Pre-historic Penkhull – the evidence

Some two thousand years B.C., farmers of the Neolithic period entered North Staffordshire from the south via the only access, the river valley. Invading Britain from Europe via the Humber Estuary they would follow the River Trent to the point known as Hanford. It is from here that the land rises up sharply almost in a triangular shape to provide a natural defensive location. Penkhull, with its extensive views surrounded by dense forests would provide ideal hunting grounds for food while grassland on its western slopes was a perfect location for the early tribes to settle.

Penkhull was probably the first inhabited settlement within the city and three prehistoric finds in the area confirm its early occupation. The first is an early Bronze Age cup dating c2000-1500 B.C. found by Mr R. Scrivener, a local architect, during the excavations for Penkhull Garden Village in 1911. This type of cup is known as a Pygmy Cup. The discovery of this cup strongly suggests a burial mound as other pygmy cups found in the county were all discovered in burial mounds, but extensive developments of the surrounding area over the following fifty years have probably destroyed all other physical evidence.

The significance of this important find should not be under estimated. From around 2,500 BC, we see a new type of monument on the landscape. This is an individual burial under a round barrow and it signals a departure from the common older Neolithic custom of deposing the remains of the ancestors in repositories like earthen and megalithic barrows. A round barrow is essentially a single grave albeit a rather grand one that could only have been afforded by the better-off. This fact can either suggest that wealth was being accumulated in individual hands, or even more likely in the case for Penkhull, that it was built for the use of a local chieftain.

The cup is handmade from clay, pinched and decorated with regular impressions, probably done by a stick end. The top rim decorated with a criss-cross pattern has a similarity to other pygmy cups found elsewhere in the country. Around the rim of the base there is a thin line around the circumference probably made by the pressure of a thread of hemp being pressed into the clay. The cup measures 32mm high, 75mm in diameter at its rim and 59mm at its base. There are no signs inside of any heated material which rules out the burning of incense. Nor could it have been made to contain any liquid because there are two small neat holes found half way down the vessel on one side. Although the exact purpose of these holes has not been confirmed, they could suggest that they were placed in that position to enable the vessel to be hung in some way on an upright support and not hung from a roof support otherwise the holes would have been spaced out equally for balance.

The cup was presented by the son of Mr Scrivener to Hanley Museum in 1931. Based upon the evidence available, archaeologist Dr. Barker suggests that it may have been used to contain something such as pot-pours, giving off a sweet-scented smell within the burial mound.

Technically, this cannot be called a ‘cup’ since two deliberate holes in the body would have precluded its holding liquid; holes are common, but by no means universal in these vessels. The term ‘incense cup’ has been used in the past, assuming that such vessels were used to burn incense, or to hold pot-pours. No explanation is really satisfactory. Whether this vessel found at Penkhull was primarily domestic, adopted for a funerary use, or primarily funerary, is not known, but certainly their presence in graves is well-known and frequently they accompany cinerary urns. The discovery of this cup at Penkhull strongly suggests that an Early Bronze Age burial was disturbed during the ground works for the Garden Village.

It should be remembered that a British Barrow was found in 1858 at Northwood, Trentham in which were found male and female human remains, probably those of a chieftain. Here would be placed alive his wife and his dog to provide for the chief’s future life.

The second pre-historic find is a fine flint leaf-shaped arrow head of Neolithic period 2500-2000 B.C. This fine example of workmanship was found in the garden of a house in Chamberlain Avenue near to its junction with Hunters Way. Its length measures 30mm and its width 25mm. Although now over 4,000 years old the workmanship is still clearly visible. It was chipped into its leaf shape, the point of which remains sharp enough to penetrate if used as a head to an arrow. Also associated with the same period, is a stone axe head, fashioned from a basic ingenious rock. Although found in Penkhull, probably by a pupil of Penkhull Senior School, no exact location is recorded.