Neolithic axe head from Rainsough, Greater Manchester. Image courtesy of Bury Art Museum
I bumped into Craig Brisbane on the Ancient Worlds galleries a few weeks ago and he mentioned in passing that the Prestwich Archaeology Group had found a neolithic stone axe head on the site of an old building. This immediately set off an allert on my radar because I have been looking for some time for a local example of what are known as ‘thunderstones’ or kerauni to put on display in the Ancient Worlds archaeology gallery.
Thunderstones are explained in Ralph Merrifield’s The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (Batsford 1987). The story goes something like this: in Greek and Roman times people did not know when they found a prehistoric stone axe that it was a piece of archaeology. They understood it to be a fossilised thunderbolt and called it a keraunos. Working on the principle that lightning never strikes the same place twice, it made sense to them to place it in the roofs of buildings to act as a charm to ward off lightning. Ralph Merrifield mentions a Neolithic stone axe head found in a Medieval building context at Treasury Green in London. He argued that the axe could have dropped down from the roof where it had been placed as a protective talisman, and ended up in the footprint of the building when it fell into ruin.
I wanted to display an example of one of the re-used axes in Ancient Worlds. As it turned out, the best example we could find before the opening was a Neolithic adze, found in the lining of a Romano-British potter’s clay pit at Brockley Hill, Middlesex, which we borrowed from the Museum of London. I always felt that a local example ought to turn up. And now, thanks to Craig, it seems to have done.
Craig put me in touch with Ms Susan Lord, Museum Curator at Bury Art Museum , which has the Rainsough excavation archive with the stone axe, on loan from Bolton Museum. She kindly sent me information about the Rainsough excavations.
The Rainsough axe head is made of stone from Tievebulliagh in Ireland (pers.comm. Craig Brisbane). Image courtesy of Bury Art Museum.
In the meantime I checked with Mike Nevell, Head of the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford. Mike confirmed, after speaking to Craig, that the axe was found whilst excavating the foundations of a timber-framed cruck cottage, at Rainsough Brow, in Prestwich, about half way between Manchester and Bolton, during the 1980s. I understand that cottages like this were still being built into the 17th century. The axe came from the middle room of the cottage, in the main heated room space. Mike told me there was no surviving floor surface there when the site was dug, but the axe was not in a pit or a cut but at the surface. Of course, we cannot be absolutely sure that the axe had been in the roof and fell down during dereliction, but judging by the location and shallow depth of the axe head, Mike felt that this was highly likely.
What do other people think? Do you agree that the Rainsough Neolithic axe head is probably a keraunos?
You can find out more about the circumstances of this discovery in Archaeology North West, the Bulletin of CBA North West No7 vol.2,part 1 spring/summer 1994 (see Dr Michael Nevell’s article ‘Rainsough a Romano-British site in the Irwell Valley’). You can find a plan and a section drawing of the cottage in Michael Nevell and Norman Redhead’s Bury the Archaeology of a Pennine Valley (University of Manchester, 1999).
We are now talking to Susan Lord and the museums at Bury and Bolton with a view to borrowing it to display in our Ancient Worlds galleries.
Though this isn’t exactly an International Rescue, we can at least say that Thunderstones are Go!
My sincerest thanks to Craig Brisbane for mentioning the axe, to Susan Lord for sending photographs and supporting information, and to Mike Nevell for confirming the stratigraphic location, all of which has helped in the reappraisal of this discovery.