Across the region archaeological settlement evidence from the Later Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (roughly 1200 to 500 BC) remains elusive and has only been revealed with certainty with the assistance of scientific dating techniques. The evidence is often fragmentary, with radiocarbon dating of deposits being an important way of identifying such sites. In northern Lancashire and Cumbria, this problem of site visibility extends throughout the Iron Age.
In the northern part of the region fragmentary evidence for the later prehistoric has been noted at several sites. Pits excavated at Old Church Lane, Brampton (C) contained pottery of Late Bronze Age or Iron Age date (Jackson 2013). Similarly, the ring gulley of a roundhouse excavated at Micklam Farm, Lowca (C) contained hand-made later prehistoric pottery (Ross 2008). At New Cowper Quarry (C) a group of postholes post-dating Neolithic features are presumed to date from this period, as one burnt in-situ post provided a radiocarbon determination of 830-530 cal BC (Beta-211935), whilst burnt material within a pit elsewhere on the site provided a radiocarbon determination of 359-271 cal BC (UBA-31667) (Jackson and Churchill 2017, 66-7). At Crooklands (C) a relatively small sub-circular enclosure that was not detected through geophysical survey was revealed during a watching brief. The enclosure had an entrance to the east and contained several groups of pits and postholes representing internal structures (Morris 2011). Two of the samples taken produced radiocarbon dates of 553-399 cal BC (2415±30; BP SUERC-36862 / GU-25393) and 598-412 cal BC (2455±30; BP SUERC-36863 / GU-25394).
At the Glencoyne Park enclosed settlement (C), radiocarbon evidence indicates occupation at the start of the first millennium BC. The enclosure wall was constructed in at least two phases and with two different building techniques. Artefactual and radiocarbon evidence indicates a phase of rebuilding at the start of the Roman period in Cumbria. The first phase is dated by two radiocarbon dates to sometime after the start of the first millennium BC. The second phase is not as yet (2018) dated but appears to have fallen into disuse before the Roman period. Geophysical evidence reveals external buildings and courts which may indicate the enclosure wall had become disused. The enclosure wall pre-dates the Roman period. Internally some of the range of cut features probably belong to the latest phase before the Roman Iron Age (Hoen & Loney 2010).
In the southern part of the region, Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age activity has been recorded at several locations. The excavations at Oversley Farm, on Cheshire/Greater Manchester border, although excavated in the mid-1990s, was published in 2007. The later prehistoric evidence comprised just two pits containing LBA pottery and a structure formed by four post-holes of a possible round-house (Garner 2007, 103-4). Nevertheless, this demonstrates continued activity in this part of the middle Bollin Valley from the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Investigation of the hillforts of the Cheshire Ridge has shown that many sites had earlier Bronze Age activity (Helsby and Woodhouses) and even Mesolithic activity (Woodhouses). Both Kelsborrow (Ch) and Woodhouses (Ch) appear to be hilltop enclosures established at the end of the Bronze Age, like the origins of the Beeston hillfort (Ch) noted in the 1980s, whilst Eddisbury started as an unenclosed settlement in the late Bronze Age (Garner 2016).
In the northern part of the region Mid- to Late Iron Age activity remains hard to identify. A survey project at Elm How (C) and Braesteads (C) revealed additional sites of archaeological interest including substantial earthworks forming parts of field systems, some at least associated with a known late prehistoric/Romano-British settlement. These remains represent extensive and significant evidence for activity in the valley from at least the late prehistoric period onwards, and possibly continuous activity. It demonstrates the extent to which these remote valleys were occupied, and it fits well with evidence for large-scale.
In the southern part of the region a number of community, developer-funded, and management projects have produced significant new data regarding later Iron Age settlement, revealing more examples of both small-scale and large-scale open lowland settlements. The HLF Habitats and Hillforts Project (Garner 2016) saw geophysical survey, field walking, and targeted trenching at a number of hillforts located along the Mid-Cheshire sandstone ridge. Trenching was targeted upon areas that had been subject to previous excavation work but which had remained unpublished. It revealed a wealth of information on the dating and structure of the defences as well as activity within and in the immediate environs of the hillforts. Excavations at Eddisbury hillfort (Ch), produced a radiocarbon sequence and a re-evaluation of the phasing of the hillfort (Garner 2016). 12 radiocarbon dates included 10 dates from Iron Age deposits spanning the eighth to the first century cal BC. The first phase of hillfort activity was represented by a primary rampart built in the fifth century BC, with an entrance to the north, and internal metalled surfaces radiocarbon dated to 410-260 cal BC (NZA-36591). The second phase saw the addition of the outer rampart and ditch, radiocarbon dated to the period 400-200 cal BC (NZA-36654). Excavations at the eastern entrance, which dates from this period, revealed exceptional surviving evidence for of the entrance façade stonework and massive posts. An area of burning from the southern guardroom produced a radiocarbon date of 360-160 BC (NZA-36592). The evidence suggests that the eastern entrance was clearly designed both to impress and to offer a considerable obstacle to any belligerents wishing to force entry to the hillfort Garner 20016. 191-199).
The Iron Age site discovered in the lower Dee Valley at Poulton (Ch) near Pulford Brook on the Cheshire/Wales border has been excavated since 2003. An area of c.40m by 35m has revealed an unenclosed settlement formed by multiple roundhouse ditches, post-holes and associated occupation remains spanning the 8th century to the 1st century BC, as shown by ten radiocarbon dates. The bulk of the settlement activity spanned the fourth to the first centuries BC. The ditches contained a large volume of domestic waste, charcoal and heat-affected stone and the material assemblage was unusually large and diverse for later Iron Age site in the North West, preserved by the relatively neutral soils. Industrial activity comprised small-scale iron and copper alloy working. Significant quantities of the coarse, oxidised, ceramic known as Cheshire VCP and used for salt distribution were excavated. The overall character of the site suggests a high-status trading settlement ideally located to take advantage of riverine routes and contrasting geologies of the lower Dee Valley (Cootes, Axworthy, Jordan & Thomas 2018).
In Chester, two phases of Iron Age deposits were recovered from beneath the Roman amphitheatre. The primary phase of Iron Age activity was confirmed through 14 radiocarbon dates. This comprised a roundhouse c. 8.4m in diameter and a four-post structure c. 3.5m by 3.5m square. This earliest activity was dated to c. 400-200 cal BC, with the charcoal fill from one of the post-holes of first phase of the four-poster structure dating to 390-340 Cal BC (Wk-19120). The Late Iron Age activity took the form of evidence for ploughing by ard (see above), though presumably there was a settlement close by (Wilmott and Garner 2018, 44-58).
Further excavations at The Old Vicarage, Mellor (GM) from 2006 to 2009, produced detailed evidence for the Mid- to Late Iron Age hilltop defended site. When the site was first recognised the depth and size of the rock-cut ditch led to the interpretation of the site as a hillfort. However, the site has prove to be rather more enigmatic (Hearle, Nevell & Thompson 2014). Defined by a large inner ditch on the lower saddle of the hilltop, with a smaller outer enclosure ditch encompassing a much wider area to take in the top of the hill. The inner ditch had a defended gateway on the western side of the enclosure and a possible second, a causewayed entrance, on the opposite, eastern, side. There was a palisade behind this inner ditch, but no evidence for a rampart survived. This site has produced a significant series of radiocarbon dates, with 11 of the 18 dates obtained showing later prehistoric activity spanning the fifth century cal BC to the early first century cal AD. The focus of this activity was the series of round houses in the inner enclosure and immediately north of that enclosure (Roberts 2011).
The publication of the Irby excavations, undertaken from 1987 to 1996 reveals the details of a Late Iron Age settlement re-using an earlier landscape. Two distinct phases of Middle Bronze and Middle Iron Age settlement were identified amongst the 12 radiocarbon dates from the site. The later Iron Age activity focussed on the years c. 400 to 200 BC and comprised probably two roundhouses built using post-holes and gullies sealed beneath Romano-British occupation deposits. The settlement appears to have been unenclosed. Associated material culture comprised Cheshire VCP and industrial waste characteristic of domestic occupation, with the recovery of a steatite spindle whorl from a residual context comprising an unusual and rare find (Philpott 2010, 13, 19, 105-106).
Recent research by David Matthews (2014) has explored the inter-visibility of hillforts along the northern and mid-marches including those in Cheshire and North East Wales. His premise was that this approach would assist in revealing evidence for the role of hillforts as territorial centres and/ or refugia within socio-political territories. He also explored the capacity of these sites to function as monumental expressions of group identity and a sense of belonging to a particular area in the landscape. It does seem entirely plausible that large, prominent sites of this nature will have assumed or had attributed to them elements of corporate identity and a sense of shared culture and history. The alternative would be for them to have been seen as physical expressions of dominance or oppression. In truth, with hillforts spanning several hundred years it seems likely their meanings will have changed through time as the recent online database project ‘Atlas of Hillforts in Britain and Ireland’ has emphasised (Lock & Ralston 2017). In any case, this research does show how these sites form clusters that might well equate with the spatial character of socio-political identities, perhaps the emergence of tribal kingdoms.
Finally, two Roman sites have produced evidence of Late Iron Age activity immediately prior to the Roman occupation. The first of these sites is at Chester, beneath the amphitheatre (Wimott & Garner 2016, 44-70), in the form of cord-rigg earthworks relating to arable farming (see above). The second is at Manchester, where charcoal form a pit beneath the Roman cemetery at the southern end of Deansgate, on the southern side of the River Medlock, has been radiocarbon dated to 2082+/-28 BP, calibrated to 185-39 cal BC (SUERC-81965). A nearby ditch produced a radiocarbon date from charcoal of 1980±28 BP, calibrated to 43-72 cal AD (SUERC-81969). Both are a reminder of the potential for the continuity of settlement from the very late Iron Age into the early Roman period at sites closely associated with the Roman occupation.