Thursday, June 26, 2008

Skulls Caps, Palstaves, Ötzi and Blackpool

As any archaeologist worth his weight in rubble would no doubt inform you, the main difference between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic period was that the hunter/gatherers of the former settled down into the farming communities of the latter. In order to accomplish this, the great forests that covered most of Britain (and in particular the Fylde and Wyre, of course) needed substantially reorganising.
William Thornber now takes up the story from a particularly Blackpool-centric perspective: "The trees…imbedded in the low carry grounds, bear the marks of the axe, and numbers of them are charred by fire."
Records from 1857 for the ‘Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society’ back up Thornber’s claim: “The chairman reminded the meeting that he had mentioned, on a former occasion, the circumstance of finding the mark of a forester’s axe on one of the trees of the submarine forest at Blackpool.”
At Marton Mere (the mere being illustrated on our map above) we can even find evidence for the tools that were used to accomplish this wholesale deforestation, along with several other personal artefacts belonging to one of our industrious ancestors.

As Thornber again records:
“The Reverend Mr. Buck of Edgecroft Hall, speaks of a singular skin cap or bag, without a seam, a battleaxe of brass…and either two or three coracles or canoes…framed of slight ribs of wood, covered with hydes (sic), which were found by a person of the name of E. Jolly, when cutting the main dyke of Marton Mere.”
The skin cap probably resembled the one in our illustration below (alt
hough, obviously, without the seams), which originally belonged to Ötzi the iceman discovered in the Ötztaler Alps between Switzerland and Italy in September 1991.
In ötzi’s case the ice had preserved his attire, the outfit, in full, consisting of a belt and pouch made from calfskin, a leather loincloth, leggings similar to modern day chaps, a coat of tanned goat hide, deerskin shoes, a bearskin cap and a cape of woven reeds.
Carbon dating placed his remains around 3,300 B.C.

The illustration below is based on a waxwork model of Ötzi, giving us some idea of how Marton’s own coracle builder would have dressed.
Let’s return to Thornber for his take on all this: “The demolition of the stately forest of Marton must have occurred long before the Roman era, if the Celtic axe found near Midgeland, and lying on the peat and one yard from the surface of the ground, and the same from the subsoil, and the canoes discovered in the mere, belonged to the aborigines of this section of the island.”
Just to set the record straight, the word ‘aborigines’ here simply refers to the ‘original natives of Britain’ and not the loincloth wearing tribes currently running round the Australian outback, although culturally there were probably more than a few similarities.
The Celtic axe, on the other hand, which Thornber ‘retained’ in his possession was: “…an alloy of copper and tin, rudely cast, and when found, had a handle of more than a yard in length, being nearly the thickness of a man’s wrist; at the side of the instrument is a loop, apparently for attaching it to the person.”
Fortunately for us Thornber also provided an illustration that, for reasons of potential copyright problems, we’ve redrawn below. Axes such as these were known as palstaves, an advancement on the Neolithic stone adze used for turning soil and hollowing logs. In our coracle builder’s case he no doubt used it for trimming the wooden ribs of his boats as well.
The fact that it was ‘an alloy of copper and tin’ allows us to approximately date it. Copper tools were often used during the first part of the Bronze Age. This period (roughly 3,000 B.C.) was known as the Chalcolithic Age, or as we prefer to call it for obvious reasons, the Copper Age, placing our coracle builder in the same time period as Ötzi, who, coincidentally, carried a similar implement.
The metal loop on the side of the palstave wasn’t used, as Thornber suggested, to attach the axe to ‘the person’ but was in fact bound tautly to the wooden handle, keeping it bent at a ninety-degree angle. This allowed the palstave to be swung between its user’s legs, in the fashion illustrated below, adding leverage and weight to its execution.Perhaps a word or two should also be added about coracles. The word ‘coracle’ is derived from the considerably more difficult to pronounce Welsh word ‘cwrwgl’. They were originally covered with animal skins although, nowadays, enthusiasts of these simple, keel-less boats prefer to use calico waterproofed with bitumastic paint instead.

The illustration above is based on a photograph downloaded from the Internet showing one such enthusiast proudly displaying his latest unfinished creation.
As for what became of Marton’s Copper Age coracle builder, and as for what forced him to abandon his belongings in such an extraordinary fashion, we’ll probably never know. It’s possible that his coracle wasn’t as waterproof as it should have been, and basically sank.
Whatever the case, Thornber informs us that: “…out of Mythorp Moss, under a bed of peat, (came) a perfect human skull, and many bones on Marton and on the Hawes, which had every appearance – so say the country people – of having belonged to the human race.”
In case you’re wondering, the ‘Hawes’ (otherwise known as Layton Hawes) once stretched from central Blackpool to St. Anne’s. It would be nice to believe that one of the skeletons found there was missing three coracles, a pair of animal skin boots, a copper palstave and a seamless hat.


Dysthymiac said...

Impressively illustrated dear WyldeMan.

Copperwitch will be over here soon to mentio her Age and the Chocoholic Era.

Keep digging.

Brian Hughes said...

"Impressively illustrated dear WyldeMan."


There's not a lot else to do round these parts on a gale-blown, rain drenched typical British summer afternoon other than scribble. Pity it cleared up really, otherwise you'd have had 'em in colour.

John said...

" of the skeletons found there was missing three coracles.."

Are you suggesting this was an ancient burial, or is there the possibility that this was an ancient burial? The Vikings buried their lot with boats, din't they? Why not older folk? (I don't mean pensioners, but 'aborigines' as you call em...)

Brian Hughes said...


I'm not suggesting anything, to be honest. It could have been an ancient burial. Might just have been an ancient boating accident. Then again his missus might have been having a clear out after an argument and slung all his clothes into the lake. It's hard to say without the body, I suppose...although if it were the latter, I bet he ended up with chillblains and a bad hangover.

Dysthymiac said...

The evidence that Otzi sourced his outfit from
deer and
bears has got my attention.

I wouldn't be whacking a bear with a palstave myself.
Maybe Otzi's family started the Blackpool zoo with the ones they didn't cosh.

*exits, stage-left ... *

Brian Hughes said...

*exits, stage-left ... *

Pursued by a bear...

Ozfemme said...

Otzi and his mode of dress would fit right in amongst the western suburbs of Adelaide. I believe there may well be several tribes of ice men living there currently.

Brian Hughes said...

The beard is certainly reminiscent of Sedgwick's.