Mysterious Neolithic wood tridents on display

Two large Neolithic wood tridents of unknown purpose have gone on display in the Tullie House Museum’s Border Gallery The artifacts were donated to the Carlisle museum, which is currently also hosting the spectacular Crosby-Garret Helmet, by the Cumbria County Council which owned the land on which they were found. The museum is delighted by the donation as it would have been hard pressed to afford them on the open market.

The tridents were discovered in 2009 during an archaeological survey in advance of the construction of the Carlisle Northern Development Route. They found such an incredible bonanza of Neolithic and Mesolithic artifacts that the excavation intended to last three mounts wound up taking three years to complete. Mesolithic flints alone were found in staggering numbers: 1,500 buckets of earth were sieved every week, a total of 270,000 liters of soil, in which around 314,000 stone pieces were discovered, including used tools and waste flakes. The site, an island between two paleochannels, was a major production center for stone tools in the late Mesolithic.

Its location in the flood plain of the River Eden also saw to the preservation of organic materials, thanks to the archaeologists’ best friend (because of how it preserves perishable remains) and worst enemy (because of the painful digging conditions requiring constant pumping and rubber trousers): waterlogged soil. Among many wooden artifacts retrieved from the watery pit were the two tridents. Carved out of a single piece of mature oak (the three was approximately 300 years old when felled), the tridents are two meters (six feet) long and have three straight-sided tines, although one tine is broken off on the most complete example and two tines are missing altogether on the other.

Radiocarbon dating of the sapwood at the outer edges of the trident revealed they date to between 3,900 and 3,300 B.C. Whoever carved those tridents from a mature hardwood only had stone tools to do the job. They must have been extremely difficult pieces to craft. Judging from the placement of the complete trident — the broken tine was carefully tucked beneath it — they weren’t simply discarded.

Unlike modern pitchforks, where the tines split from the haft is a horizontal step of sorts which adds to the mystery of what these tridents were used for. They were too heavy and blunt for use as fishing spears or digging forks. The tines could have been wrapped in skins and used as paddles, but this too is a far from ideal design for the task. Also, there’s also no evidence of use, no wear patterns, no chips or gouges.

There are only six of these rare pieces known to exist, and the other four were all discovered in the 19th century, two in Cumbria after the draining of Ehenside Tarn in the 19th century (find published in 1873), the other two in a peat bog in County Armargh, Ireland (published in 1857). Now that two more have been found in Cumbria again, archaeologists are wondering if there was some trade or cultural link between the Neolithic Cumbrians and the people in Neolithic Northern Ireland.

Andrew Mackay, Head of Collections & Programming at Tullie House said: “These tridents are so rare that they of national importance so it is a great thrill to have them available to show to the visitors of Tullie House. We are very keen to canvass opinion on what they might be so I’d like to encourage everyone to come and see them and let us know what they think.”

For more about the excavation and to browse tons of pictures of the finds, see Oxford Archaeology North’s fantastic website about the project.

19 thoughts on “Mysterious Neolithic wood tridents on display

  1. Hi Vera, you must be from Europe judging by your last name. I think you are right; it is possible that this tool might be used for moving hay. I see a horizontal plank on the bottom of the forks that might be a support for the load. Also, that might explain why there were no marks from heavy use discovered on the forks. The thing that puzzles me is the weight of such forks. They are probably too heavy for such routine, but we never know how strong people were back in the days when they did not have to relay on a chain of fast food restaurants 🙂

    Also, I am puzzled about the way those tridents were preserved. I wonder what kind of soil they were in? It is simply amazing to find wooden artifacts after thousands of years in such condition. I wonder if the soil or mud was so compact that water simply could not sip through and damage the wood?

    This is a very interesting post. Thank you History Blog for such great news!

  2. A trident might also have been used in dairy production (cheese, whey separation) or for example at a bakery. However, that thing was found next to a river, and who would eat barley if it can be consumed as beer ?

  3. Definitely agree with it looking like a hay rake. I’m sure people who lived off the land completely would have the strength to lift something like this. The part that projects just above the tines could be a handle to help press the hay into compact piles. Warning! Personal opinion; way too much stuff is identified as “ceremonial”. I love Time Team and they usually roll their collective eyes at something unidentified being called that; an unidentified piece of antler carved with a hole in the end was tentatively called a “rod used by clan leader during meetings”, anyone familiar with Native American finds would tell you it was made to straighten arrow shafts…

  4. I do not think these are for hay….They are way too heavy for that simple task, a small tree with 3-4 correctly placed branches would have been the best tool for that job, as it was here in the pioneer days. No, I believe that if this was indeed a utilitarian object and not a ritual one…then it looks to me like a shovel, a new one maybe. The stout tines enabling easier digging, much like the teeth on a backhoe bucket with places for feet to aid in the pressure. Just a guess of course.

  5. Defenitely for catching eels. We have some more recent pieces here in our region still in use: they have to be heavy (because you have to forcefully drive it down in the mud of the river) and hard to catch the eel (which is extremely slippery). The ‘point’ to fill the eels as shown in the video is not necessary: the force of the weight of this instrument will drive the fish to escape and they get usually caught behind the fins. Therefor the eel-catcher must be ‘unplyable’ otherwise the fish can escape.

  6. Good point. I also thought of an eeling rake, had a look at recent ones and I got the impression that they look totally different. However, that more recent, and contrastingly, very similar rake that I saw might have indeed been a device for catching eels: Our county is full of pond fisheries and there still are virtually hundreds of small breweries. Moreover, the folks that run their own brewery often run a fishing pond as well, and they are certainly aware of rivers nearby.

  7. These forks are reminiscent of an extinct spade type found at Belmullet Co Mayo, Ireland under 4 feet of bog, not far from Neolithic Céide Fields. It consistent of two small spades in the form of a fork joined to one handle. It was called a ‘Gowl Gub’ and was used in historic times in Ireland. see: LUCAS A. T. 1978 Tools and Tillage pp191 – 199
    The depicted trident has a footrest that supports this explanation.

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  9. It looks a little similar to a Norwegian ‘fraugaffel’
    Used to clear muck in an animal barn. The flat top to the tines would allow a foot to press it into the soft organic matterial.
    Eel and fish spears/tridents would hardly function without backward teeth to prevent them escaping while it appears excessively heavy for use with hay.

  10. I agree with the eel catcher, but it could also be used as a oar and a stake to push into the mud to hold a small vessel like a mooring post. As an oar it would not need to be covered, the forces would be too strong for the timber if it did not have the slots in it. The foot rest confirms that it was used for pushing into soft mud or scraping for shellfish like cockles.

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