Early Prehistoric


Compiled by Andrew Myers and Sue Stallibrass

(with contributions by Mark Adams, Mark Brennand, Kevin Cootes, Ron Cowell, Patrick Daniel, Helen Evans, Mark Leah, Rachel Newman, Hannah O’Regan)


Each chapter presents a summary of the archaeological and historic environment research undertaken in North West England since 2006 for the particular period or subject. The chapters arearranged using the same structure as the original resource assessment subject chapter for the first North West Archaeology Research Framework published in 2006 (Brennand et al 2006). The update is not a replacement of that work, but rather an addition and enhancement. The 2006 resource assessment text remains a key foundation document for regional research studies in North West England. Nor are the chapters merely a list of all work undertaken since 2006. Instead, they highlight key new data, emerging subject areas, and fresh synthesis in the decade or more since the original regional Research Framework was published.

The chapters have been compiled by an author with special knowledge of the period/subject area and use material provided by a variety of researchers who are also credited. The project included consultation and workshops designed to highlight any omissions in recent significant work. The chapters provide the framework for revised questions and supporting statements/strategies. Being available on this wiki platform allows historic environment practitioners to update and refresh these chapters as new research findings come to light or gaps in data/coverage are identified. It was agreed that these chapters should be published as a point-in-time monograph in 2020 through the CBA North West to complement the original volume of 2006.

Each resource assessment highlights important sites relating to that period in the North West. Each particular region is abbreviated with a letter in brackets as follows:

C = Cumbria

L = Lancashire

M = Merseyside

Ch = Cheshire

GM = Greater Manchester

WY = West Yorkshire


The Early Prehistory Resource (Late Upper Palaeolithic to Middle Bronze Age ~14,000 – 1,200BC)

The Research Framework for North-West England published in 2006 saw both the resource assessment, research agenda and strategy volumes structured around six broad culture-chronological chapters. Prehistory was addressed as a single, rather large chapter (Hodgson and Brennand 2006). It was always the intention that the Research Framework should provide a convenient and readily accessible source of information and summary guidance for researchers, whether academic, commercial or volunteer. With the benefit of hindsight, confirmed by the views expressed during research framework workshops, it was agreed this approach had produced a single chapter that was somewhat unwieldy. For the sake of clarity and utility a decision was taken to sub-divide the update research agenda for prehistory into two sections.

In covering some 800,000 years of archaeology representing some of the most far reaching biological and cultural developments it is inevitable that any sub-division will cut across somebody’s research sensibilities. It would have been possible, for example, to sub-divide the period at the point when Homo sapiens sapiens first appears in the region’s archaeological record, the Upper Palaeolithic. Such a division would have been open to an accusation of evolutionary or genetic determinism. In practical terms, the paucity of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic finds in the region meant this would have been a nonsense. Other sub-divisions may have a stronger claim: for example, the shift from hunting and gathering to early farming (Later Mesolithic to Earlier Neolithic). In the spirit of archaeological hermeneutics, it is readily acknowledged that any adopted sub-division would be open to critique.

In practice, Prehistory has been sub-divided into two sections – ‘Early’ and ‘Later’, with the division being defined at the climatic downturn of the Middle Bronze Age.  This means that for the purposes of this project Early Prehistory includes the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, whilst Later Prehistory includes the Middle Bronze Age, Later Bronze Age, and Iron Age. It is inevitable that creating this sub-division leaves the project open to the implied criticism of climatic determinism. In fact, it was at least in part a pragmatic response considering the balance of archaeological investigations and discoveries across the region over the past 13 years that needed to be covered. The approach adopted here has been taken with the sole intention of increasing ease of use and utility for researchers.

North West England is important for late glacial and early Holocene studies nationally, as the region includes numerous sites retaining proxy evidence of changes in climate, relative sea level, and past vegetation. These studies provide the context for early recolonization of the country and people’s adaptations to rapidly changing environments. Although there are very few known deposits that might contain evidence of early human occupation in the Lower or Middle Palaeolithic periods, there have been a few developments concerning our understanding of the Late Upper Palaeolithic during the past ten years, and several significant discoveries relating to occupation, other activities and, possibly, belief systems during the Mesolithic period.

Although human activities during the Neolithic period are still relatively poorly known
in the region, there have been some important new discoveries. Fieldwork
highlights the need to have suitable methods of detection and investigation for
these widespread but dispersed and ephemeral remains. There have been several
significant discoveries of a range of different types of site and activities
dating to the Bronze Age period, particularly regarding funerary and mortuary
sites, but also providing some glimpses of settlement activity, farming
practices and enigmatic burnt mounds.

Most of the known early prehistory sites are still located in rural areas and their discovery is often rather serendipitous. Investigations in rural areas tend to be undertaken by academic and community research projects (as at Copt Howe and Long Meg Neolithic monuments) or prompted by infrastructure projects, such as the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) which found Bronze Age settlement sites and the A556 road upgrade which uncovered a multi-period Bronze Age funerary landscape. New developments in scientific analyses and, perhaps more fundamentally, in ways of thinking about early prehistory, provide several opportunities to synthesise or to re-investigate current and long-archived material evidence. There is also considerable potential for integrated studies of past and present environments, particularly at sites where flood alleviation, habitat creation, carbon sequestration and public health benefits are priorities (as at Lunt Meadows, Merseyside).

Volunteers digging in the rain at Long Meg (courtesy of…)

This chapter covers a long time period (over 12,000 years) and is divided into two parts: the late glacial/early postglacial period characterised by hunter-gatherer communities, and the Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age periods. Please note that
this distinction is more apparent than real and the transition from late Mesolithic to early Neolithic cultural activities remains an important topic for further study.


Early Prehistoric sites mentioned in text (created by Rachael Reader)


Key overview comments to address for the Prehistoric period

A number of overarching comments came out of workshop discussions for the framework that should be taken into consideration for the Prehistoric period:

  • Ceramics and coins are very different to other areas of the country, as shown by PAS with only Cheshire having coins.
  • There are very few four poster structures (though see the middle BA one excavated recently at Cut Acre, Bolton).
  • A national radiocarbon database is desperately needed e.g. we cannot say how many Neolithic radiocarbon dates there are for the NW, whereas dendrochronology dating is well coordinated and accessible.
  • It would be helpful to have all HERs on line and be able to interrogate them through GIS.
  • The EH/HE Thesaurus is not fit for purpose e.g. ‘hill top enclosures’. It needs an overhaul/review.
  • Investment should be targeted to better understand key sites.
  • Hillforts – more evidence is coming forward for defensiveness and fighting inside and out.
  • We need more predictive modelling, from large hill top to lowland defended sites including promontories.
  • The date range for Burnt Mounds needs to be clarified – don’t assume they are all prehistoric in origin.
  • Following discussion and agreement at the Prehistoric research framework workshop the agenda is now divided into the Early and Late Prehistoric phases, with the divide at the climatic downturn during the Middle Bronze Age, effectively placing Paleo, Meso, Neo and EBA into the Early Prehistoric and MBA, LBA and IA into the Later Prehistoric.
  • More training is needed for volunteers in issues/techniques relating to Prehistoric archaeology.


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