STONEWORK            ABOUT            PURCHASE            CONTEXTS

            Q:             What is STONEWORK?

A:             STONEWORK has grown out of a conversation that we’ve been having for a few years now, about an elevated outcrop of volcanic rock in the central Fells of Cumbria. The rock is dense, fine-grained and fractures in a distinctive pattern when struck, making it perfect for working. At various places along this outcrop, there are quarries that are as much as 6000 years old, belonging to the period we call the Neolithic. Almost all of the work at these quarries was directed towards the making of stone axe blades.  

Our book is an attempt to understand what the experience of visiting and working that outcrop involved back then, what the work, and the axe, may have meant to people at the time.

Q:             There are Neolithic stone axe sources right across Western and Northern Britain, and flint mines on the chalk to the south and east that date to a similar time. Why base the work in Cumbria?

A:             Wouldn’t you? It’s a remarkable place to work, and the Neolithic archaeology is truly spectacular.  Associated with screes of flakes, roughouts, hammerstones and other debris, the outcrop bears the scars of extensive working along a line of c.18km.  At many points along that line, the entire profile of individual crags is an artefact of the episodic quarrying that went on for around 1500 years. It’s also an area that one of us has been exploring and writing about for the best part of thirty years, so we had a bit of a head start.

Q:             So why come back and work on it again? Is there anything left to say?

A:             There’s always something new to say! But what really interested us was the idea of experimenting with different forms of expression. This is something that we’ve both attached a great deal of importance to in our work for some time, albeit in different ways and on different projects. But this was the first time we’d collaborated, and by definition, that brought a new dynamic to the work.

Q:             What do you mean by different forms of expression?

A:             I guess we mean the use of words and images to offer a more appropriate ‘truth to materials’. That’s an ambiguous phrase to be sure. Associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and most strongly, perhaps, with the Sculptor Henry Moore, it's a kind of shorthand for the importance of working with, rather than against, the qualities and characteristics of particular materials. Looking close and going with the grain. 

Q:             What did that involve for this project?

A:             We were interested in writing without the usual kinds of abstraction, without falling back, so far as was possible, on those academic vocabularies that tend to dominate archaeological narratives. In our case, that meant using poetry, printmaking and painting to explore how people fastened upon the outcrop and the forms of attention this involved, catching qualities in the evidence that have usually been missed.

Q:             And how did that work, exactly? Why did it matter?

A:             We were interested in what the working of stone involved materially and what it meant to people. These were dramatic, even dangerous activities. They were also important social and spiritual occasions. So part of our concern was to try and catch some of this more directly, through imagery and text that responded to the journeys involved, to the character of the place, the nature of the stone and the dramatic, often rhythmic, qualities of working.

Q:             You mean a kind of symmetry between the form of your work and the work undertaken in the Neolithic?

A:             Yes. Archaeology deals with material traditions, past ways of making and using things. And those traditions often held a kind of unspoken significance for people; meaning rests in matter and in action and is not easily articulated. So when we write about the significance of certain traditions, when we put them in words, we immediately miss how they work. We can’t avoid this paradox entirely. But we started STONEWORK from the premise that one could push words and images in different ways, to bring out many of the qualities and associations of particular ways of working that we’d normally miss.

 Q:             OK, but why this association with axes? What’s all that about?

A:             There’s no quick answer to that.  The stone axe has been a vital building block in the foundation of our ideas about prehistory. But that’s partly because they seem to have mattered to people in the past as well.  Axes were undoubtedly vital tools. But they were also potent in other ways, and it serves little purpose to hold these qualities apart.

Q:             How do we know this?

A:             Well, the axe blades we find in most areas show signs of use. But some are elaborate, fragile, or polished to a degree that suggests that form or colour, even the time given to the task, could be as important as the sharpness of an edge. Representations of axe blades are inscribed into the fabric of contemporary tombs and they were also sometimes deposited with a certain formality, in monuments, in hoards and burials, even in rivers.  All of this suggests that axes were often more than hardware.

Q:             What do you mean?

A:             They meant something more. They matteredThe possession and skilful use of blades said something about who people were, about the places they occupied in their communities and in the broader world. They also built up biographies as they moved from hand to hand, circulating in exchanges that defined bonds between people. Axes were ‘good to think with’ as well as good to use because they carried people with them. Some probably had names. 

Q:             But they were still tools, right?

A:             Absolutely. There were exceptions, but in most cases, these other associations were recognised in and around the handling, hafting and using of axes. Why should we assume that things are either functional or symbolic? It’s a very misleading distinction.

Q:             So what did all this have to do with quarries in Cumbria? Surely folk just needed stone and that was that?

A:             Right enough. But it was never just a case of banging the rocks together. Work involves people. It involves relationships, and these have historical and political significance. We can probably take it as a given that the outcrop mattered to people; that specific places along its line were identified with, accessed and even contested at different times. Travelling up to the crags, working there, forming a relationship with the stone itself, all of this brought the identities of people into sharp focus.

Q:             And the stone had a special value?

A:             We think so. It is entirely possible that people saw the stone itself as both powerful and animate. And it was also the act of getting it that mattered. Archaeologists have mapped the central Fells for the best part of a century. As a result, we know that the outcrop was a place apart, quarrying an event that drew people up from across the region. A monument by any other name, it was a place where trails overlapped. We also know that people sometimes singled out some particularly precipitous and dangerous places to work.

Q:             Perhaps that was simply where the stone was?

A:             Not really. The outcrop is extensive and there are many places where stone is easily accessed that were not so heavily worked. In other words, danger and drama, exposure to risk, were sometimes an important part of the process, no less important than learning how to work the stone itself.

Q:             Another question. You call the outcropping rock ‘Cloudstone’.  Why is that?

A:             Spend a bit of time up on the crags and you soon realise that the outcrop people were interested in is often cloud-shrouded. It’s a quality to the setting that we also see in the most dramatic stone axe sources of all, those situated high up in the Alps, where people extracted Jadeitite and related stones to make very impressive axe blades.

Q:             And these were in use at the same time?

A:             Well, they overlap, but people had been pulling axe blades down from the Alpine clouds for more than a thousand years before it starts to happen in Britain. By 4000BC, these remarkable blades had found their way to the margins of Western Europe, probably travelling as powerful gifts and through the ebb and flow of people.  It was in this climate of ideas that people began to make practical pilgrimages to the Cumbrian high ground. As in the Alps, part of the significance attached to axes from the Fells probably lay in stories about the place of their birth, about the spirits that resided overhead and even, perhaps, in the stone itself.

Q:             Is this the same at all stone axe sources?

A:             No, but it is a common theme, worked on in different ways where people cut down into chalk or travelled to small islands to lay their hands on distinctive materials. And the fact that we see these common threads reminds us that even then, people in what we call Britain or Ireland were a part of much broader and more complex worlds.

Q:             So are you saying then that quarrying was a religious ritual?

A:             No. We’re saying it was a practical activity. But that activity involved many things; a relationship with stone, with other people, with tradition and the ancestral past. The division between secular and religious that you imply probably has no relevance here. Axes mattered and people needed stone to make their blades. But where the goal was to make tools that said something about identity, the work itself also mattered. In the Fells, a journey to the source meant separation, a departure and a return. The work took time to learn, skills polished with access, age and experience. The climb into the clouds and the scramble across vertiginous crags was, in every important sense, a rite of passage.

Q:             OK, you could probably go on about this for hours, and it’s well known that if you laid all the archaeologists in the world end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. So can I ask how you went about putting the book together. You say you wanted a measure of symmetry between your work and the material that you were studying. How did that develop?

A:             Well, we started on the crags. Walking and talking. We both had an interest in quarries and in exploring the nature of people’s relationships with stone. And we’d both worked on projects where words and images had been pushed in new directions as a means of exploring landscape.  So we started with a ramble through different ways of thinking about the material we encountered. It’s hardly surprising really, given the more recent history of the area.

Q:             What do you mean by that?

A:             Well it’s the Cumbrian Fells. But it’s also the Lake District, an area crucial to those ways of seeing that we associate with the Romantics. That’s quite a powerful legacy for anyone trying write about the perception of mountains, about relations with stone and the interweaving of history, politics and nature.

Q:             So you talked about this, weren’t you tempted to write about that legacy directly, in the book?

A:             Not really. It’s well travelled country and we’d already explored some of that terrain in other publications. Our concern here was to focus more directly on the material itself, letting that be our point of departure.

Q:             So did you just divide up words and images between the two of you?

A:             We keep getting asked this when it isn't that important. In any case, it didn’t really work like that. One of us took responsibility for drafting the words. But all of the text was read, commented upon and revised in the light of our conversations. It was similar with the images. We both made work, sometimes side by side in the same studio, sometimes at opposite ends of the country (Orkney and Cornwall). And discussion also steered us into making different kinds of image, or towards selecting and combining details from different pieces of work.

 Q:             Combining?

A:             Yes. Several of the images in the book are details quarried from larger pieces. We excavated each other’s pictures. In the process, we also found new words; quite a few of the shortest pieces of text incorporated into images were written as a response to the fragment of an image that we’d fastened upon.

Q:             Was it difficult to decide what to put in the book and what to leave out?

A:             Not at all. We had a huge amount of material, but when we started rejecting stuff, there wasn’t really any argument at all. By then we’d talked the book into a rough shape anyway, so the rest was editing, working down, stripping away. Getting to what we saw as the essentials and deciding what would work best in the format of the book. In this, like everything else, it was a collaborative process. It was also fun.

Q:            Any suggestions for things to read to follow up on the area and on axes?

A:            There's quite a bit, but these are probably a good place to start.

For general accounts of the period, have a look at:

Bradley, R. 2007. The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 

Darvill, T. 2010. Prehistoric Britain. London. Routledge.

Edmonds, M. 1999. Ancestral geographies of the Neolithic. landscape, monuments and memory. London. Routledge.

Thomas, J. 1999. Understanding the Neolithic. London. Routledge.

Whittle, A.W.R. 2009. The Neolithic. In Hunter, J. & Ralston, I. (eds.) The Archaeology of Britain. London. Routledge.

For texts relating directly to the Cumbrian Fells and to axes, have a look at:

Davis, R. V. & Edmonds, M. 2011. Stone Axe Studies III. Oxford. Oxbow. 

Edmonds, M. 2004. The Langdales. Landscape & Prehistory in a Lakeland Valley. History Press. 

Sheridan, A., Petrequin, P., Errera, M. & Pailler, Y. 2007. Green treasures from the magic mountains. British Archaeology 96:22-7.

Representations of axes carved into a slab of stone in the Neolithic tomb of Gavrinis, Brittany.

The Belmont Hoard.  
Cumbrian axe blades found together during building near Penrith in the mid/late 19th century. For details of the more recent biography of these axes, see Davis & Edmonds (2011).

Known distribution of axe and adze blades from the Cumbrian Fells within mainland Britain (Group VI). 
For details on the long term studies that created maps like this, visit

After Norman Nicholson