west penwith: axe production and distribution as a guide to prehistoric connectivity


the distribution of lithic material and its suggested disposition of axe factories at this point creates a fascinatingly complex and gradually unfolding picture of prehistoric interaction.

a series of stages of activity is suggested —

stage 1 is difficult to perceive for the ambiguous nature of the evidence but could imply activity on quarry sites in the st ives area (notably group XIX that at present is assigned to this locality) with the suggestion that these quarry-products was in use by mesolithic populations. it is not clear if these products were at this stage being transmitted to the east, but raw materials from east devon (beer flint) and west dorset (portland chert) were being transported as far west as west penwith.

stage 2 sees the development of four (possibly three) major centres of quarrying in cornwall as well as an unknown number of minor centres particularly in the east of the county. on the north coast, around the present-day town of st ives, rocks of groups II, IIa, V and XIX (?) were being quarried as well the camborne group XVI (a sort of an intensive greenstone valley of the early third millennium bc), while similarly on the south coast in mount’s bay the group I quarry was in action although apparently only for local consumption. further to the east the quarry on balstone down was operating and possibly fourthly, near st austell, a group XVII quarry was in production (although this source could turn out to be near st erth,).

these quarries operated within an overland exchange network involving sites like carn brea, hazard hill, hembury and maiden castle though which their products are carried out to the east where they occur (with decreasing frequency) well into the heartland of wessex and as far east as east anglia where two of group II, one group IV and two of group XVI occur, and even lincolnshire where one group V and one group XVII axe crop up. two perforated implements of group XIX have been located in east anglia (clough and green, 1972; moore and cummins, 1974; keen and radley, 1971). this stage would appear to be associated with the heyday of the site at cam brea and passes with the demise of that site.

stage 3 following the collapse of the site of carn brea what appears to happen is the site to the south, already long established, appears to have taken a new profile, distinguished by enhanced organisation, with group I rock quarries and possibly augmented by group Ia, the establishment of group III and group IIIa factories which are then dispersed apparently by sea to port centres set at a considerable distance — in wessex, essex and possibly yorkshire. with over seventy group I axes being located in wessex and forty-two in east anglia (two group Ia, one group III and one group IIIa), twelve in lincolnshire (four group Ia) and thirteen in yorkshire.


severn rare jade axes from an uncertain origin, possibly breton,  have been located in cornwall, three, coastally distributed (falmouth and hayle and newquay), and another un-provenanced. we know from a dated example from the sweet track in somerset that these ceremonial objects were available from before 3000 bc.

other products of distant origin have also found their way to cornwall.  group vi and vii axes with their origins respectively in the lake district and north wales found their way into south- west cornwall, while axe-hammers of group xii ( shropshire- montgomeryshire border) have also been found in the county — probably later neolithic imports.

source: the neolithic in cornwall r.j. mercer cornish archaeology no 25