Neolithic tridents discovered in northern England

Tullie House museum  in Carlisle, Northwest England, has been donated two very rare Neolithic wooden tridents by Cumbria County Council and is putting them on display for the public to give their theories onwhat they were used for.

Neolithic tridents discovered in northern England
Tridents on display. Image Tullie House Museum [Credit: © Tullie House
Museum and Art Gallery Trust]
The two tridents were discovered during the archaeological excavations prior to the construction of the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR), and add to the mystery surrounding identical finds in Cumbria and Northern Ireland around 200 years ago.

Only four other similar tridents exist in the UK and the fact that they have almost identical designs and show a proficiency in woodworking suggests they were made for an accepted purpose. But experts are unsure what that was, with theories including fishing, hunting or agricultural use.

Tullie House is showing the tridents in its Border Galleries and is encouraging visitors and social media followers to give their theories.

The other four tridents were all found in the 19th century: two, together, from Ehenside Tarn, also in Cumbria (which are now displayed in the British Museum), and another two from a bog, in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Carlisle’s addition to this rare club was discovered in 2009, when Oxford Archaeology North carried out excavations in the River Eden flood plain to the west of the village of Stainton, just before the Northern Development Route was built.

Cumbria County Council owned the land where they were discovered after purchasing it to build the new road. Archaeological surveying in an area rich in Roman heritage was an important part of the planning and pre-construction process.

During the excavations two tridents were found in a past channel of the River Eden which have been carbon dated between 5,900 and 5,400 years ago. The channel was next to a settlement where thousands of pieces of flint were also discovered in what is thought to be part of a manufacturing process for stone tools. This puts them at the beginning of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period when people were first starting to farm in Cumbria.

They both measure over two metres in length and each has been expertly crafted, using stone tools, from a single plank of oak, split from a mature tree (c 300 year old). They would have been heavy, hefty objects, seemingly built for their strength. As they have been submerged and preserved in water-logged ground for nearly 6,000 years, their preservation involved freeze drying and stabilising them by injecting them with a waxy substance to replace the water in the trident’s structure as just letting the wood dry would have damaged them.

The two tridents are now on display in the Border Galleries at Tullie House. Balfour Beatty, the construction company which built the CNDR, has generously funded the display case that houses them.

Andrew Mackay, Head of Collections & Programming at Tullie House said: “These tridents are so rare that they of national importance so it is a great thrill to have them available to show to the visitors of Tullie House. We are very keen to canvass opinion on what they might be so I’d like to encourage everyone to come and see them and let us know what they think.”

Coun Keith Little, Cumbria County Council’s Cabinet member responsible for highways, said: “It’s important that local people will have a chance to see these unique artefacts. The scope, attention to detail and precision of our archaeological surveying work prior to building the CNDR was on a massive scale. Finding ancient objects like these tridents can seem something of an inconvenience when you’re trying to build the road, but we have to appreciate that you only get one chance to preserve history.”

Andy Dean, Regional Director from Balfour Beatty, said, “The discovery of these tridents was a very important and exciting event during the preparation work for the new road. The project team expected there to be archaeological finds in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall and Vallum, however the tridents, tools and flints discovered in the flood plain is of equal national importance”

Source: The Westmorland Gazette [December 03, 2013]

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3 comments for Neolithic tridents discovered in northern England

  1. That doesn't look like it was designed to spear fish or other small animals. The tips are flattened. More like some sort of shovel. If found in peat it might have been used to mine peat.

  2. oars made to be muffled by cloth

  3. I would say that they are tools for ploughing the land. In Spanish they are called layas (sing. laya) and laia in Basque, I believe. The traditional ones here had only two points but the base of the "trident" seems to serve the same purpose: to step on them in order to apply pressure to the earth and get the points deep before pulling back as a lever and moving the earth that way.

    Modernly gardeners still use similar tools (which at least in Spanish retain the name) be them shaped like a flat shovel or also as trident or four-pointed fork (but made of steel, of course).

    Some comparable images:

    Basque traditional laiak (Gipuzkoa): http://bertan.gipuzkoakultura.net/bertan4/argazkiak/g/37.jpg

    Modern fork-shaped layas: http://hogar.pisos.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/laya_buena1.jpg

    A "hybrid" model: http://www.ladespensaverde.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/small_image/136x191/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/a/i/aireadora-laya.jpg

    Drawing of old Basque laiak (Biscay): http://www.euskomedia.org/ImgsAuna/23050201.gif

    After looking again at them all, I'm pretty sure that they are for ploughing the land, or maybe also as a previous commenter says, for peat-extraction (it'd work similarly, I guess).

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