A few weeks ago I received an enquiry from Paul Brown asking whether we had any artefacts from the famous site at Ehenside Tarn in the archaeology collections. Students of archaeology, particularly wetland archaeology, will be familiar with this site, which is situated in low hills overlooking the Irish Sea in south-west Cumbria. When the tarn was drained in 1869, archaeological material including flint and other stone implements and wooden artefacts were exposed. R.D.Darbishire subsequently investigated the site. What was particularly astounding was the discovery of a greenstone axe complete with its beechwood haft (see Bryony and John Coles’ People of the Wetlands, 1989).
I found a grindstone or quern from the site in the Museum a few years ago. Although it wasn’t on our documentation system, it had been given the number O.1787. I went to the ‘O’ number catalogue and there was the reference “Grindstone (No.17) Ehenside Tarn”. This enabled me to to trace its modern accession number in a concordance volume. I found that O.1787 had been renumbered as 22283 on the documentation system. I searched on the computer and there it was, except that it was documented as ‘unprovenanced’ or without a locality. I had a result! With the help of information contained within the record I quickly located the grindstone in the archaeology store. It had been donated by R.D.Darbishire. I also updated the record with the locality details. Terry Manby, who knows more about prehistory and prehistoric collections in museums in the North of England, told me this is a grindstone for finishing axe heads rather than for grinding grain to make flour.
R.D.Darbishire had excavated the site for the Society of Antiquaries in 1871. But who was R.D.Darbishire? The next time I went to the Local History Library in the city centre I checked the biographical index and found a whole host of references to R.D.Darbishire.
Robert Dukinfield Darbishire (1826-1908) was a solicitor and one of three legatees of the estate of Sir Joseph Whitworth. Darbishire took a particular interest in the Whitworth Park and Institute (the Whitworth Art Gallery) but clearly had wide-ranging interests. He was a keen conchologist or collector of shells. In 1868 he was involved in the acquisition of the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society Museum by Owens College (the forerunner of the University of Manchester). The collection had previously been offered to and declined by the Manchester Corporation. Darbishire played a similar role in the acquisition of the collection of the Manchester Geological Society so Darbishire was a “founding father” of the Manchester Museum. A painting of R.D.Darbishire wearing his characteristic black skull cap by Mr T.B.Pennington used to be on display in the entrance to the Whitworth Art Gallery. Darbishire was made an honorary freedman of the city on October 6th 1899. Towards the end of his life Darbishire’s large collection of prehistoric stone and flint artefacts was transferred to the Museum.
It remains to be seen whether any other artefacts from the famous Ehenside Tarn remain to be identified within the lithics collection of The Manchester Museum. They would certainly be of considerable historical significance.
There the matter rested until Paul Brown’s enquiry. In return for providing him with a photo of the grindstone, Paul has very kindly allowed us to use photos of Ehenside Tarn. Some time ago the drainage outlet became blocked and for a short time the tarn looked something like its appearance when the discoveries were made in the 19th century. It’s a great thrill to see them and share them with a wider audience and the Museum is very grateful to Paul for allowing us to use them in this way.