Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that could shed new light on the distant origins of British identity – at an ancient festival site.
It has long been known that the word Great Britain derives from a Celtic word (Pritani), meaning “the painted ones” – which almost certainly reflects a prehistoric fondness for body painting.
However, until now there has never been much potential archaeological evidence for such a cultural tradition.
Recent research at what is believed to be a 6,500-year-old prehistoric site in north-west England has identified the largest collection of red ocher pieces ever found in Britain.
More than 600 red ocher fragments have been recovered from the Stone Age site near Carlisle – along with the grinding stones used to grind lumps of red ocher into powder, probably to make pigments.
It is situated on a small (1.2 hectare) island in the River Eden in prehistoric times and was probably used for large ritual and economically significant community gatherings.
Some evidence suggests that it functioned as an important fishing base during the peak of the spring salmon run – probably mid-April.
It is likely that these fishing activities were carried out using special three-pronged fishing spears (called tridents or ledgers) and bows and arrows.
There is evidence of Stone Age arrow making at the site – and archaeologists have also found two large, very early Neolithic wooden tridents, apparently deposited in the surrounding wetlands as votive offerings to local gods or ancestral spirits.
While it is impossible to know for certain how many people took part in the exploitation of the Spring Salmon Run and the ceremonies and rituals associated with it, there are indications of the magnitude of what is likely to be an important annual event.
The debris of flint processing (over 300,000 fragments have been recovered from only the excavated 12% of the island) suggest that many hundreds of arrows and other artefacts were made there overall during each annual collection in the late Mesolithic (Mesolithic) period. The site was used most intensively over a period of around 800 years.
This suggests that the number of people at the gatherings was likely in excess of a hundred — a number that suggests the April gatherings attracted members from as many as half a dozen different small hunter-gatherer groups and extended families.
Artifacts found on site show that the people who gathered there came from a very wide geographical area.
Somehow they had acquired volcanic glass (pitchstone/obsidian) from the Isle of Arran (120 miles by sea) and the Yorkshire coast (100 miles by land) as well as from areas much closer to where it was found, like z the Cumbrian Mountains (the Lake District), the North Pennines, the coast of the Solway Firth and Scotland’s Southern Uplands.
The site houses the largest collection of volcanic glass (around 230 pieces) ever found in England.
The archaeologists – from one of Britain’s leading archaeological consultants, Oxford Archaeology – also found a rare example of Mesolithic “art” – a piece of stone engraved with three parallel lines.
The now long-gone island (off Stainton West near Carlisle) that served as a salmon fishing base for Stone Age Britons was ideally situated. It was located in part of the lower reaches of the Eden where the river was divided into several very narrow channels in prehistoric times.
This meant that as the salmon migrated upstream from the Irish Sea, they were forced to swim through these narrow channels where they could be more easily caught by humans. It is likely that Stone Age fishermen temporarily blocked the narrow channels (with nets or wicker barriers) to temporarily concentrate as many salmon as possible in as small an area as possible.
Some of the salmon weighed around 7kg and were more than a meter long. In the spring, large numbers of people would have migrated up the Garden of Eden. That would have been particularly useful from a nutritional point of view.
“The Carlisle site is important because it demonstrates the social complexity of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer society – and the remarkable extent to which widely dispersed communities interacted across much of Britain,” said Fraser Brown, head of the archaeological survey, of the UK consultancy . Oxford Archeology.
It is the first time that comprehensive evidence has been found showing how closely connected the hunter-gatherer groups of Stone Age Britain were before the advent of agriculture.
It is also the first time archaeologists have found a large number of red ocher fragments in Britain – 610 in all.
Although by far the largest find of its kind, finds elsewhere in the UK show that red ocher was used by prehistoric Britons not only in and before the Mesolithic, but also in the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
The Carlisle Mesolithic red ocher (along with other, later, prehistoric red ocher archaeological finds from other sites) complements the surviving later linguistic and historical evidence that suggests that body painting was almost certainly a British tradition – a tradition that appears to have contributed to the British tradition The area was eventually named Great Britain (i.e. “the [land of] “The Painted People”).
One of the earliest recorded occurrences of a name for Great Britain was prettanike – written by a Greek explorer based in Marseille named Pytheas in the 4th century BC. He had visited Britain – and seems to have learned the Celtic name of the people in that area (the pretani) either from its Celtic inhabitants or from their Celtic neighbors in northern France. Pytheas’ Greek rendering of the name of our island – prettanike – later evolved into the Roman word for Britain (Britannia).
Julius Caesar mentions in his writing in the middle of the 1st century BC. explicitly that the inhabitants of Britain had a tradition of painting themselves – and from at least the late 3rd century AD the people of Scotland were also described as “painted people” – Picti (Pictures).
As late as the 6th century AD, the inhabitants of northern Britain were described by an Eastern European pro-Roman historian, Jordanes, as “painting their bodies iron-red”. [pigments]“.
The discovery of red ocher at the Carlisle site may well have been an early part of an ongoing British body painting tradition that ultimately gave the island its name.