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Archaeologists reveal evidence of British festival held 6,500 years ago

The true British identity? It’s all about body paint

David Keys
Thursday 24 August 2023 05:48 BST
British Museum Fires Employee After 3,000-Year-Old Artifacts Disappear
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Archaeologists have discovered evidence which may shed new light on the distant origins of British identity - at an ancient festival site.

It’s long been known that the word Britain is derived from a Celtic word (Pritani), meaning “the painted ones” - almost certainly reflecting a prehistoric predilection for body-painting.

However, there’s never been much potential archaeological evidence for such the cultural tradition – until now.

Recent investigations of a 6,500-year-old probable ceremonial prehistoric site in north west England have identified the largest collection of pieces of red ochre ever found in Britain.

More than 600 red ochre fragments were recovered from the Stone Age site, located near Carlisle – along with the grinding stones used to reduce lumps of red ochre to powder, probably for the production of pigment.

Located on what had been a small (1.2 acre) island in the River Eden in prehistoric times, it’s likely that the site had been used for major ritually and economically significant communal gatherings.

Some evidence suggests that it acted as an important fishing base during the peak of the spring salmon run – probably in mid-April.

It’s likely that these fishing operations were carried out with special triple-pronged fishing spears (so-called tridents or leisters) and with bows and arrows.

The 6,000 year old wooden tridents from Stainton West near Carlisle after conservation work. They are now displayed at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle (Scott Wigglesworth on behalf of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery)

There is evidence for Stone Age arrow manufacture on the site – and archaeologists have also found two large very early Neolithic wooden tridents which appear to have been deposited in surrounding wetland as votive offerings to local gods or ancestral spirits.

Although it’s impossible to know for sure how many people participated in exploiting the spring salmon run and took part in any associated ceremonies and rituals, there are indications of the scale of what is likely to have been an important annual event.

The flint-working debris (over 300,000 fragments have been recovered from just the 12% of the island which has been excavated) suggests that in total, many hundreds of arrows and other artifacts were being made there during each annual gathering in the late Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period. The site was most intensely used over a period of some 800 years.

The Oxford Archaeology team excavating the wooden objects exceptionally preserved in waterlogged soil at Stainton West near Carlisle. These objects date to the Mesolithic and Neolithic - and their level of preservation is very rare. (Image owned by Oxford Archaeology)

This suggests that the number of people at the gatherings probably exceeded a hundred - a figure which implies that the April gatherings were attracting members of up to half a dozen different small hunter-gatherer bands and extended families.

The artifacts found at the site have revealed that the people who gathered there either came from a very wide geographical area.

They had somehow acquired volcanic glass (pitchstone/obsidian) from the Isle of Arran (120 miles away by sea) and from the Yorkshire coast (100 miles away cross-country), as well, as from areas much nearer the site, such as the Cumbrian Mountains (the Lake District), the North Pennines, the coast of the Solway Firth, and Scotland’s Southern Uplands.

One of the two 6,000 years old tridents as it emerged from the mud during excavations at Stainton West (Image owned by Oxford Archaeology.)

The site has yielded the largest collection of volcanic glass (some 230 pieces) ever found in England.

The archaeologists - from one of the UK’s leading archaeological consultancies, Oxford Archaeology, also found a rare example of Mesolithic ‘art’ – a piece of stone with three parallel lines inscribed on it.

The now-long-vanished island (at Stainton West near Carlisle), which the Stone Age Britons used as their salmon-fishing base was ideally located. It was in a part of the lower reaches of the Eden, where, in prehistoric times, the river was divided into a number of very narrow channels.

An aerial view of the Stone Age site at Stainton West near Carlisle with the river Eden in the background. The excavations revealed the Prehistoric channel of the river which attracted human activity for millennia. (Image property of Oxford Archaeology)

This meant that, as the salmon migrated upstream from the Irish Sea, they were forced to swim through those narrow channels where they could be more easily caught by humans. It’s likely that the Stone Age fishermen would have temporarily obstructed the narrow channels (with nets or wickerwork barriers), so as to temporarily concentrate as many salmon in as small an area as possible.

Archaeologists working at Stainton West near Carlisle, taking samples of the soil from the ancient river bed where evidence of human activity was found. The soil samples were later analysed to reveal information about the climate, plants, insects, and animals present there during the Stone Age. (Image property of Oxford Archaeology)

Some of the salmon would have weighed around 7 kg and been more than a metre long. The spring would have seen large numbers migrating up the Eden. That would have been particularly useful from a nutritional perspective.

“The Carlisle site is important because it demonstrates the social complexity of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer society - and the remarkable extent to which widely dispersed communities interacted across much of Britain,” said the leader of the archaeological investigation, Fraser Brown of the UK consultancy, Oxford Archaeology.

It’s the first time that extensive evidence has been found, revealing just how interconnected British Stone Age hunter-gatherer bands were before the introduction of agriculture.

It’s also the first time that archaeologists have found large numbers of red ochre fragments in Britain - 610 in total.

Tridents and bows and arrows appear to have been the fishing equipment used to catch the salmon. Indeed tridents became important in ancient mythology. This ancient Greek painting shows the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, with his emblematic trident. (Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is by far the largest such discovery, finds in other parts of the UK demonstrate that red ochre was used by prehistoric Britons not only in and before the Mesolithic, but also in the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

The Mesolithic Carlisle red ochre (together with other, later, prehistoric archaeological red ochre evidence from other sites) complements surviving later linguistic and historical evidence to suggest that body-painting was almost certainly a British tradition - a tradition which seems to have led to the territory eventually being called Britain (ie., ‘the [land of] the painted people’).

One of the earliest recorded occurrences of a name for Britain was Prettanike - written down by a Marseille-based Greek explorer called Pytheas in the 4th century BC. He had visited Britain - and appears to have learn the Celtic name of the territory’s people (the Pretani) either from its Celtic inhabitants or from their Celtic neighbours in northern France.Pytheas’ Greek rendering of the name of our island – Prettanike - subsequently evolved into the Roman word for Britain (Britannia).

Julius Caesar, writing in the mid 1st century BC specifically mentions that the inhabitants of Britain had a tradition of painting themselves - and from at least the late 3rd century AD onwards, the people of Scotland were also described as the ‘painted people’ – Picti (Picts).

Even as late as the 6th century AD, the inhabitants of northern Britain were described by an Eastern European pro-Roman historian, Jordanes, as “painting their bodies with iron red [pigments]”.

The red ochre discovery at the Carlisle site ) may well have been an early part of a continuous British body-painting tradition which ultimately generated the name of the island.

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