Excavating the CA Archive: Cumbria

5 mins read

After a brief pause for last month’s celebrations surrounding CA 400, I will now return to my ‘county’ theme, this time exploring Cumbria. In 2010, Rory Stewart – who was at the time the MP for Penrith and The Border – got into trouble when he was quoted as saying that ‘some areas around here are pretty primitive, people holding up their trousers with bits of twine…’. In his defence, Stewart clarified that he was highlighting local rural poverty, not commenting on the individuals who live there. But as an avowed fan of all things archaeological, he will hopefully be delighted by the riches that I am going to uncover in this month’s column on the county. Cumbria’s uplands, lakeland, and coastline offer a stunning diversity of sites and structures.


As the starting point in my journey around Cumbria, I recommend that readers commence with CA 278 (May 2013), when Chris Catling reported on a survey of the Lake District undertaken between 1982 and 1989, and published in 2012 as Cairns, Fields, and Cultivation: archaeological landscapes of the Lake District uplands. This is an excellent introduction to these beloved upland landscapes, including its most famous prehistoric sites: the Langdale ‘axe factories’, which also feature in detail in CA 57, 102, and 134 (July 1977, November 1986, and May 1994). There, for the uninitiated, was a centre of specialised stone tool-production during
the Neolithic, dating from around 4,000 to 3,500 BC. Axes from Langdale have been found at archaeological sites across Britain and Ireland, including an unusual concentration in the east of England, particularly Lincolnshire, which Current Archaeology stalwart Francis Pryor attributes to the axes being particularly valued on religious grounds. Indeed, of all the Neolithic polished stone axes known in the UK, roughly 27% come from Langdale – a remarkable fact considering that there were more than 30 such sources of material for stone axes, from Cornwall to northern Scotland and Ireland.

Cumbria’s later prehistory is not ignored in CA, either. There are some notable Bronze Age sites and finds mentioned down the years, including the cremation cemetery of Ewanrigg in CA 103 (January 1987) and the only Bronze Age hoard discovered in the county so far, in CA 331 (October 2017).


Given Carlisle’s location near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, much of the attention paid to the Roman era in Current Archaeology has been focused around that city. (I wrote a column dedicated to ‘the Wall’ in CA 326, May 2017.). One of the pleasures of having Current Archaeology’s back catalogue available online (what do you mean, you don’t already subscribe?) is the ability to dip in and out of such locations. So, for example, CA 86 (March 1983) visited fieldwork then under way in the heart of Carlisle that uncovered the remains of two large, early Roman timber structures, both associated with the military presence there – one apparently a ‘hybrid’ temple drawing from both local Celtic and imported Classical models of architecture. As another example, CA 101 (August 1986) dropped in on new excavations in the city, this time revealing the early history of the Roman frontier: a 1st-century rampart still standing more than 1m high, with fine preservation of waterlogged timbers. See CA 312 (March 2016) and CA 353 (August 2019) for more-recent Roman finds of this type.

There have also been some fine Roman finds outside the city, especially over the last few years. For example, CA 382 (January 2022) reported from Whitley Castle, near Alston in the east of the county, on the discovery of an unusual ‘lozenge’-shaped Roman fort, while CA 384 (March 2022) featured previously unknown Roman sculptures from the county and CA 393 (December 2022) discussed new evidence for life (and death) in Ambleside Roman Fort.

The Roman history of Cumbria has been highlighted in a number of recent issues of CA, including the unusual ‘lozenge’-shaped Roman fort at Whitley Castle in CA 382, the unknown Roman sculptures of the county in CA 384, and the history of Ambleside Roman Fort in CA 393.


Moving forward chronologically, what about Viking and medieval Cumbria? As CA 204 (July 2006) began its introduction to the site of Cumwhitton, near Carlisle: ‘The place-names of Cumbria provide a record of its rich cultural history. Prominent among them are words of clear Scandinavian origin. Indeed, until recently, the local dialects of Cumberland and Westmorland had as much in common with Old Norse as with Old English. The archaeological record is scanty, however.’ Cumwhitton, which features again in CA 294 (September 2014), has helped challenge this observation over the past decade; so too has a hoard discovered near Furness that featured in CA 264 (March 2012), alongside a second Viking hoard not far away in Silverdale, north Lancashire. The artefacts and coins in these burials and hoards bear witness to diverse cultural contacts and a wide Viking trading network, extending from Ireland in the west to central or northern Russia and the Islamic world in the east. The hack-silver and arm-rings found in the latter also served as a form of currency in a bullion economy. This perspective further reinforces the picture gained by study of the finds from the Vale of York Hoard, found in 2007, which contained more than 600 coins and a range of other items, including ornaments and ingots, from numerous countries (see CA 212, November 2007, and CA 248, November 2010).

Rather different perspectives on the later medieval communities of Cumbria can then be gained in earlier issues of the magazine. Current Archaeology’s coverage of this era has been scanty, focused for the most part on the evidence for monastic communities. CA 68 (August 1979), for example, was back in Carlisle, this time examining the Dominican friary there – underneath the street still named Blackfriars – established in 1230. Elsewhere, CA 114 (April 1989) visited the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Dacre near Penrith, significant enough to be mentioned by Bede, but sadly, after this report on an excavation led by the Cumbria and Lancashire Archaeological Unit, there was no follow-up article in the magazine – if anyone has any more-recent insights into what looks like a fascinating site, then please write to Current Archaeology to let us know. These are thin pickings indeed for a county rich through this era in settlements, both urban and rural.

The more-recent history of Cumbria featured in CA 301, which reported on the remains of 20th-century military training and testing facilities at Walney Island near Barrow-in-Furness.

Before I close, however, I cannot help but flag a most-unusual site in Cumbria of more-recent date, one of my favourite historic sites in the entire country. In the remote uplands near Broughton-in-Furness can be found a First World War conscientious objectors’ stone – a ‘place-marker’ carved from the living rock by young men on the run from conscription, near to where they hid – and where they watched out for the authorities hunting them, a testament to fear and determination alike. This is the only First World War ‘site’ of its kind known in the UK, and I am pleased to say that it is a scheduled monument, and rightly so: see https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1439178 for more details. For those interested in learning more about Cumbria’s 20th-century military heritage, see CA 301 (April 2015) on the remains of training and testing facilities of this age examined at Walney Island near Barrow-in-Furness.

That, then, is it for the North-West. I will head east in my next column, along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, first through Northumberland and subsequently to Tyne and Wear and County Durham. I hope that you’ll join me again on my archaeological pilgrimage through the counties of the UK.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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