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Way-finding in Neolithic Westmorland

Thursday 11 June, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

In our last ‘A Way Through’ blog post we took a look at the incredible 1.5 mile long Neolithic stone avenue at Shap. We examined its location within the landscape and speculated that the placing of such an important ceremonial site at that point must have some link to the natural communication routes it commands through the fells southwards and north along the Eden valley and beyond.

Further research has revealed an even more interesting picture of this long distant part of Westmorland’s past. Two of the stones (Goggleby and Asper’s) that still survive in the Avenue at Shap have so-called ‘cup’ marks carved onto them (Goggleby’s is a bit more of a ‘saucer’ than a cup!). These strange symbols, sometimes surrounded by carved ‘rings’ as on Asper’s Stone are found extensively across northern Britain and have been the subject of a lot of archaeological research along with other types of Megalithic carvings. No one really knows what they were for but everyone agrees that they are very unlikely to have just been decorative.

The most recent research has concentrated on analysing the locations of these enigmatic carvings and it is clear that there is a particular concentration of prehistoric stone carvings in low-lying sites in the Penrith area of the Eden Valley. In 1989, Paul Frodsham published a gazetteer of megalithic carved stones in Cumbria in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeology and Antiquarian Society (TCWAAS) with a map on page two which shows a distinct line of find spots running northwards from the Goggleby and Asper’s Field stones all the way up to a site at Gillalees Beacon in the north of the county. Beyond Penrith the line crosses to the east side of the river Eden and runs through the low lying land at the foot of the north Pennines.

Several of these carved stones form part of stone circles or were incorporated into burials and of those with cup and ring marks at least three have a very similar design – a cup surrounded by 2 or 3 rings with a causeway through them. Paul Frodsham writes:

“Such similarity between these carvings is not coincidental: there is a meaning in them which was so universally recognized that people throughout very wide areas of northern Britain were somehow drawn to execute independently such strikingly similar designs.” ibid p4

More recent research by Kate Sharpe in the Lake District has uncovered many more examples of prehistoric cup marked stones. In the Cumbrian high fells travellers are naturally channelled along particular paths which create “natural corridors of movement” as she calls them in her 2015 article ‘Connecting the dots. Cupules and communication in the English Lake District’ in the journal Expression no 9.

She has studied the geographical locations of these stones, often at the head or tail of lakes. She has compared them with the well-known network of later packhorse routes across the fells, many of the stones are found where these routes cross each other. Thus she has revealed a clear association with the arterial routes of the main valleys, possibly using boats on the lakes and also “…at key sites with regard to intervalley communication” ibid p113

She suggests that:

” The carved outcrops possibly marked places where groups congregated and either crossed paths or continued their journeys together. As places where people converged, arriving either on foot or by water, along the valley or from a mountain pass, setting out or heading home…” ibid p111

These paths would have probably been used on a seasonal basis during the Neolithic. Lowland communities would have been arriving to exploit the quarries at Great Langdale for axe stone alongside grazing their cattle and sheep in the higher pastures during the summer months.

Kate Sharpe refers to the link between rock art and the social and ritual aspects of stone axe production in Continental contexts and suggests that the Lakeland carvings were perhaps more than just way-markers and meeting points. They may have been associated with ensuring the successful outcome of a journey or ensuring the good will of local spirits.

In the blog post Early Trade Routes through Shap we saw how the movement of stone axes from Great Langdale can be mapped against north-south exchange routes which pass up the Eden Valley and down through Shap and the Lune Gorge. Stone circles like the one that once stood at the southern end of the Shap Avenue were very likely to have been where different communities gathered to exchange precious items like stone axes, salt and cattle. They would also have been places where the seasons were marked and where important events such as marriages and deaths may have been celebrated. Cattle bones are often found at such sites so we can assume that feasting was an integral part of such events. The carvings we find on sites like Shap or the stone circles to the north like Long Meg; Glassonby and Broomrigg are generally more complex that the ones described by Kate Sharpe in the central Cumbrian Fells. Here it seems they are much more to do with exchange rituals and community ceremonies than as journey markers. It’s not hard to imagine that perhaps they mark particularly important end points for journeys. Or starting points for new ones.

Several of the carvings from the Eden Valley group were found with burials rather than the communal gathering places represented by stone circles and the Shap Avenue. However we have to be a little careful about whether these contexts are the original ones – there may well have been earlier stone or even wooden circles at these special places as shown by the remarkable site excavated in advance of quarrying at Oddendale mid-way between Shap and Crosby Ravensworth. This was published in the 1997 volume of TCWAAS

Underneath a fairly unremarkable Early Bronze Age ring cairn (stone rubble piled in a sort of doughnut shape) with associated human remains, the excavators found evidence for a Neolithic timber circle with two concentric rings of oak posts probably once linked by timber lintels. Cattle bones were associated with this structure.

Prehistoric timber circles are very rare finds in Britain but this four phase site suggests that some of the Bronze Age burial monuments we know of in the project area could be hiding much older ritual sites with very different functions. The timber circle at Oddendale was eventually replaced by two concentric circles of pink Shap granite boulders – each one capping one of the original post holes. Much later still the boulders of the inner circle were incorporated into a ring cairn which had a central grave pit that probably once contained a crouched skeleton. Some time after the ring cairn was built a rectangular stone platform was added to one side. The excavators suggested that this might have been an excarnation platform, where corpses were exposed to the elements and local wildlife for the bones to be picked clean before burial.

Oddendale must have been a place of some significance during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, as less than a kilometre away to the south stands the Oddendale stone circle. It lies on the ridge of the watershed between the Lyvennet and Lowther valleys and seems to have been placed to command and be visible from the Lyvennet valley. Prominent and highly visible locations like this seem to have acted as boundary markers for different communities. Places on the edges of territories where people from different communities could travel to and safely meet on relatively neutral ground.

Oddendale Stone Circle. Courtesy of Visit Cumbria
Oddendale Stone Circle. Courtesy of Visit Cumbria

The circles at Oddendale are small fry compared to those found in the richer lowlands of the Eden Valley. We’ve already seen the association of significant stone carvings with stone circles and burial sites running from Shap northwards. We also know that stone axe roughouts from Great Langdale seem to have followed this north-south line of communication.

Mark Edmonds recognised this pattern in his important 1995 book ‘Stone Tools and Society: Working Stone in Neolithic and Bronze Age
Britain’. He writes of the earliest henges and stone circles:

“…the purposes served by these sites may have varied from one place and time to another, it does seem that a number were situated on important
lines of communication. Many lie close to major rivers or natural access routes…[the] large stone circles of eastern Cumbria cluster around the routes which cross the Pennines. Many sites would have required thousands of hours of labour for their construction, and as with the link with access routes this suggests a concern with lines of contact which extended beyond the immediate social horizon” ibid p137-8

The ‘large stone circles’ he refers to include Long Meg and her Daughters, north-east of Penrith and the huge Mayburgh Henge at Eamont Bridge just south of Penrith. Both may have “…seen the coming together of people from either side of the Pennines” (ibid p146) and a quick glance at a map shows us that each lies close to routes which became and are still major transport arteries.


Mayburgh Henge lies close to the north-south A6 and later M6 and the junction with the A66 running east towards the Stainmore Gap.


Long Meg lies between the River Eden a probable prehistoric route north-south and the modern A686 running east over the north Pennines.

<Previous A Way Through blog post Early Trade Routes though Shap

Next A Way Through blog post Medieval trade routes in Westmorland >

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


4 Replies to “Way-finding in Neolithic Westmorland”

  1. Tom Lord says:

    Very interesting and well put together

  2. Karen Wells says:

    I can’t believe I have not found this blog before it is so hard to find information about this area. I was having a walk on the section of the ‘old Shap’ road. At Wasedale old bridge, it’s a really interesting section but I have found it hard to find any information.

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