NEOLITHIC AND EARLY -TO MID-BRONZE AGE: Ritual, religion and ceremony

Some examples of possible deliberate placing of Neolithic to Mid-Bronze Age artefacts have been excavated archaeologically in the past ten years.

At Mark Rake, Bromborough, Wirral (M) one of the pits contained 22 undecorated body sherds of one, possibly two, carinated bowls of Grimston Ware. The sherds were relatively large and unabraded, with fresh breaks, and had been stacked on top of each other, giving the impression that they had been broken and immediately placed in a pile within the small, shallow pit. The single fill contained no other artefacts and radiocarbon dating of alder charcoal from the fill gave an Early Neolithic date of 3943-3712 cal BC (Adams forthcoming).

At Durranhill, Carlisle (C), a pit at the edge of a pit cluster contained over 60 sherds of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware, a clay ball made from the same fabric, a flint blade of Early Neolithic type, fragments of charred crab apple and a large quantity of charred hazelnut shells (representing at least 150 nuts), one of which gave a radiocarbon date of 2460-2210 cal BC.

In another cluster of features at Durranhill (C), nearly 200 metres away, a large pit had ten rectangular blocks of unburnt clay deliberately placed towards the base of the feature, sealed in between two heavily burnt deposits. Upper fills of the pit contained sherds of Late Neolithic Peterborough Ware.

At the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age site investigated at the Montcliffe quarry extension (GM), a triangular flint point was found pressed into the clay underneath a gritstone cobble and may have been deliberately buried (Adams & Cowell, 2015).

At New Cowper Farm (C), Churchill et al (2017, 62) suggested that sherds from two All Over Cord Beaker vessels had been deliberately distributed into three widely separated pits in order to form a conceptual link between them.

In the Middle Bronze Age site at Irby (M), ten decorated rim and body sherds were found in a stone-packed posthole associated with the main structure, and a further sherd probably from the same vessel was found in a gully part of the same structure. The sherds in the stone-packed posthole were all fresh and unabraded and appeared to have been broken immediately before being placed in the feature (Philpott and Adams, 2010, p14).

Three Neolithic sites in Cumbria have produced evidence of (probably deliberate) placement or deposition of items into watery contexts: a carinated bowl at Fitz Park, Cockermouth; two wooden tridents at Stainton West, and a stone axe at Mossgarth.

Excavation of a palaeochannel at Fitz Park, Cockermouth, Cumbria, produced 53 fragments from a single Early Neolithic carinated bowl, together with pieces of charcoal (mainly oak) and a single grain of emmer wheat dated by radiocarbon assay to 3707‒3638 Cal BC (Williams & Holgate 2015). The excavators noted that the pottery did not display any evidence of rolling or abrasion, but had crisp edges, some of which could be refitted. They suggested that this might indicate that it had been deposited directly into standing water and this is supported by the sediment analysis of the basal fills of the palaeochannel. This fine-grained, lacustrinal mud was probably deposited in open water after the channel had partially silted up and restricted water flow.

At Stainton West (Brown et al in prep) the fills of the palaeochannels have produced a great deal of preserved wood including two large ‘tridents’, each being around six feet in length, made from solid oak. Only four comparable examples have previously been found, all of which were discovered in the nineteenth century: two from Ehenside Tarn in western Cumbria, and two from a peat bog in County Armagh.  Dating to between 3900 and 3400 years BC they are clearly Neolithic in age, but there remains considerable uncertainty as to their function or significance.

Wooden trident from Neolithic palaeochannel deposits at Stainton West, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

At Mossgarth, Portinscale (C), palaeoenvironmental analysis of deposits associated with the previous discovery of a series of Neolithic axes suggests that they may have been deliberately deposited in a waterside location (LDNPA S5341). The evidence indicates shallow open water on the edge of a wooded island surrounded by wetland habitats. The beetle remains provide a detailed picture of the local woodland environment. A number of dead-wood species are documented including a post-Elm decline example of Scolytus scolytus, the elm bark beetle. Such evidence is rare for north west England.

The study illustrates how environmental archaeology can contribute not only a description of the environmental setting for human activities, but can also directly add information relevant to the interpretation of putative prehistoric ritual behaviour.

Excavations at Poulton (Ch) are best known for the structural Iron Age evidence, but the artefacts span the Mesolithic to the medieval periods. The site, well ploughed, has yielded a series of earlier Prehistoric finds that have been disturbed from their original depositional contexts. Although the majority of these are Late Mesolithic, lithics have also been identified that are typologically characteristic of the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Amongst these are a bifacial polished stone axe and a fragment of a stone plaque, both dating to the Neolithic. The plaque, in particular, is an unusual type of find and its use is unknown, as are the original contexts of deposition for it and the axe (Cootes et al 2016).

At Broadgate Meadow Park (C), a series of clear cup and ring marks are present on an outcrop of rock next to the war memorial (LDNPA S1776).  Similarly, at Allan Bank, Grasmere (C), a panel of rock art comprising cup-marks has been identified (LDNPA S5272, Oxford Archaeology North 2012).

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database includes two portable examples of rock art (LANCUM 6660E5 & LANCUM 65AF78). These two stones of similar sizes with rounded edges (possibly river or glacial cobbles) have similar styles of cup marks. They were examined at Penrith (C) although their findspots are not recorded.

Bradley et al (2019) are continuing their investigations at the rock art site at Copt Howe, Langdale (C) and have discovered further examples of symbols carved into the two large boulders. They note that the style of the carvings is very reminiscent of those found in Ireland, particularly in the Boyne Valley.

Their findings emphasise the Irish Sea links of North West England and the importance of megalithic tombs during the Neolithic period. Nash (2013) also considered the Atlantic coast connections demonstrated in the art work of megalithic monuments in North West England, although he emphasised comparisons with examples in Wales.

In Merseyside, the physical condition of the Calderstones (M) megalithic tomb was deteriorating due to its previous relocated enclosure in a damp and humid structure. It has recently been removed and has received conservation work.  The opportunity was taken to study the stones more closely and to record the rock art on their surfaces using photogrammetry (Nash and Stanford 2010). Additional archive research was undertaken by Faulkner (2010) and Roberts (2010), who looked at pictorial, photographic, cartographic and documentary references to the stones and their history.

In March 2019 the stones were reinstalled in a new location within Calderstones Park associated with the Mansion House project led by the Reader charity, with contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). It is now open to the public and the booklet describing the site has recently been reprinted (Cowell 2008).

The site provides a rare example of a megalithic tomb close to major modern settlements where people can visit easily. It is a helpful reminder that areas that have been densely developed with industry and settlement in the past few hundred years were, in early prehistory, very different and rural landscapes. Nash (2010) reviewed the grooved and cup-marked menhir of Robin Hood’s Stone, Allerton (M) which was originally part of the Calderstones, but had been moved to a separate location nearby in 1928.

Only two- or three-kilometres SW of the Calderstones, investigations at the former Dale Hall (M) noted a mound with exposed un-worked sandstone slabs. It is tentatively identified as a previously unknown tumulus or passage grave (Adams et al forthcoming).

The Neolithic stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, Penrith (C), has been studied with regard to long term options for the site’s management, both to protect the site from damage or erosion (a farm access road runs through the circle) and to improve visitor facilities. Historic England commissioned an options appraisal, and various community and commercial organisations have worked to enhance our understanding of the monument.

A new geophysical resistivity survey, high resolution digital topographical survey and Digital Terrain Model (DTM) based on Environment Agency lidar data complement earlier topographical and infra-red aerial photography surveys. Small-scale, targeted excavation trenches by Altogether Archaeology established the substantial nature of the enclosure ditch that abuts and clearly predates the better known stone circle (Oracle Heritage Services 2017).  

It is clear that the Long Meg monument and its wider landscape setting deserve far more investigation, in order to understand its detailed nature and its relationships with nearby monuments (which include a possible cursus).

A hengiform feature adjacent to the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) (C) received a brief investigation following hedge removal. The dating evidence for the ditch was inconclusive: the basal fill contained a sample of short-lived charcoal that has been radiocarbon dated to the Early Mesolithic (Brown et al in prep). The site is one of two circular features that may be Neolithic ceremonial sites.

A mapping project, based on aerial photography and lidar data, of areas targeted for mineral extraction in Cumbria identified a possible Neolithic pit avenue at Catty Crook Lane, Roosecote (C), on the Furness peninsula (Deegan 2013, Quatermaine 2015). This is an area where Neolithic and other early prehistoric sites have been found in advance of development.

Topographical survey and field walking located a ritual landscape on Askam Fell (C), where an alignment of sepulchral monuments and a stone avenue extends across a natural col between two valleys (Quartermaine & Leech 2012).

On the West Cumbrian Plain, a mapping project found a cluster of unusual enclosures revealed as crop marks in aerial photographs. Each of these large curvilinear enclosures, up to 65 metres in diameter, has a distinctive internal circuit of evenly, but widely, spaced pits. Three are closely grouped south of Bootle (C) and a fourth is nearby at Gutterby (C). A fifth has been discovered just outside the mapping project boundary at Millom (C). It is not known whether the pits held timber posts or if they were dug to receive items or burials, but they appear to be an unusual regional type (Deegan 2016).

In Lancashire, concern regarding the vegetation growth in and around the Bleasdale timber circle (L) led to some non-intrusive conservation work and a review of the results of W.J. Varley’s 1930s excavation. The site is unusual in that it is a henge with a timber circle and a central burial mound containing cremations in Collared Urns, but also has an outer palisade enclosing everything else. The relative and absolute dating of the outer palisade, the inner henge and timber circle, and the central mound are still unknown (Varley 2010).

An enclosure possibly dating to the Neolithic period has been identified at Birkett Knott, Mallerstang (C), where a potential interrupted bank encloses the peak of the high ground. It utilises the natural limestone in parts of the circuit and the south-facing entrance appears to be defined by natural sinkholes. While undated, the site has the potential to be Neolithic in date as it is similar to known enclosures at Hallin Fell, Green Howe and Carrock Fell, representing a variant of causewayed enclosures more typical of southern Britain. It may be associated with a previously-unrecorded large circular cairn located approximately 500 metres to the south (Hamilton-Gibney 2011).

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has a research project investigating the use of natural landscape features in the limestone area of the Forest of Bowland .

This includes the re-investigation of the Fairy Holes Caves, Whitewell (L) and the material recovered by excavations by Musson in 1946. The re-excavation clarified the Early Bronze Age evidence and their depositional environments: cremated remains of two individuals (one adult, one juvenile) were probably originally placed in a single collared urn surrounded by a dry-stone wall enclosure, possibly a cist. A sherd from an earlier period: either Late Neolithic Grooved Ware or, just possibly, Beaker, was also found in the main cave. Earlier activities in the area are further indicated by Mesolithic and Neolithic period lithics found up-slope from the cave entrances. Unburnt animal bones have been recovered from all three caves but have not yet been reported upon, and the sediments were sampled for pollen assessment (Peterson 2013b).

Private excavations in the un-designated Heaning Wood Bone Cave (C) on the Furness peninsula have recently extracted unburnt bones. Subsequent examination identified a mixture of human and animal bones, possibly of similar dates to those recovered by cavers in the 1950s, some of which are curated in the Barrow Dock Museum. The earlier excavations also recovered Collared Urn pottery, a knife made from Langdale volcanic stone and a bone pin (Chamberlain, nd).

Smith (2012) obtained four radiocarbon dates from the museum material, which indicated Early Neolithic dates for butchered pig and cattle bones and Early Bronze Age dates for the human remains. The entrance to the shaft or fissure appears to have been blocked after the deposition of the human remains.

The new material includes well-preserved bones of microfauna (bat and mouse-sized vertebrates) and remains of insects. These may provide useful data regarding landscape conditions around the site whilst it was open. Additional worked flakes of Langdale Tuff and flint have also been excavated. UCLAN is currently undertaking scientific assessment and taphonomic analysis of the newly extracted material (Randolph-Quinney pers comm).

Throughout the north-west region, shallow rural sites seldom retain unburnt bone of any species, due to the typically acidic and shallow soils which are leached by high rates of rainfall. Exceptions can sometimes be found in limestone areas although, even on limestone, overlying soils can derive from more recent geological deposits, which need not be conducive to bone preservation.

In Levens Park (C) a large, multi-period, ring cairn was investigated between 1968 and 1973 in advance of a link road that was never constructed (Turnbull and Walsh 1996; see Hodgson & Brennand 2006). Levens Local History Group recently relocated the site archive and are currently working on more detailed post-excavation analysis. The Carboniferous limestone is overlain by well-drained alluvium and clay, and unburnt archaeological bones were recovered but are not very well preserved.

The central, crouched inhumation was the body of a woman of about 18 – 35 years of age and she was buried with at least two Beaker pots and two flint knives.  Two satellite burials were of a mature adult female of over 46 years of age, and another adult, possibly also a female. A fourth (and latest) crouched inhumation was the body of a man of 36-45 years. His remains were better preserved, partly due to the fact that they had been protected by a massive boulder. All of the individuals were buried in a crouched position in an east-west alignment. All four showed pathological indications of various ailments or stresses, and the femurs of the mature woman and the man share a non-metric trait that may indicate some genetic affinity (Petersone-Gordina & Holst 2018).

Perhaps significantly, although the Cumbrian minerals mapping survey (Deegan 2013) recorded many new sites, most of the areas mapped did not identify new monuments of Neolithic or Bronze Age date. This is despite one of the areas being the Abbeytown Ridge (C) where excavations in advance of previous quarry sites demonstrated that the ridge was well used in the early prehistoric period (Jackson and Churchill 2017). Most of the minerals areas are of sands and gravels, which are often the best agricultural land locally and used for agriculture. It is possible that persistent ploughing has reduced the chances of discovering shallow sites through remote sensing from the air, compounding the difficulties of detecting them through geophysical surveys.

The truncated nature of many Early Prehistoric features can make interpretation difficult or controversial when features are discovered. At New Cowper Farm on the Abbeytown Ridge (C), Structure 4 had been damaged by ploughing but consisted of a four-post structure associated with pits containing a large quantity of Beaker pottery and surrounded by stakeholes.  It was subsequently sealed by a deposit of charcoal and stones also containing Beaker pottery and produced a radiocarbon date of 2400-2140 cal BC. The structure and its associated deposits have been interpreted as evidence of secular occupation by Churchill et al (2017, 64), but was previously interpreted as a sequence of funerary activity, represented by a timber structure constructed around a central grave (no unburnt bone survived at this site), subsequently sealed by a stone cairn (Railton 2007).

At Overby quarry (C), about one kilometre from New Cowper Farm on the same Abbeytown Ridge of sands and gravels, excavations recovered definite evidence of mortuary and funerary activities that probably just post-date the activities at New Cowper Farm. There are two main clusters of features. One has an outer ring of pits (approx. 11 metre diameter) that appears to respect a central feature or marker, but there were few or no traces of any stone ring cairn (Jackson 2017). 

Again, it is difficult to assess whether this is due to truncation (the pits were very shallow) or to an original absence, but this, plus the total lack of evidence for a central barrow mound caused Jackson to suggest that the site was most probably a flat cemetery. An outlying group of pits with an arc of postholes lay 15 metres away from the main concentration and appears to have been associated with it, as a trace amount of cremated human bone was recovered from the fill of the posthole closest to the main group.

Eight burial vessels were identified: a Food Vessel, a group of Collared Urns and a miniature Collared Urn. Four (possibly five) contained cremation burials, and three were accessory vessels. The features containing the vessels appear to form the latest phase of activity at the site.

Lipid analyses on six sherds was inconclusive: either the Collared Urns had not been used previously for food storage or food preparation, or lipids had not survived. Although the Food Vessel had a visible encrustation, this only had small quantities of undiagnostic organic matter surviving and had not been affected by heat (Šoberl & Evershed 2017).

At least eight people were cremated, ranging in ages from infant to over 45 years, and including both male and female adults. Of these eight people, six were buried either simultaneously or sequentially with another person. McKinley (2017) discusses the pyre technology, the possibility of a cenotaph, and other aspects associated with mortuary behaviour, as well as the cremated human remains themselves (McKinley 2017).

Radiocarbon dates on three samples from human bone and one sample of charred residue encrusted on the Food Vessel all clustered in the Early Bronze Age, stretching from 2130 – 1700 cal BC, but with two main date ranges (at 2023-1700 cal BC and 2120-1880 cal BC), possibly indicating that the burials in the main concentration started in the centre and were added to at the peripheries (O’Meara & Gardiner 2017).

Wessex Archaeology investigated groups of funerary remains near Bucklow Hill (Ch) on the route of the A556 Knutsford upgrade that links the M6 and M56 motorways (Wessex 2016).

Geophysical survey along the route had not located any definitive anomalies likely to date to prehistoric periods, but one of the trial trenches produced an unurned deposit of cremated human bone near Bucklow Hill. This led to further investigation in the area. Large-scale strip map and record excavations successfully revealed the complexity and extent of the features.

The main cluster of features included a ring ditch, subsequent cremations and pyre deposits inserted inside and around the ring ditch, and a final phase consisting of several grave-size cut features aligned east-west. No unburnt bone survived, and phosphate analysis was inconclusive due to the proximity of the cremated remains. One, possibly two, of the cremations was associated with an urn. The site is located on the crest of a low ridge, with long distance views over the Cheshire Plain towards the Pennines. A second focus of cremation burials and pyre deposits was located 80 metres away. Preliminary radiocarbon dates indicate funerary activities at the site during the Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age. There are also indications (radiocarbon dates, pottery sherds and lithics) for activities on the ridge top in several other periods, both predating and post-dating the interments in the burial monuments (Wessex, 2016; Daniel et al in prep).

Another site, where a feature well outside of an obvious ring feature produced definite funerary remains has been investigated near Poynton (GM), on the route of the A6 Manchester Airport Relief Road. A ploughed out ring gully did not produce any finds or human remains, but cremated human bone was recovered from a pit situated 17 metres away, radiocarbon dated to 1380-1130 cal BC ie the Middle to Late Bronze Age (Wessex Archaeology, in prep). Like the ring ditch at Bucklow Hill (Ch) (Daniel et al in prep), the ring gully had grave-like features dug around it but no unburnt bone survived.

At Forge Hills Kerb Cairn, Muncaster (C), geophysical survey has indicated the presence of a ring feature, probably a supporting kerb and ring of stones. The survey indicated no great level of activity within the immediate area, but a large magnetic anomaly was detected to the south of the main cairn, possibly indicating funerary activity (LDNPA S1704, Brooks 2006).

Investigations at the barrow cemetery of the Seven Lows, Delamere (Ch) were undertaken as an extension to the HLF Landscape Partnership’s Cheshire Hillforts project. The report by Garner et al (forthcoming) contains a useful map regression of early antiquarian sources, informed by a new lidar survey and a geophysical survey. This provides a concordance list for the various numbers assigned to the individual monuments over the centuries. The geophysical survey additionally identified part of a previously undescribed monument.

The excavation focused on barrow CH 59g, on an escarpment overlooking the Sandyford Brook (possibly explaining its attractiveness to people in the Late Mesolithic period). This is one of the three barrows that were descheduled in 1994 when it was thought that persistent agricultural ploughing had destroyed some of the burial monuments. In fact, below ground features still retained interments of cremated human remains, albeit several of them disturbed by previous investigations. A central large pit contained a charred thorn that returned a radiocarbon date of cal AD 1490-1650, possibly reflecting a period of early antiquarian investigations. The site had been noted by John Leland during his travels between 1539 and 1543.

Remains of four adults and one adolescent were contained in four Collared Urns, and further human remains, and pyre debris were recovered from other features. Seven radiocarbon dates on cremated bones from the four urns and material from three of the pits all fall within the date range of 1950 – 1510 cal BC ie the Early Bronze Age. Besides the Collared Urns, two sherds of Grooved Ware were recovered from topsoil, and may be contemporaneous with a large blade of Early Neolithic style, manufactured from high quality flint which may have come from Yorkshire or Lincolnshire.

The site was clearly a feature in the landscape, being visited in the Late Mesolithic, the Early Neolithic, and for a few centuries during the Early Bronze Age. The form of barrow CH59g is unusual and may have been a saucer or bowl barrow. The natural knoll had been skilfully landscaped: a shallow ditch had been scraped out, following the contour and leaving the intact adjacent subsoil looking like an enclosing bank (Garner et al forthcoming).

 In 1982-3, Robina McNeil excavated two barrows at Church Lawton (Ch), near to the eastern edge of the Cheshire and Staffordshire Plain. A third barrow in the cemetery had been destroyed in the 1950s. This important group has now been published by Reid (2014).

One of the surviving barrows was defined by two arcs of nine glacial boulders. The gaps between the ends of the arcs appear to be original and to lead towards the other monument. The remains constitute a rare example of the use of stone to enhance a Bronze Age barrow in the lowlands of central western England.

Beneath the mound demarcated by the boulders were the burnt remains of a small, roughly rectangular turf stack associated with fragments of clay daub and pieces of timber. No direct evidence of burial was found within the monument. A radiocarbon date suggests that the structural sequence began sometime in the late 3rd–early 2nd millennium cal BC.

Pollen analysis by Innes (in Reid et al 2014) of the turf structure and the old ground surface beneath both barrows also provided a picture of relatively undisturbed mixed deciduous woodland composed of alder, oak and lime, with a considerable understorey of hazel. A few herbaceous plants may suggest that the structure was in a woodland glade.

The second barrow was principally a two-phased construction and contained urned and un-urned cremation burials. A polished stone battle-axe was placed next to one of the burials. Radiocarbon dates obtained from the cremations and associated deposits indicate that individuals were being interred from the late 3rd or early 2nd millennium cal BC, with the practice continuing until the middle of the 2nd millennium.

Cremated human remains were recovered from several features, including two burial pits containing urned cremations, and three fire pits. Cremation slag was also recovered, possibly due to the high temperature and long duration of the fires (the bones were well calcined) in conjunction with the sandy soil. The cremations were re-examined as part of Walsh’s PhD and derive from a minimum of 23 people, with a maximum of 26 people. Most people were buried individually. All age groups were identified, from infant to older (40+ years) adult (Walsh 2013).

Near Stockport (GM), the long running community excavations by Mellor Archaeological Trust (MAT) at Mellor vicarage have produced a small assemblage suggesting Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age activity. Most notable was the recovery of a polished flint chisel, believed to be Late Neolithic in date. Such chisels are rare: in northern England only a handful have been found outside of East Yorkshire, where such tools are present in some numbers. The closest parallel to the Mellor example comes from a quarry site in the Derbyshire limestone, currently on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.  The Mellor excavations also produced a complete example of an Early Bronze Age flint dagger. It has been suggested by Myers and Noble (2009) that the dagger may have originally been deposited accompanying a burial which was subsequently disturbed by the extensive later prehistoric, Roman and medieval activities on the site.

Late Neolithic flint chisel from Mellor Vicarage Gardens, Stockport, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Mellor Archaeological Trust)

Mellor Archaeological Trust has undertaken a number of season’s investigations at Shaw Cairn near Mellor (GM), which is located on a flat hill top site with uninterrupted views from the edge of the Pennines.  This Early Bronze Age burial site has produced a series of both inhumation and cremation burials. Excavations from 2007-9 were supported by the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit as part of the Mellor Heritage Project (Noble, 2010, Sheridan nd).

Aerial view of Shaw Cairn during excavation, Stockport, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Mellor Archaeological Trust)

Fragments of at least 10 Food Vessels were found. Radiocarbon dates of cremation burials all fall within the Early Bronze Age, confirming the evidence of the Food Vessels and the lithics. The flint assemblage appears to be overwhelmingly the product of careful tertiary thinning, suggesting that knives of one form or another were being maintained or finished on the site. Two plano-convex knives were recovered, including one exceptionally fine example that ended up being cremated and incorporated with cremated bone in a pot.

Most remarkable was the recovery of half of an amber spacer necklace, deposited with a crouched inhumation in a cist burial. Spatially the discovery of this necklace is truly remarkable. The necklace represents the production of a piece of jewellery in the ‘northern’ style, whose distribution of discovered examples, as the name suggests, has been confined to northern Britain. Furthermore, hitherto all necklaces of this style have been manufactured from jet. By way of contrast, spacer necklaces made in amber have previously shown a strong spatial association with the Wessex region. The discovery of an amber necklace made in the northern style in Greater Manchester represents a significant departure from the established distributional, stylistic and raw material patterns for such jewellery (Noble, 2010, Sheridan nd).

Shaw Cairn amber necklace, Stockport, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Mellor Archaeological Trust)

Although the remote sensing survey of Cumbria’s aggregates-rich agricultural areas was not very successful in identifying new ceremonial or burial sites through crop mark data, field survey of upland areas has been much more successful in locating earthwork sites.

In the uplands of Cumbria, field survey has identified a series of potential burial and ceremonial sites. A group of five ring cairns have been identified in Duddon Valley (C) (LDNPA S1840) and two further ring cairns at St Johns’, Castlerigg (C) and Wythburn (C) (LDNPA S1841). On Thwaites Fell, survey has identified possible ring and burial cairns whilst on Woodland Fell, Kirby Ireleth (C), possible prehistoric burial cairns and cairnfields have been recognised (LDNPA S5269, LDNPA 2013). On Gawthwaite Moor and Subberthwaite Bank, Blawith and Subberthwaite, volunteer fieldwork has identified hut circles and ring cairns (LDNPA S5326, LDNPA 2009).

In the Morecambe Bay area, metal detectorists found and reported a copper alloy tanged chisel and knife blade in 2016. Initial investigations by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) confirmed that the site is a burial mound. DigVentures undertook an excavation at the site which overlooks Morecambe Bay (L), using crowd-funding and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). They have created a small virtual museum online but the excavation report is not yet available. The barrow contained a complete Early Bronze Age urn of Food Vessel type, up-side-down and sealed with a clay bung. This contained an unusually large quantity (almost three kilos) of well-preserved cremated human remains from a single individual: a young adult with few pathological indicators. The bones have been radiocarbon dated to about 1600 BC ie the cusp of the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. The metalwork may include Middle and Late Bronze Age items.

Burnt Mounds

During the past decade, burnt mounds have been discovered and investigated in many parts of the UK, including several in North West England, although they were previously thought to be mainly an Irish phenomenon. Their functions and significance are still unclear, but they appear to date predominantly to the Bronze Age, although a few have been dated to earlier or later (up to the Early Medieval) periods. Their common characteristics are a location close to a freshwater source (either still or flowing) and a concentration of heated or burnt stones. Several have a tank, presumably where water was heated, but this is not always located or preserved in excavated sites.

At Sizergh Castle (C), a burnt mound was partially excavated in conjunction with palaeoenvironmental assessment of the peats infilling the adjacent kettle hole. There were insufficient radiocarbon dates to date the peat exactly contemporaneous with the use of the burnt mound, but extrapolation indicates that the surrounding vegetation still contained abundant mixed woodland with open areas and some wet areas. Whether or not the hollow of the kettle hole itself still retained open fresh water, adjacent springs still persist today and are highly likely to have been available to the people constructing and using the burnt mound (Druce and Rutherford 2014).

The mound was built immediately on top of peat radiocarbon dated to 2580-2460 cal BC, and another radiocarbon sample from the infilling of the wooden trough of 2460-2140 cal BC confirms a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date for the earliest uses of the mound.

This wooden trough was infilled and covered over with more burnt stones, which implies that use continued or resumed around another (unlocated) trough. The burnt and fractured stones are probably glacial erratics of Silurian slates and shales that had been collected from the local area. Their thermal properties may have been preferred to that of the underlying limestone bedrock as much as their ease of access.

A radiocarbon sample from the upper levels of the later mound gave a date of 2200-1980 cal BC, in the Early Bronze Age. The early dates are very similar to those at some other Cumbrian burnt mounds such as those at Drigg (C), and the earliest phase at Garlands Hospital, Carlisle (C) (Druce and Rutherford 2014).

At Drigg (C ), peat, charcoal, timbers and burnt stones were noticed eroding out of the low coastal cliffs and some investigations were undertaken in 2000. Coastal erosion here is fast at times of spring tides and storm surges: between November 1999 and January 2000, one and a half metres of coastline was eroded; a series of timbers exposed in the cliff in July 1999 had gone by June 2000; and, despite great care being taken to reinstate and protect the two 2000 excavation trenches, these, too, were lost within six to twelve months (Quartermaine and Cook 2010).

The main features of the site are a steep-sided palaeochannel flanked by layers of charcoal and burnt stone (notably burnt granite, not the red sandstone bedrock underlying the boulder clay and sand dunes), and a series of timbers and brushwood.

Most of the wood does not appear to have been worked, although the surfaces are not very well preserved. Some or all of them may be material brought and deposited by flowing water, or they may be the remains of trees and shrubs growing then dying on site as the water-table rose. But the stratigraphic position of the wood, lying alongside the palaeochannel and associated with the charcoal, burnt peat and burnt cobbles, also hints that they may have been laid deliberately as a platform. Two slender timbers and one substantial timber did appear, at the time of investigation, to bear worn tool facets indicating light working, mainly the removal of side branches but also in the case of the substantial timber, possibly bark removal as well. A dendrochronological sample from the substantial timber was not successful in finding a match to date it.

Pollen was abundant and well preserved in the peat and indicates a well-wooded landscape with trees (including alder, which grows well in damp places) and shrubs but also some herbaceous species. Plant macrofossils include seeds of blackberries, grasses and various ruderal weed species, possibly indicating that the site itself lay in a clearing.

Bayesian modelling was undertaken of the radiocarbon dates and indicates that activities associated with the burnt mounds occurred during the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age periods between 2460-2230 cal BC and 2480-2280 cal BC. The site must have gone out of use later in the Early Bronze Age, by which time it was sealed by further peat formation ie by 2310-2130 cal BC (Quartermaine and Cook 2010).  

At Stainton West (C) there was a sequence of several burnt mounds constructed alongside the palaeochannels of the River Eden that had previously been a focus for Mesolithic and Neolithic activities. Dates from these burnt mounds show a long period of continual or intermittent use spanning almost one and a half millennia reaching from the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age, c 2890 – 1430 cal BC (Brown et al in prep).

Survey work along the route of the Nether Wasdale (C) pipeline, running through the centre of the Lake District National Park, located seven burnt mounds (Blythe et al 2009).

Follow-up excavation work by Oxford Archaeology North targeted one of these sites. It produced burnt materials, probably relating to one or more burnt mounds, forming a primary phase that has been dated to the Bronze Age. Several postholes located close to the primary burnt mound, however, returned Iron Age dates. It is thought this may indicate the continued use of this feature. The dated Bronze Age features are closely comparable to similar examples elsewhere in Cumbria, but the identification of an Iron Age component represents a rare example of such activity. Remarkably, along with several pits and a posthole, the mounds have also produced early medieval dates (Oxford Archaeology North 2016).  

A probable burnt mound has been located at Dancing Gate (C) in the low valley between Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwent Water in the Lake District National Park during a walkover survey in advance of the West Cumbria pipeline construction (Schofield and Leighton 2014).

On Blawith Fells (C) a possible prehistoric burnt mound and clearance cairns were identified during a National Park survey undertaken by volunteers (LDNPA S5326).

Although most of the known burnt mounds are situated in upland areas (such as much of Cumbria), where sources of stones or rocks are numerous, they do also occur in more lowland areas where pebbles or cobbles are available from superficial glacial deposits or waterside exposures. It is noticeable that people at some of the upland sites deliberately selected similar sources to those used in the lowlands.

In the coastal lowlands of Lancashire at The Harbour, Whyndyke Farm, Blackpool, a Neolithic arrowhead and a burnt mound have been reported (Wegiel 2014).

At South Arclid, near Sandbach (Ch), excavations and watching briefs were undertaken in 2014 by the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust in advance of a quarry extension. The local area contains several lowland mires that have developed in depressions and hollows in the surface of the underlying fluvio-glacial sands and gravels. An irregular spread of charcoal and stones overlay a large pit, containing silts and much charcoal. The pit was located at the edge of a former mire and may have been deep enough to reach the natural watertable. Its upper fill contained a single, undiagnostic sherd of probably prehistoric pottery, and charcoal in its primary fill yielded a Middle Bronze Age radiocarbon date of 1530–1420 cal BC (Jones et al 2017).

The charcoal was from stems or branches of a wide range of woodland and hedgerow tree species; predominantly alder and hazel with lesser amount of oak, but also including evergreen shrubs and climbers (holly and ivy) and coniferous trees (pine and yew). Many of the pieces indicated dead wood, often affected by insects. Charred remains of a soil fungus that isassociated with the roots of trees (Cenococcum geophilum)was found in the basal pit fill. Together with the wide range of species and the plethora of dead wood, this suggests that the area may have been surrounded by well-established woodland that contained mature and over-mature or fallen trees. It is also possible that fuel was collected and then stored for some time (Jones et al 2017).

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