BIRKRIGG COMMON IN THE BRONZE AGE

Four archaeological digs (in 1911, 1912, 1922 and 1925) at several sites on Birkrigg Common unearthed artefacts associated with burials that have been dated to the Early Bronze Age of the period 1800 - 1500 B.C.; these four sites are now Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

In 1959 a socketed bronze axe head was discovered on Birkrigg and six similar bronze axe heads were also discovered on Skelmore Heads in 1902 (all now held by the Dock Museum, Barrow). A similar axe from the late Bronze Age is illustrated below:

There is no evidence of metal-working in Furness before the Iron Age but copper ore was mined in more recent times from some of the limestone quarries on Birkrigg near to the main Bronze Age encampment (see later), so it is not out of the question that some of these artefacts may have been made from local copper ore. What may have happened is that, when bronze axes replaced stone axes, these were imported into Cumbria from the south, perhaps in exchange for copper ore. Certainly, we know that all the bronze axes found in Cumbria have been in Furness and the south east of the county, suggesting that they came in the opposite direction to the traffic in stone axe heads which in a previous era was from Cumbria to the rest of the country.

During the 1911 dig at the Stone Circle a spade unfortunately sliced through a funerary urn. Reconstructed, the urn is approximately 14 cm high and 13 cm in diameter and is decorated in a geometric pattern impressed into the wet clay, in this case made using a twisted chord, perhaps of animal sinew.

A second urn was discovered at the Appleby Camp.

The excavation on Appleby Hill also yielded a bronze tatooing awl from this same period. It was about 2 inches long and of the type believed to have been used mainly by women.

The images below were taken at the time of the digs and are used here by permission of CWAAA. These items, and the bronze axe heads, were donated to the Dock Museum but are not on show.

Birkrigg has numerous Bronze Age burial tumuli or barrows, some of which have been excavated. The barrow on Appleby Hill where the tatooing awl was discovered had had evidence of numerous cremation burials, with black earth covered by a large stone or slab, and in almost every case a small red, green or quartz pebble was present. These pebbles are typical of Bronze Age burials and were also discovered in some of Birkrigg’s other burial tumuli. All the burials at the Appleby Hill barrow were contained within a circle, of about 12 feet diameter, that was surrounded by inwardly leaning stones, each up to 24 inches tall – almost a second stone circle buried within the barrow. Unfortunately this Scheduled Ancient Monument is obscured by bracken (just visible left of centre below)....

Perhaps Birkrigg's best kept secret is another Scheduled Ancient Monument just a few yards north of here at the end of Appleby Slack. This historically very important site is shamefully neglected and hidden in bracken; it is much less well known than the stone circle. It comprises a pre-historic enclosed hut circle encampment (with traces of three hut circles), a large stock enclosure and a bowl barrow, which now show simply as a ripple in the stand of bracken, showing best in low sun in mid-winter, although almost entirely obscured in mid-summer....
Another burial chamber stands in the field to the south of the Common, although this dates from the end of the Bronze Age. This large and unusual disc barrow is at the north end of what seems to be a long barrow. It was investigated archaeologically in 1925 and found to comprise a vallum (or wall) of “door-step sized” limestone blocks angled at 45 degrees, enclosing a circle of about 54 feet in diameter. The burials are believed to date from the Celtic or Iron Age period before the arrival of the Romans.....

It was probably the limestone grassland of Birkrigg that made this whole area so attractive as a des-res in the Bronze Age (dry springy turf is much better to sleep on than marshy low-lying ground!). In addition, all the rain falling on the Common percolates through the limestone until it meets an impermeable layer and is forced out as substantial springs around the edges as here at Bardsea, at Gleaston or flowing into Urswick Tarn. This has provided a vital source of clear water since Neolithic times; it emerges at a fairly constant rate and temperature throughout the year.
However, when Neolithic people settled around Birkrigg one object of their worship was the sun – it was the life blood up on which their food depended and it measured their year. Birkrigg was the perfect place to establish the so-called "Druids' Temple" or stone circle. It is no coincidence that the circle was chosen, rather than a square or rectangle, as circles reflect the shape of the sun and the moon......

 

 

 

 

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