Trade, Exchange and Production

It has been recognised since the 1980s that several late prehistoric pottery types were manufactured in North West England, especially in the southern part of the region (Brennand 2006, 56-56). The best known and most widely used fabric is Cheshire VCP (very coarse pottery), used to transport salt made at the natural brine springs in the Weaver Valley in Cheshire. Since 2006 further excavated and published examples of this briquetage (salt making) material have been located at Barton (GM), Chester amphitheatre (Ch), Irby (M), Mellor (GM), and Poulton (Ch) demonstrating that this fabric was widespread in the southern part of the North West. Furthermore, a study of late prehistoric salt production in Britain by Kinory (Kinory 2012) building upon Morris’ work (Morris 1985), has amalgamated a range of manufacturing deposits with briquetage and other sites with VCP fragments that have been radiocarbon dated. This confirmed that as a sub-group Cheshire VCP production spanned the entire first millennium BC, with production surviving into the very early Romano-British Period (c. 800 BC to AD 60) (Kinory 2012, 4,37). Beyond the North West, Cheshire VCP continues to be found at late prehistoric settlement sites in northern Wales, the middle and lower Severn valley, and in the upper Trent valley, with sites up to 150km from Cheshire recording finds of VCP. Cheshire VCP appears to have been in production longer and been distributed over a wider, and overlapping, area compared with Droitwich VCP.

Perhaps linked to this pattern of trade and exchange is the presence in the southern part of the region, especially in Cheshire, of gold and silver pre-conquest coinage, sometimes occurring in hoards, often recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It would seem to link Cheshire with the tribal groupings of southern England. It has been long argued that salt was being traded, using VCP via water transport around the coast to of north Wales and North West England via Mersey estuary and the Wirral. Direct evidence for the port of Meols (Ch) as the transhipment point for VCP from the Wirral, though, remains lacking, but is not surprising bearing in mind the coastal erosion of this site (Griffiths, Philpott & Egan 2007, 384-386). Cheshire VCP has yet to be confirmed at sites in southern England (Kinory 2012).

Evidence for Late Bronze Age and Iron Age metalwork from excavations across the region has been scarce (Brennand 2006, 56-57). However, between 2006 and 2018 extensive new evidence of late prehistoric metalwork has been reported, largely through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, although many of these finds lack an adequate context. This new evidence shows a notable concentration of material south of the River Ribble in Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside, whilst metalwork reported from Cumbria and Lancashire remains rare. Of note in the northern part of the region is a Late Bronze Age hoard from the Ulveston area close to the earlier prehistoric hilltop site of Skelmore Heads (C). This comprised three socketed bronze axes of Sompting Type, two with rib decoration on each face (Boughton 2016, 26-31). Iron Age finds of metalwork in this period, with the notable exception of a copper alloy, socketed, leather working knife from the Penrith area of the early Iron Age, is largely confined to the Furness area in the south-west and South Lakeland (C). This material includes a middle Iron Age bronze brooch, with a central wheel-shaped design, from Urswick near Dalton-in-Furness, an uninscribed gold stater of North-East Coast type of c. 60-50 BC from Heversham in the lower Kent valley, and a bronze sword belt mount from Kent’s Cavern (C) from the Late Iron Age/early Roman Period (Boughton 2016, 32-39). Lancashire has produced two copper-alloy brooches of the early to mid-first century AD. The first is a Dragonesque enamelled brooch variety made somewhere in northern England found in the Over Kellet area, north of Lancaster (Noon 2016, 30-32). The second, found in North Turton, in Rossendale, is a Roman Aesica variant ‘thistle’ or ‘rosette’ type, manufactured in the period c.60-80 AD.

In the southern half of the region, especially Cheshire, the volume of late Bronze Age and Iron Age metalwork reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme has been greater, as has the opportunity for archaeological investigation of the find spots (Rule 2018). Although no finds from this period have been reported from Merseyside since 2006, several artefacts have been reported in Greater Manchester. These include a copper alloy figurine of a bull, an iron and copper alloy linch pin, and a copper alloy harness fitting, all from Stockport and all very Late Iron Age in style. There was also a copper-alloy circular stud with a La Tene style spiralling design inlaid with enamel from Hale Barns in Trafford and a late Iron Age gold-plated stater based on coins of the Corieltavi from around the Humber estuary, found in the southern Trafford area (Oakden 2016, 22-29).

In Cheshire Early Iron Age finds reported since 2006 include a socketed ace head of Sompting-style from Wrenbury. This dates to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transitional era of 800-600 BC, as does a bronze sickle from Congleton. Later Iron Age finds from Cheshire mix functional and decorative pieces. A bronze tankard handle of the Late Iron Age is known from Great Barrow, whilst horse gear such as a copper alloy fob dangler from Malpas and a copper alloy strap union from Tarvin. Birdlip and Colchester-style brooches from Great Barrow and Bickley belong the mid-first century AD belong to the early years of Roman contact (Oakden 2015, 17-24).

Of particular note amongst the North West material discovered in the years 2006 to 2018 is the number of items related to horse gear, especially in Cheshire. The overall distribution of such material in England and Wales (Oakden 2016, 28, after Dr Anna Lewis), shows a clear focus of such material east of the Pennines in the Ouse Valley and Humber estuary of Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire. It also shows an absence of such finds in North West England north of the Ribble and a concentration in Cheshire. This raises a number of issues including whether the metal detecting patterns reflect a true distinction between the two areas, and if it does, how this might relate to different levels of status, horse ownership, and use in the region. This material may link into recent research by Caroline Pudney on the links between Dubunni coin production and deposition, horse iconography, and the use of space in the later Iron Age (Pudney 2019).


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