Environmental Evidence

Palaeo-environmental evidence for the late Prehistoric period in North West England remains scarce, and wherever encountered has the potential for regional significance. The continuing paucity of material culture for the later prehistoric means radio-carbon dating remains a vital tool in establishing chronologies, especially on seemingly earlier prehistoric sites and later, ostensibly, Roman ones.

Studies of a number of hillforts and natural deposits in central Cheshire as part of the hillforts and habitats project has provided some chronological detail on late prehistoric land use and farming regimes in the southern part of the region. Palynological analysis of natural deposits from two mere sites at Hatchmere and Peckforton were used to provide a more precise chronological framework for some of the later prehistoric and Roman periods, landscape trends recorded by the Cheshire wetlands survey in the 1990s. Both mere sites showed evidence for woodland clearance in the early Iron Age, which at Peckforton was dated to 800-550 cal BC. Cereal pollen also became more persistent in the record from the later Iron Age (Chiverrell, Davies & Marshall 2016, 267-268).

The presence of hemp pollen at both mere sites suggested that this was grown throughout the later prehistoric period. It was used in a variety of ways including the manufacture of cordage, durable clothing and food products. Palaeo-environmental samples from archaeological contexts at Eddisbury, Helsby, Kelsborrow and Woodhouse had very low levels of preservation. The exception were rampart deposits at Eddisbury. These produced evidence for crop processing of emmer and spelt wheat and hulled barley on a small-scale, day-to-day basis. A similar pattern of activity was noted at Beeston. Charcoal evidence suggested the exploitation of scrubland-type species for consumption and or domestic purposes such as bramble, hazel and sloe/plum/cherry-types (Garner 2016, 186-188).

Environmental evidence from the late prehistoric levels at Irby, Wirral (Merseyside), produced charred plant remains from a single Iron Age context, a post-hole. This context contained naked barley grain, emmer grain and chaff fragments, with very few weeds or other cereal taxa (Philpott & Adams 2010, 89-90). At Poulton analysis of excavated deposits revealed that a mixed farming economy was practiced with extensive bone evidence for domestic cattle, sheep/goat and pig dominating. The absence of both young and very old pigs in the assemblage is consistent with the use of the animal as a meat source, with the animals reared elsewhere and brought to the site for slaughter. Horse, dog, deer, cat, and hare were present to a lesser extent, whilst the earliest roundhouse in the sequence produced a single vertebra from a flatfish, indicating marine foods may have been eaten. Crops present included spelt wheat and barley, possibly supplemented by small amounts of emmer and wild gathered foods of oat and hazelnut. Red and roe deer antler were collected as raw materials to make a range of items such as handles and toggles (Cootes, Axworthy, Jordan &b Thomas 2018).

In the northern part of the North West smaller scale research and developer-funded work has produced a small amount of new palaeo-environmental evidence. Investigations at the Druidical Judgement Seat near Appleby-in-Westmoreland, Cumbria, for instance, uncovered a charred six-row barley grain radio-carbon dated to 800-530 BC (Railton 2017). This was recovered from the enclosure ditch. Pollen profiles at Knockupworth, on the line of the Carlisle Northern Development Road appear to date to a time immediately prior to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, indicating that, despite the lack of later Iron Age settlement evidence found on this road scheme, an increase in agricultural activity and associated woodland/scrub clearance had taken place. Large areas of the surrounding landscape had probably been cleared of trees and were under cultivation by the end of the first millennium cal BC.

The most significant palaeo-environmental evidence recovered in the southern part of the region between 2006 and 2018 comes from Chester. Here middle Iron Age settlement activity beneath the Chester Roman amphitheatre included cultivation soils and ard-marks (Wilmot & Garner 2018, 44-58). These were sealed by a late Iron Age cultivation soil and an area of parallel ridges and furrows over an area of c.15m by 6m representing the remains of cord-rig. These features immediately pre-dated the construction of the Roman amphitheatre. Archaeobotanical evidence from these soils and Iron Age features provides the first substantial study of the pre-Roman arable economy of Cheshire. Cereal chaff and/or weed seeds form the largest components for these samples. Chaff remains were associated primarily with the middle Iron Age four-post structure, suggesting both bulk processing and storage of fodder, but cereal grains were common throughout both phases. Spelt wheat, emmer wheat and hulled six-row barley were identified. Spelt was the most common grain flowed by barley (which accounted for one third of the grain assemblage). The large number of seeds of wild herbaceous species were interpreted as being weeds present in the processed crop. Pollen preservation from the pre-amphitheatre deposits was low, but the relative absence of tree pollen suggests a large open area under cultivation prior to the arrival of the Romans. It seems unlikely that such levels of arable production were happening in isolation, suggesting the absence of comparable assemblages in the North West is probably the result of preservation rather than a lack of extensive cultivation.

The palaeo-environmental evidenced for the later prehistoric period gathered or published between 2006 and 2018 supports the overall landscape anthropogenic trends noted by the various wetland surveys of the 1990s (Brennand 2006; Middleton, Tooley & Innes 2014). This is a pattern of woodland regeneration in the early first millennium BC, followed by successive and larger periods of clearance in the later Iron Age, often associated with arable agriculture in the lowlands, is amplified by several detailed local studies since 2006. The most important of these are from the central Cheshire Ridge and from the Iron Age deposits beneath Roman amphitheatre in Chester.

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