A History Of Warrington In 10 1/2 Objects: The Orford Axe

Collections Officer Craig Sherwood presents the second episode in our new series of podcasts, looking at 10 (and a half) objects from Warrington Museum’s Collection that tell the history of the town.

Listen using the player below, or scroll down to read the full transcript.


Hello and welcome to the second episode of the podcast “A History of Warrington in 10 and a Half objects”. I am Craig Sherwood, the Collections Officer for Culture Warrington.

Stone Age Warrington would have looked hugely different to the landscape we see today. Much of what we now call Cheshire was a wilderness, covered with thick forest and with very few human inhabitants. But if you were standing in these woods in a particular spot just north of the town centre 5,000 years ago and listening carefully then amongst the sound of wind in the trees as well as the birds and the insects you might also have just been able to hear stone repeatedly biting into wood. Someone, somewhere, was cutting down a tree with a stone axe.

Object 2: The Orford Axe, made of polished hornstone flint, between 6000 and 4000 years old, found in Orford, Warrington.

I have got something of a shameful confession I need to get off my chest. It is not one of those confessions that people claim to be ashamed of but are secretly a source of pride like the fact I probably drink too much coffee and I have a love of showtunes. Both of those are, in my case, a matter of public record anyway.

No, my shameful confession is that until recently I did not really “get” the appeal of Stone Age tools. For any other profession publicly admitting that you are not excited by flint implements would barely raise an eyebrow, but for someone working in a museum it is somewhat embarrassing. A bit like an accountant admitting they have got a blind spot when it comes to the number 7 i.e., you can probably get by for quite a while but eventually you are going to get found out. After all museums are full of stone tools, but for me and (I suspect) a proportion of our visitors they are amongst the most difficult objects to decipher. Our Roman and Medieval heritage surrounds us in terms of buildings, ruins and roads but practically the only evidence we have about our Stone Age ancestors are their tools, which means that trying to understand their culture is the equivalent of trying to work out details of your great grandfather’s everyday life by examining his favourite pair of pliers.

But Stone Tools can, I have since learned, tell you a lot more than you might think and so in this podcast, I hope to teach you what I have recently learned and what any archaeologist – or indeed any child who plays the video game Minecraft – can tell you. Namely that stone axes are massively important.

I am holding the subject of this podcast, the Orford Axe, in my hands right now. It is about 16 cm long and shaped something like an extended teardrop. At first glance this polished axe looks like many other stone axes in the museum collection but if you examine it more closely you can see that it is made of a beautiful honey-coloured flint or chert known as hornstone. It feels pleasantly cool to the touch, heavy and yet balanced and it is also, pleasingly smooth, and polished.


It was found about 2 feet below the surface in a place called Canks Field in Orford, Warrington. Stone Age tools are notoriously difficult to date but we think it was probably made around 5,000 years ago, give or take a millennium, and although we call it an axe it is perhaps more accurately described as an axe head. Originally this stone blade would have been attached to a long wooden handle which either broke or rotted away many thousands of years ago. Although these axes might look incredibly primitive, they are in fact surprising efficient. Experiments have shown that you can cut down a tree with a polished stone axe in about half an hour, which is only twice the length of time you would need to achieve the same result with a modern steel hatchet and a saw.

Neolithic stone axes with handles (Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landesmueum)

Polished stone axes like the Orford Axe dates from towards the end of the Stone Age, which means that although it may look quite simplistic, they sit at the end of millions of years of technological development. The first known hand axes were developed in Africa over 3 million years ago and so on a purely mathematical basis over 99% of human technological development has gone into developing the something like the Orford Axe whilst less than 1% has gone into developing the device that you are using to listen to this podcast.

So where does the Orford Axe sit in terms of the History of Warrington? There is little to suggest there was much in the way of human habitation in the Cheshire area until at least 12,000 years ago when the last glacial period came to an end and the ice that covered Cheshire and Lancashire finally began to retreat. As this ice melted it left behind a marshy landscape scattered with small lakes separated by high sandstone ridges such as the ones containing the fossilised footprints we discussed in our last episode.

We think that the earliest inhabitants in the area date from around this time and lived in scattered nomadic hunting communities during what archaeologists describe the Mesolithic era, a rather uncomfortable term meaning the “Middle Stone Age” the exact definition of which – like any definition of Middle Age – is somewhat open to debate depending on who you ask. Roughly speaking it stretches from around 12,000 when the ice retreated to around 6,000 years ago but the people of this period have left very few traces of their presence in the area except for a handful of simple stone tools such as knives, scrapers, and arrowheads. Much of the land during this time was covered by luscious thick forests so these people lived as hunters and gatherers, probably amongst places with lighter woodland cover, such as the ridges and lakeshores.

Replica Mesolithic camp at the Irish National Heritage Park (David Hawgood CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Orford Axe was during the last phase of the Stone Age which followed the Mesolithic and is called the Neolithic or ‘New Stone Age’. It probably will not surprise you to learn that the Neolithic period is, like the Mesolithic, also vaguely defined. Most Archaeologists agree that it stretches from about 6,000 years ago to about 4,500 years ago but it is important to bear in mind that no-one woke up on a single day at the end of the Mesolithic and thought “Well we’re all Neolithic now and we’d better start behaving like it”. Rather this was a gradual change that took place over generations. It was one which was marked by one important transition – people gradually turned from hunting and gathering to feed themselves and turned towards farming.

The concept of farming probably started in the Middle East and then spread to mainland Europe around 7,500 years ago. Even then it took generations to arrive in Britain but eventually, about 6,000 years ago evidence of farming starts appearing in the British archaeological record. For the first time the Prehistoric inhabitants of Britain had a reliable source of food and because they did not need to move around to hunt, they could start to create permanent farming settlements.

Although Archaeologists have found evidence of these early farms in places like Tatton and Wilmslow, until recently they believed that the Warrington area remained pretty much a wilderness right until the end of the Neolithic period. However recent analysis of ancient pollen from pond mud and the plants preserved in the local peat bogs like Risley Moss suggest that some of the local forests had been cleared around here as early as 5,000 years ago, around the time the Orford Axe was made. People were obviously beginning to take up tools to clear forest to grow their crops and graze their animals.

Neolithic excavations at Skara Brae on Orkney in Scotland (John Burka CC BY-SA 3.0)

But where, specifically, did the Orford Axe come from? Cheshire sandstone does not make good tools and so people may have looked further afield for the materials to make their tools. We know that so-called “axe factories” existed in places rich in flint like Cumbria, Wales and Cornwall and so the stone of the Orford Axe may actually have been quarried quite far away and then roughed out into axe shape before it was brought to Warrington to be finished and traded. To give it the polish it still possesses even to this day the roughly hewn axe would have ground for hours against another stone, then polished with sand and water before finally being rubbed with a mixture of grease and leaves. To create a polished axe like this was therefore a massive investment of time requiring days and days of work, but the resulting axe would have survived longer as a result.

Because several similar stone axes have been found along the River Mersey there may even have been a trade route running along the Mersey Valley which spread into what is now Lancashire and Cheshire. These axes have been found on both sides of the River Mersey where it flows through Warrington and this suggests that there may even have been an early ford or crossing point at here thousands of years before the first known bridge.

There are, however, a few additional factors to consider about the Orford Axe. The first is the question of whether this axe was ever intended to chop wood. The axe head is rather better quality than it needs to be and so it is very possible that it was intended for ritual use. Now, for anyone who does not realise the term ‘Ritual use’ is one Archaeologists employ when they do not know the answer to a question, but to speculate for a moment it is not unreasonable to suggest that these axes might have been important because of their heritage – what they were made from, how they were made or even from whom they were traded. Perhaps these axes were intended to be buried with their owners, or even for another ceremonial use such as throwing them into rivers as offerings to the gods. Of course, at this point I have to admit the term ceremonial use is – like ritual use – an Archaeological term meaning “At the end of the day we don’t really know”. It does benefit from being 4 letters longer and therefore sounds slightly more convincing.

There is one last linked factor to consider about the Orford Axe. The act of polishing a stone axe makes it last longer for sure, but it also emphasises the shape and allows the maker to control the form and bring out the attractive properties of the stone. This axe head is made from hornstone flint which is more brittle than regular flint and thus wouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice for use in an axe. It is, however, more decorative, and so the person who made this axe may have chosen this particular piece of flint because of the colours. Maybe they took pleasure in the way the polishing process brought out the warm tones of the stone. There is obviously an element of choice at work here and maybe, just maybe, we can make a case for the Orford Axe being if not a work of art, one of the oldest works of artistic design found in the Warrington area.

All of this is, of course, speculation but it does bring me, once again, to the question I posed earlier in this podcast which is why are prehistoric stone axes so important and worthy of my attention?

Once people began to use stone axes to clear land, they could plant crops and raise animals and they no longer need to move around to find food. This meant that they could build permanent structures, develop villages, towns and eventually cities. Farming also eventually allows you to create more food than you need, and that means eventually you have enough food to sustain larger populations. Larger populations mean that not everyone is needed for food production and so the rest of society has time to do other things like invent new tools, build buildings, create a writing system, produce art, write philosophy, develop mathematics etc. You can therefore argue that all human civilisation, art, and technology from the printing press to line dancing to the internet stems from the simple stone axe.

Although we have several stone tools from Warrington there is one form of accompanying prehistoric evidence that is largely missing from the archaeological record. We know that Stone Age farmers had developed pottery, but we have only found tiny fragments in the area and there are no examples of complete Stone Age vessels. For our next object therefore must jump forward a few thousand years. It is a pot, and it is one that can tell us not only how the way of life in the Warrington area changed for people in the Bronze Age, but also the way of death.

The music in this podcast is ‘Alone in the Museum’ by Edwin Montgomery used here under an Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives International License

Further Reading

  • Archaeological Surveys Ltd (1976), The Archaeology of Warrington’s Past
  • Barrowclough, David (2008) Prehistoric Lancashire
  • Cheshire Archaeology, Revealing Cheshire’s Past: Barrows to Bog Bodies
  • Crosby, Alan (2002) ‘A History of Warrington