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A Neolithic Stone Celt from Legbourne

By Alex Keyes

Roman CoinThe type of object I’ll be looking at in this post is often referred to as a stone celt. The name is somewhat deceptive as the object in question is obviously an axe. The usage of the word celt may be due to the incorrect assumption that they were used by the iron-age people of the same name though another theory posits that the association is down a strange case of Biblical misreading. In the book of Job the titular character cries out “Let it [my words] indeed be carved with an iron pen on a plate of lead or in stone.” In Latin ‘indeed’ is rendered as certe, a word which came to be misspelled as celte in many early printed bibles. This small change complicates the meaning of the text making it seem like a celte is the tool which Job wishes to carve his words with. Consequently, celt was adopted by many early scholars as a term for primitive stone tools.

Stone celts are actually much older than the Celtic people or the book of Job, our example found in the village of Legbourne near Louth, probably dates from the late Neolithic (c. 3000 BCE). It measures around 11 cm in length, is made of highly polished stone and has a bevelled edge. Originally it would have been mounted through a hole in a wooden handle, perhaps secured with a leather or bark strap. To make a stone celt you require a hard stone, another stone to grind it with and significant amounts of time and patience. The process involves knapping the stone into the rough shape then carefully polishing and grinding to create the optimal form and sharpness.

As well as showing the crafting process, the video below illustrates how much effort is required to make an outwardly simple looking tool.

The reason the inhabitants of Legbourne required such tools 5500 years ago was agriculture. Many people assume that Stone Age Britain was a land of primordial forest, however it was during the British Neolithic (c. 4000-2500 BC) that the landscape we know today was being created. The introduction of farming meant that huge amounts of forest were cleared throughout the British Isles to make way for arable and pasture land. Places where hardwood forests remain in Britain today are often in those areas where early farmers found no agricultural use for land. The soils in the New Forest for example are highly acidic making cultivation difficult, while Scotland’s remaining Caledonian pine woodlands are located in areas where commercial grazing is challenging.

Our stone celt may have been found on Furze Lane, a flat, fertile area that would have been ideal for clearing. Though chopping down a tree with our axe may seem like a daunting prospect, those of you who watched the video will have seen that a stone celt makes short work of a medium sized tree. Bulkier trees may have been cut by teams of men working together while fire was probably employed to clear larger areas.

Legbourne Field

Several similar items have been found in Legbourne such as this slightly cruder example seen here , while Louth Museum has a variety of celts from around the Louth area in its collection. It is a testament to the achievement of Lincolnshire’s first farmers that areas cleared during the Neolithic such as Legbourne and Tathwell are still being cultivated to this day.

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© Alex Keyes 2017

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