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Archaeology - "The crags before the climbers"

by Derek Cutts

Climbers are probably the biggest group of visitors to most crags. Therefore, they have an important part to play in discovering and preserving 8,000 years' worth of human activity there. Informed and sensitive attitudes are vital to support continued access. Anyway, when you're at the foot of the crag choosing your next brilliant route, it's fascinating to think that on the same spot, people have butchered the deer they have hunted, burnt their grannies, chipped the crag without complaints and blown lumps off it with gunpowder. Bored seconds, when the backside above hasn't moved for ten minutes and the neck muscles are acheing can look around and spot clues for all these activities.
Northumberland crags have been a focus for human activity long before the first climbs were recorded in 1902. The first people to be drawn to them arrived as early as 8,000BC. Bearing in mind that the view from the top of Bowden Doors then would be of a vast forested plain stretching to Germany, not of the North Sea, we should remember things have changed a bit. Some unrecorded first ascensionists might have been proto-Germans
Don't let your second read the next bit if their concentration is already a bit suspect. It's easy to spot evidence of early activity at nearly every crag. Patches of erosion caused by climbers' feet often turn up the tiny flint blades about 10mm long the middle stone age hunters used for their arrow heads and knives. They often turn up at Bowden Doors and Back Bowden and show that people were sheltering under the overhangs 7000 years ago, sorting their gear and having their bait just like now. Many hundreds of these microliths have been excavated below an outcrop in the Rothley area and there must be more sites to find. Bigger flints from the New Stone Age and the Bronze Age also turn up. The quarry area at Kyloe Crag was where a New Stone Age lumberjack lost or dumped the polished stone axes he (or she) had got all the way from Langdale in around 3000 BC, so maybe people were already picking up some of their gear on trips to the Lakes. A spectacular Bronze Age arrow head was found by a climber at Corby's Crag. If you pick up any flints, put them in an envelope with the find spot written on and pass them to the Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle University. They will help to build up a picture of a lost world.
Goat's Crag and Corby's Crag were also used by prehistoric Northumbrians to bury their dead. Bronze age corpses (none of them unfortunate climbers we hope) were cremated. The burnt bones were smashed up and buried in big pots under overhangs at the crags. These were found and excavated. A find like that is so rare and important, it would be vital to report it at once.
Then there's the mysteries. Goat's Crag has its goats, carved at an unknown date but possibly very old. More important still are the prehistoric spirals at Jack Rock. There are some near Ancient Briton. Once you've got your eye in, there are several more along the crag. Bored seconds can play I spy. These have to be preserved from any sort of wear, so please stay off them. There's a good chance of more on other crags, so any seen are worth reporting. It's worth remembering that Britain's first known Old Stone Age cave art was only discovered in Derbyshire this century.
The quarrying must have started very early, but some was still going on in the 19th Century when hand drills of about 50mm diameter were used for placing gunpowder charges. What you get left is half a drill hole, split lengthways. Look near the Introductory Staircase end of Bowden Doors or in a few places at Corby's. Millstone quarrying was a bit slower and probably earlier. You chipped a circular groove; undercut it at the bottom, hammered wooden wedges in, poured in water and waited for the wood to swell and split the millstone away from the rock. There are dozens of them near the Drakestone, traces at Corby's Crag and on top of other crags such as Berry Hill.
By this stage, your second may have dropped you while distracted by the rock art. The consolation is that your impact may well have dislodged some vital prehistoric clues from the foot of your route.