1. Introduction

The petrological identification and sourcing of stone axes allows us to see patterns of exchange in Britain and Ireland and in his study of Wales and adjacent areas, a study that significantly included flint axes, Darvill (1989) distinguished three patterns of movement: regional, local and waterborne. In addition he also demonstrated that the bulk of axes in any given area reflected proximity to or distance from the sources suitable for axe-making, with sites near the latter often having more than 65% of axes from that local source, 'the remainder being imports. At sites away from suitable axe-making stone the imports typically account for 100% of the axes found' (Darvill 1989, 37). However, this observation masks the fact that some of the areas where rock was exploited have very few exotic axes or other 'imported' objects.

In the case of the Lake District and Cumbria, the source of Group VI axes (Figure 1), for example, there is little evidence of exotic material being brought into the area: a few carved stone balls, a jade axe, one or two flint axes of doubtful provenance and a few others from Group XVIII (Clough and Cummins 1988, map 16, for the latter), so the overall impression is that of a substantial one way or asymmetrical 'trade'. That impression is heightened by a comparison between the Lake District and the area around Flamborough Head, East Yorks, where there is both a concentration of distant Group VI axes and 'vast quantities of flint working debris' or local material derived from nearby coastal beaches (Manby 1979, 71). Moreover, despite that local source of flint, only 19% of axes in Yorkshire are made of that material and flint axes form only 0.6% of all the axes in the rest of northern England (Annable 1987; Darvill 1989). Gardiner noted a similar asymmetry of movement among the flint axes of south-east England; in particular that 'whilst Sussex axes were present in large numbers in areas such as Wessex and East Anglia, there are very few East Anglian or Wessex axes in Sussex' (Gardiner 1990, 122).

One explanation for the asymmetry of exchange in the Lake District has been to envisage people going into the area to obtain their own axes, another has been to suggest that they were made by 'locals' and exchanged for something not visible in the archaeological record such as pelts or social obligations (e.g. Mercer 1986, 50; Edmonds 1995, 55-56). However, these explanations do not easily account for the concentration of exotic axes in the Flamborough Head area – where we might also expect invisible goods to be exchanged – nor do they explain similar concentrations in areas like the Peak District and parts of Lincolnshire and East Anglia (Figure 2).

This article postulates that while the asymmetry in the distribution of axes was in part a reflection of exchange networks changing over time, it also developed in response to the movement of one specific group of perishable goods: those exotic domesticates, the cereals and sheep, if not cattle, which would have needed to be acquired by indigenous communities if they were to adopt farming. In particular it assumes that, whether farming was introduced by immigrants or adopted in some kind of process such as 'acculturation' by indigenous groups (e.g. Dennell 1983; Cooney 2000, 52; Bradley 2003, 219; Thomas 2004), the exotic domesticates would have had to be brought in from the Continent and, whether brought in by immigrants or indigenous groups, they would then have had to have been 'spread' across the rest of Britain and Ireland. The premise of this article is, therefore, that the probable means of acquisition and 'spread' of exotic domesticates was principally by exchange (e.g. Kinnes 1988) and that axes were a significant part of that process. In particular it explores whether the distributions and contexts of the axes support this thesis/premise and, if they do, the possible implications for our understanding of the observed data in general.


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