goods meant that some axe heads became ambulatory, travelling from hand to hand, region to region, generation to generation.
Greenstone Axes from Cornwall
There are sources of greenstone in Wales, Ireland, the Lake District and Cornwall, and axe heads from these locations were traded widely across Britain and beyond. Greenstone axe heads from Cornwall have been found as far afield as Grimes Graves in the far east of England, in Wales and Kent and as far north as Scotland. The Cornish axe pictured below was found in Essex.
“The greenstones of the southwest peninsula have long been known to have been significant in Neolithic axe head production. The term ‘greenstone’ was introduced by the geological surveyors in western Cornwall in the early 1900s as a descriptor for the generally dark green coloured amphibolitic metabasic rocks in the area.”Sampling at Viaduct Farm, Polstrong: Indentifying the source of Group XVI greenstones, A. M. Jones et al, 2016
Despite our preconceptions of Neolithic life as insular, people regularly moved around the country during seasonal migration, looking for land for grazing, sources of food etc. The axes would have travelled with these groups and could also have been given away as gifts to ther family groups or inherited, passed down through the generations as prized possessions. In addition, there were almost certainly far-reaching trading networks. A cluster of Cornish axes was even found on the banks of the River Thames, suggesting bulk transportation by boat probably by third party traders. Thousands of years ago someone was coming to Cornwall, trading for greenstone axe heads and then distributing them to communities across England and beyond by sea and river.
In the 1930s petrological work, that is the microscopic study of the composition of rock, enabled archaeologists to start pin-pointing geological sources for Neolithic axe heads and separating them into distinctive geographical groups. In Cornwall there are five groups recorded – Group I, the Mounts Bay area, Group II, the St Ives area, Group IV, the Callington area, Group XVI, Camborne area and Group XVII, the St Austell area. The valley at Polstrong falls into Group XVI. Axe heads from Group I, the Mounts Bay area, are by far the most widely and prolifically distributed across the UK, an indication of long established sea trade links perhaps.
But also, apart from the artefacts found on Carn Brea, axes from Group XVI have been found in small numbers all across southern Britain and as far north as the Midlands. An axe head from this group, this little valley near Camborne, was found at Hambledon Hill in Dorset 180 miles away. According to a study on British axe distribution published in 2019 (I read these things so you don’t have to!) of the total of 546 axe heads identified as coming from Cornwall, 74 are from Group XVI, the Camborne area, the next largest group after Mounts Bay.
Greenstone Axe Factories
A number of so called Neolithic ‘axe factories’ have been identified in Europe. These are places where thousands of stone or flint axes were roughed out. Great Langdale in England, Rathlin Island in Ireland, Krzemionki in Poland as well as other locations in Belgium, France and Italy.
However, the subject of axe ‘factories’ has become a controversial one in recent years. The term ‘factory’ was often used by early archaeologists and inevitably brings to mind full-time, specialist, regimented work in a small designated area. This concept in the Neolithic is highly unlikely. Although producing these stone tools was certainly skilled work it may have been far more ad hock than we imagine, (with the exception of the site at Great Langdale in the Lake District perhaps where it appears axe heads were being produced on an industrial scale).
At our site in Polstrong Valley it is much more likely that the local people knew about and valued this unusual inland source of greenstone but only took stone as and when they needed to make a tool. It is possible that some axe heads were also produced for trade, though it is unlikely that there was any kind of ‘mass production’ happening. What is clear however is that the use of the greenstone from this site went on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
According to an academic paper produced by Cornish archaeologist Andy Jones (et al) in 2016 though definitively dating the axe heads thought to have been produced at Polstrong is difficult radiocarbon dating of artefacts found on Carn Brea put occupation at around 3900 – 3600BC. While the Cornish axe head found in Dorset has been dated to roughly 3700BC. It therefore appears that the greenstone in Polstrong valley was being used to make tools at least 5500 years ago.
And it seems as if the site remained significant right up until the Late Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. In the 1880s a discovery was reportedly made close to one of the large greenstone outcrops in the valley, a boulder known locally as the ‘Giant’s Rock’. Around 3000 years ago someone had carefully buried a collection of axe heads at the base of the huge boulder, possibly as an offering.
“The placing of a Bronze Age stone battle axe and a hoard of 40 to 50 Late Bronze Age copper alloy axes at the base of the outcrop indicates that it was a place of some significance in later prehistory.”Sampling at Viaduct Farm, Polstrong: Indentifying the source of Group XVI greenstones, A. m. Jones et all, 2016
Such a fascinating thought!
A Mystery Remains
The results of recent petrological studies have suggested that the sourcing of greenstone for axe heads in Cornwall, the locations of these so called axe factories, may be far more complicated than first supposed. Archaeologists took samples from five of the in situ outcrops in Polstrong valley and were only able to make one exact match with an axe found at Carn Brea.
Unfortunately many of the outcrops that would have been available to the Neolithic/Bronze Age people have been severely damaged, even destroyed, by modern quarrying, particularly during the construction of the nearby viaduct in 1888. The ‘Giant’s Rock’ for example, where that precious discovery was made in the 19th century, has vanished completely. And it is also thought likely that rather than quarrying the stone from the outcrops our ancestors would have picked up large pebbles from the streams and rivers near to the band of greenstone and worked these into tools instead.
In short, science has moved on since axe heads were placed into their distinctive groups in the 1930s and therefore the precise location of the source of greenstone used in the Group XVI tools remains elusive . . . though Polstong valley still seems the most likely candidate.
I am always on the hunt for anything that can bring me a little closer to the past and Polstrong valley is one of those seemingly unremarkable places that offers an incredible link to our ancient ancestors. Though the world around them would be completely unrecognisable those outcrops of greenstone are a constant. A solid connection between our lives and theirs.