Early Prehistory: Legacy

The last ten years have seen significant increases in our knowledge about changes in climate and relative sea levels in the very late glacial and early Holocene periods.  North West England is particularly rich in intertidal, lowland and upland wetlands, which are revealing significant additional data and new types of evidence relating to past environments. Late Upper Palaeolithic sites and materials are probably still under-researched. There is considerable scope to involve wider groups of stakeholders and to maximise the information available in archives held by individuals and museums.

The new investigations of Mesolithic archaeology include a few large and important individual sites, such as Stainton West, and also a very valuable number of sites distributed in a range of topographical settings from the coast to the highest moorlands. These date from various periods during the Mesolithic. Several sites indicate more than one period of activity or occupation, and some have evidence for small structures.

These new discoveries in NW England can contribute to national and international questions such as how people recolonized and moved around the country at a time of rapid changes in relative sea level , climate, landscape and vegetation (cf Conneller et al 2016, Griffiths 2011).

Several locations show repeated use of the same site and/or general area (eg a particular valley side) in the Early Neolithic period and some sites appear to contain lithic assemblages of mixed Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic typologies. Together with occasional indications of early cereal grains, Mesolithic usage of Lake District tuff deposits, and several sites with very early Early Neolithic ceramics, it is clear that North West England has considerable potential to contribute to the debates concerning the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition and contacts between western Britain and Continental Europe. These are key research agenda priorities that are repeatedly expressed in research frameworks at regional (Myers 2006, 2007; Spikens 2010) and national levels (Prehistoric Society 1999; Blinkhorn and Milner 2014). 

Whilst the numerous new discoveries and investigations of Mesolithic archaeology have been well publicised and enthusiastically received within the region, the number of Neolithic discoveries has been more of a stealthy surprise. Many sites have, like the Mesolithic sites, been found incidentally during other activities such as large-scale strip map and sample excavations. All of these early prehistoric small, shallow or ploughed-out features are extremely difficult to locate by any means of remote survey, and tend to be discovered either during excavation or by fieldwalkers collecting lithics where sediments have been exposed by soil erosion or by ploughing.

Several Neolithic features include placed deposits, some terrestrial, some watery, and the items include whole and broken examples and a range of different types of materials. Occasionally, there are geographical areas (such as the Furness peninsula) that appear to have been particular foci of activities during the early prehistoric periods. A thorough review of Neolithic evidence (both old and new) from North West England, accompanied by a comprehensive dating programme would help to test the regional and national concerns regarding the densities, distributions, activities and affiliations of Middle and Later Neolithic populations.

Much of the new evidence for Early or Middle Bronze Age activities relates either to funerary and/or mortuary features, or to burnt mounds. Several burnt mounds have been discovered throughout the region, dating from the Late Neolithic through to the Early Medieval period. They would benefit from an overview that compares them with those found in adjacent regions ie Dumfries & Galloway, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales. The frequent juxtaposition of local sources of palaeoenvironmental evidence helps to place them within their contemporaneous environments.

The funerary and mortuary features demonstrate wide variations in structural typology eg cairns, ring cairns, ring ditches and barrows. Modes of deposition and activity are similarly varied and include inhumations, cremations (urned, bagged or scattered), with or without pyre material. The variations could be assessed with regard to topographical locations, geographical locations, date, demography etc, to investigate the most influential factors. Many of the sites investigated recently have been found to contain multiple periods of activity (often spanning several hundred years). Radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling have been crucial for discovering not just the sequences of funerary or mortuary activities, but also the probable dates for use and non-use (or different-use) hiatuses. Johnson 2017 provides a useful overview of Bronze Age barrows in the adjacent area of the Anglo-Welsh border for comparison.

Only a few Bronze Age settlement sites have been discovered in the past ten years. Again, the Anglo-Welsh border region provides a useful comparison (Halstead 2011).

Intriguingly, considering the paucity of structural evidence throughout the Early Prehistoric period in NW England, four-post structures have been found recently in NW England dating to the Neolithic, Beaker, Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age periods. Their functions still remain elusive.

The past ten years have seen the discovery and/or reporting of several finds of Bronze Age objects and occasional hoards through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). New work being undertaken on mining and sources of metal ores has recently demonstrated that NW England was an important region for Bronze Age metallurgy. The PAS items provide important raw material for investigations of Bronze Age metalwork using these new discoveries and methodologies.

Whilst overviews of prehistoric periods are available for Lancashire (Barrowclough 2008) and Cumbria (Barrowclough 2010), North West England is lacking region-wide syntheses. These research framework resource assessments can only provide brief introductions to the most recent discoveries and concerns.

Early Prehistory in NW England provides huge opportunities and several challenges. The cumulative quantities of data obtained through landscape surveys (remote aerial photography & lidar data, plus topographical surveys) means that large areas containing multiple precisely-located sites are available for study in the upland regions. But they remain undated until investigated, and many remain undated after investigation. Green et al (2016) have demonstrated statistically how under-recorded North West England is compared to regions in the south or east of England, but also note the plethora of potentially prehistoric sites.

Preservation conditions in shallow sites with acidic soils will always prejudice against the survival of many types of archaeological material, but there is much more scope to undertake analyses of cremated human remains, charred plant materials, phytoliths, phosphates and sterols and lipid residues in ceramic containers.

Early Prehistoric archaeology in North West England is particularly suited to research and investigations by a wide range of stakeholders, ranging from individuals (whether paid or unpaid, academic or freelance), through community groups and local societies, to large research projects or commercial developments. All can contribute to the advancement of knowledge provided that records are kept and materials and information are suitably well archived. ‘Old’ archived collections can usefully be investigated or reinvestigated using new techniques and approaches, and there is much scope for capacity building with regard to recognising early prehistoric material culture. The biggest challenges concern: locating sites without earthworks, dating all sites (and all periods of activity at each site), and ensuring secure archives.

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