NEOLITHIC AND EARLY – TO MID-BRONZE AGE: Settlement and Land-use

In the Mersey basin, Cowell (2010) investigated sites on a low ridge of Bunter Sandstone ahead of quarrying at Southworth Hall Farm, near Winwick (Ch). Adjacent to a Romano-British enclosure on the top of the ridge was an area containing several small pits. Radiocarbon dating of burnt hazelnut shells from fills of two pits produced dates ranging from 4680 – 3340 cal BC and these are compatible with the (scarce) lithics of Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic date. There are also some Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age lithics, and some potentially later prehistoric materials. Although all of the activities appear to have been relatively low key or short-lived, it is clear that the same ridge was repeatedly visited throughout prehistory.

Cowell (2010, pp 35-46) provided a comprehensive overview of Early Prehistory in the Mersey Basin and adjacent Pennine uplands and Fylde peninsula. He considered the Southworth Hall Farm site to be typical of the inland sites of the Mersey basin, where the Mesolithic and Neolithic activities were dispersed and small scale, and people used very similar lithic technology with little environmental impact in both periods. He drew a comparison between these sites and the larger, coastal, sites where woodland clearance tended to be more long-lasting or greater in spatial extent. He also noted that, by the Bronze Age, sub-regional differences were developing.

Besides the Late Mesolithic component, Stainton West (C) has also produced an intriguing Neolithic assemblage, much of which was associated with the relict river channels. A large number of Neolithic arrowheads of leaf and chisel forms was retrieved from within the palaeochannel and from adjacent ground. This might indicate that bow and arrow hunting was undertaken along the edge of the palaeochannel (Brown and Clark 2009a and b, Brown et al in prep).

It has also been suggested that the palaeochannel preserves the remains of a beaver lodge and it is not inconceivable that Neolithic groups hunted beaver for their pelts and meat. The assemblage of preserved wood also provided a tree trunk with the claw marks from an animal, possibly a bear, and possible remains of a fish weir were identified in one of the channels.

The wet deposits in the Stainton West palaeochannels provided various examples of woodworking including two rare tridents (see below). Pieces of coppice stool possibly retain evidence of wooden bowl manufacture. Other debris is associated with tree felling, showing how parallel grooves were cut into the trunk. This is the first clear evidence for such a method in this country. In an English Heritage review of excavated sites in northern England producing samples of preserved wood or charcoal, Huntley (2010) has shown how few Mesolithic or Neolithic examples have been found in north-west England. 

Besides the preserved wood, the organic deposits at Stainton West have produced an insect assemblage that is currently being analysed. The reported scarcity of such analyses from Mesolithic, Neolithic or Bronze Age sites west of the Pennines is testimony to the exceptional character and significance of Stainton West to prehistoric archaeology in the north-west region (Kenward 2009).

A fieldwalking project in south Furness undertaken by Dave Coward surveyed a range of topographies (coastal, inland valleys and localised upland areas) and found many lithic scatters of Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic forms. The scatters were focussed on low ridges between about 10 – 30 m AOD, with much larger accumulations of material close to some beck confluences (Evans 2008).

An Early Neolithic occupation site has been investigated at Holbeck Park Avenue, Barrow in Furness (C) (Evans et al 2018). A tree throw hollow contained a significant assemblage of Early Neolithic pottery, lithics (including a rod microlith), and a cereal grain radiocarbon dated to 3960-3710 cal BC. Two further radiocarbon dates from this hollow and a fourth from a second, similar, hollow (devoid of artefacts), are all statistically consistent, probably indicating a single phase of activity. The dates are also consistent with the suggested date range for the pottery.

Two pollen cores from an adjacent valley indicate a varied environment during the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic period, containing mixed deciduous woodland, wetland peats, alder carr and an open woodland fringe along the coast. Brief clearance episodes are associated with pasture indicators. This is similar to other sites discussed by Grosvenor (2014) and Appley (2013) in their PhD theses: clearances are very small scale, and any cereal agriculture is either too small or located too far away to register in the sediment cores locations.

Work in advance of an extension to Stainton Quarry (C) on the nearby limestone uplands has also produced a significant assemblage of Early Neolithic pottery, with two broken polished stone axes and c 70 charred cereal grains from a tree throw, a pit and a limestone gryke. The material is dated to between c 3800 and 3600 cal BC (Robinson & Town, forthcoming).

Bayesian statistical modelling of the dates for the tree throw deposits at Holbeck Park and Stainton Quarry was undertaken by Griffiths (2011) as part of her PhD research into the dates of the Mesolithic – Neolithic transition in northern England and the Midlands. The modelling places some aspects of Early Neolithic material culture in the region in the 39th or first half of the 40th century cal BC, and sets the Holbeck Park assemblage amongst the earliest demonstrably Neolithic sites on the British mainland.

Griffiths (2014) has also demonstrated that rod (or at least parallel-sided) microliths remained in use in parts of northern England into the 39th and 38th centuries cal BC, supporting earlier arguments that aspects of a microlithic technology persisted in various regions of northern England into the Neolithic period. 

Whilst the Stainton Quarry site, which appears to have incorporated a spring of fresh water, was first occupied at a similar time to Holbeck Park, it was also visited on numerous subsequent occasions. At these slightly later dates, perhaps a few generations after the first occupation, there is evidence of a mixed economy.

Pollen evidence indicates woodland with pastoral uses; charcoal shows that woodland trees and shrubs and heather were all used as fuel and/or thrown onto fires; charred cereal grains show the use of various domestic cereals including barley, emmer and wheat; and organic residues in the ceramics indicate the presence of dairy fats and plants or beeswax. These different lines of evidence all provide complementary information that helps to build up a picture of how Neolithic people exploited and lived within their environments, as well as how they subsisted (Robinson & Town, forthcoming).

At Lathom (M), excavations of a primarily Iron Age site has produced a segment of ditch with a very homogenous fill of burnt wood, ash, burnt sand, pottery and struck lithics. The pottery and lithics are probably Early Neolithic in date, c. 3900-3600BC (Cowell in prep).

In Merseyside, a community-led test pitting project (Ducker et al 2014) provided useful background information about prehistoric activities on the Wirral peninsula (M). These helped to inform the desk-based assessment (dba) and Written Scheme of Investigation (WSI) for mitigation of a commercial development at Mark Rake, Bromborough (M), where evidence of repeated use of the site (which lies on the flank of a sandstone ridge overlooking a small stream) dates to the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Early Medieval, Medieval and post-Medieval periods. The site is adjacent to the church in the centre of the modern village, emphasising again the long time periods (>5,000 years) of persistent places in the landscape (Adams forthcoming).

The Neolithic features and finds at Mark Rake include postholes and shallow pits, two of which produced radiocarbon dates on charcoal of 3943-3712 cal BC and 3360-3103 cal BC. The long-time gap and small, ephemeral features, suggest that the site was revisited within the Early Neolithic period.

Artefacts include Grimston Ware pottery (including at least two, possibly three, carinated bowls), a leaf-shaped arrowhead, a possible saddle quern, a rubbing stone, and concentrations of fire-cracked stones and sandstone pebbles. No charred plant remains were recovered (despite sampling) apart from charcoal, predominantly from oak plus some shorter lived trees typical of mixed deciduous woodland (Adams forthcoming).

In Liverpool (M), on the site of Dale Hall, a small pit of similar dimensions (~0.40m diameter) to those at Mark Rake produced no artefacts, but charcoal from its single fill returned a Late Neolithic radiocarbon date of 2248-2137 cal BC. Adams et al (forthcoming) highlight the difficulty of detecting such sites through conventional non-intrusive methods such as fieldwalking or geophysical surveys and recommend that early prehistoric sites should be assessed by strip map and recording of open areas. The same approach was used successfully on the Heysham-M6 link (L) (Bradley and Howard-Davis, 2018) and on aggregate quarries on the Abbeytown Ridge (C ) (Jackson and Churchill 2017).

On the Heysham-M6 link, at the same site (SMR 3) (L) that produced the three concentrations of Mesolithic lithic scatters noted earlier, several groups of features appear to indicate the presence of a Neolithic building plus other activities. The putative building consists of an area defined by four postholes and surrounded by shallow features all of which contained burnt material, although the central area did not contain a hearth (Bradley and Howard-Davies, 2018).

Modelling of a suite of radiocarbon dates suggests that the most concentrated phase of activity took place during the Early Neolithic between the second half of the thirty-seventh and the first quarter of the thirty-fourth century cal BC (probably towards the latter part of that range). The structure itself may have been in use for about 35 years (at 68.2% probability) and almost certainly for less than 141 years.

No unburnt animal bone survived, but there were some tiny calcined fragments of animal bone, and some heat-affected vesicular material (a residue of burnt organic matter), and some hazel charcoal.

Several other shallow features (pits or postholes) contained burnt material including charcoal and heated stones, although these had been deposited in the pits, not burnt in situ. Carbonised fragments of grass culms and of rhizome or tuber fragments may have been from burnt turf. These plant resources can also be used for food as sources of starch.

Similar Early Neolithic activity was recorded only 600 metres away at site SMR2 (L). This had two large, shallow, irregularly-shaped pits, one of which had a concentration of stones in the centre that may have formed an arrangement defining a single post setting. Its basal fills appeared to be natural and it may have originated as a tree-throw hollow. Subsequent fills contained Neolithic material including abundant oak charcoal and a charred hazelnut with a radiocarbon date of 3500 – 3340cal BC (Bradley and Howard-Davis, 2018).

This is very similar to the dates from pit and posthole fills at SMR 3, suggesting that this general geographical location, on a slope overlooking a stream, was a favoured area for repeated activities in the Early Neolithic as well as during the Mesolithic period.

At SMR 3, the radiocarbon dates on charcoal, burnt hazelnut shell and rhizomes etc indicate activities spanning the Early and Mid-Late Neolithic periods and also run on into the Early Bronze Age (eg charred onion couch tubers dated to 2140-1960 cal BC). The features continue to be small, shallow and enigmatic throughout the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.

Pottery finds were scarce at SMR 3, but include sherds of Early Neolithic Carinated Bowls and impressed pottery (possibly Middle Neolithic Ebbsfleet ware), and one from a vessel in the Early Bronze Age Collard Urn tradition.

At Grange Farm (GM), Neolithic lithics including a leaf-shaped arrowhead were found close to a hearth yielding radiocarbon dates on willow/poplar charcoal of 3500-3090 cal BC. The hearth was located extremely close to the feature that produced Late Mesolithic lithics deposited three thousand years earlier. A rectangular anomaly recorded by a geophysical survey of the area probably indicates yet another (later) period of activity at the site (Tameside Archaeology Society in prep).

Multi-period occupation and activities and land-use were recovered from a site located on a low hill overlooking a beck at Durranhill near Carlisle (C). A southern site was excavated in 1997 – 1998, and the adjacent area to the north was excavated in 2011. Both are reported by Jackson (2016). Many of the features were small, irregularly shaped, and contained no datable materials, but they were probably associated with others on site, some of which could be dated. Only one feature could be dated explicitly to the Middle Neolithic period: a roughly circular cut feature containing a large amount of burnt material radiocarbon dated to 3350-3030 cal BC. 

There were several features dated to the Late Neolithic- a cluster of 20 pits in the northern area, five of which produced late Neolithic radiocarbon dates eg 2460 – 2210 cal BC and 2480 – 2290 cal BC. Two of the dated pits contained Grooved Ware pottery and a third contained Grooved Ware and a clay ball (see Ceremony section).

In the southern area, where the cut features were more dispersed, 12 of them produced material of Late Neolithic date. The radiocarbon dates are similar to those for the northern cluster eg 2470 – 2230 cal BC & 2560 – 2300 cal BC, but the pottery associated with these features is Peterborough Ware rather than Grooved Ware, indicating clear spatial distinctions between the two activity areas.

Environmental samples produced hazelnuts from almost every sample, and the charcoal indicates exploitation of a range of woodland species, particularly hazel, plus some oak and other deciduous woodland species. No charred cereal grains were recovered from the Neolithic samples (O’Meara and Bishop 2016).

A large pit at the southern end of the site contained sherds from three vessels of indeterminate type, but with similarities to Early Bronze Age Collared Urns from Cumbria. Later features at the site include a small pit with a Late Bronze Age radiocarbon date, two undated but probably Iron Age palisaded enclosures and a Romano-British field system (Jackson 2016).

Following on from a desk-based assessment and archaeological evaluation at the Montcliffe Quarry extension site, Bolton (GM), National Museums Liverpool Archaeology Field Unit undertook a targeted excavation of a geophysical anomaly prior to quarry ground works commencing. This turned out to be a small depression between gritstone boulders containing charcoal and burnt stones, associated with a scatter of 103 flints. The burnt stones are gritstone and siltstone, but no other siltstone pebbles or cobbles were found on the site. The flint lithics are mainly debitage from later stages of working pebbles from local boulder clay, and stylistically are likely to date to the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age periods, centred on the third millennium BC. There is also a range of tool types (including arrowheads), in various stages of manufacture or reworking, suggesting that several different activities took place at the site (Adams & Cowell, 2015).

Intensive quarrying for aggregates from the well-drained and easy-to-plough sands and gravels of the Abbeytown Ridge of western Cumbria (C), led to a series of archaeological investigations published by Jackson and Churchill (2017). These revealed that people had focused on this area in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

At New Cowper Quarry (C), Neolithic settlement features included an enclosure surrounding two groups of postholes that probably comprised four-post structures. A third four-post structure lay outside the enclosure, with pottery of possible Early Neolithic date in one of its post pits. Fragments of an Early Neolithic bowl were recovered from the top deposit in a natural hollow, and a separate cluster of pits contained a range of materials including burnt stone and hazelnut shells and charcoal, a flint bladelet, and fragments from five Early Neolithic vessels (Churchill et al 2017).

A nearby pit with a different profile contained similar material to the pit cluster, but also had an upper fill that was tightly packed with unburnt stones and was surrounded by 10 stakeholes. It may have been a different form of structure (Churchill et al 2017).

Settlement activities continued, with another enclosure, a fourth four-post structure, and various pits dating to the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. The fill of one of the pits contained Grooved Ware, a Neolithic blade fragment, and sherds from four All Over Cord decorated beakers. Sherds from two of these same vessels were additionally found in fills in other pits, distributed within a distance of 80 metres. Churchill et al (2017, 62) suggests that people may have made conscious decisions to use the pottery to link these features.

The structure contained a large quantity of an Early Bronze Age Beaker vessel and the remains of a possible hearth containing charcoal that gave a radiocarbon date of 2400-2140 cal BC. As well as the settlement evidence, a pair of parallel ditches interpreted as a sheep race was aligned along one edge of the enclosure.

Beaker pottery was also recovered during fieldwork at Lower Brockholes sand quarry, where the M6 crosses the River Ribble east of Preston (L) (Town 2014). The pottery came from two pits found close together, possibly associated with a curvilinear feature thought to possibly be an eaves-drip gully of a building or the footings of a windbreak. The pits also produced bone fragments and charred hazelnut shells and a wheat grain. Radiocarbon dating of the pits and the gully appear however to be somewhat too late for the Beaker pottery fragments. Nonetheless, the site suggests some measure of domestic activity.

Giffords undertook fieldwork at Oversley Farm, near Wilmslow, (Ch) ahead of the Manchester Airport expansion in the late 1990s. Some of the findings were reported and discussed previously (Hodgson and Brennand 2006, 33). The full publication is now available (Garner 2007), confirming a range of evidence for prehistoric activity from the Neolithic onwards, including two Neolithic rectangular structures, hearths, pottery, barley and struck lithics.

At Irby, on the Wirral peninsula (M), another multiperiod site was investigated by the Field Archaeology Unit of Liverpool Museum in association with undergraduate and Continuing Education students from the University of Liverpool. There was a great deal of community involvement, with many residents allowing the excavation of trenches within their gardens between 1987 to 1996 (Philpott & Adams 2010).

The site lies on a relatively flat area of land just below the crest of a sandstone ridge, on a geological junction. It is underlain by well-drained, easily cultivable brown earth, and is in close vicinity to a range of other types of topography and soils. Redeposited lithics (mainly Mesolithic with some Neolithic) indicate that people undertook various activities here, but the main settlement evidence comes from the Middle Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the Early Medieval periods.

The structural evidence for post-built Middle Bronze Age houses is slightly ambiguous: there was either one large (15 metre diameter) roundhouse with a double row of posts, or two sequential and overlapping houses that were slightly smaller but still unusually large (14 metre diameter). There is a southwest facing entrance flanked by post holes containing pottery and clay artefacts. An unusual feature for Middle Bronze Age structures in north-west England is the use of a continuous foundation trench for the part of the wall opposite the entrance. Whether one or two buildings, the posts are not set equidistantly around the circumference(s), nor are they arranged symmetrically around an axis aligned from the entrance. Four radiocarbon dates from short-lived plant remains from the fills of the foundation gullies and postholes are all within 1520-1010 cal BC. There is also fragmentary evidence of an adjacent structure. Finds from the main structure(s) include decorated and plain locally made pottery, two spherical clay weights, potential oven clay, naked barley and emmer wheat (Philpott and Adams 2010). Bones only survived as unidentifiable comminuted calcined fragments.

All of the twenty-six processed sediment samples of definite or probable Middle Bronze Age date produced charred plant remains, sometimes in dense concentrations (up to 234 items per litre). Although the concentrations varied, the plant remains were ubiquitously dominated by grains of naked barley and grains and glumes of emmer wheat. Few other taxa were present. Spelt wheat was represented occasionally by glume bases (but not by grains) and there were a few seeds of apples or pears and some hazelnuts. Weed seeds were very few. Four of the eight sampled postholes contained abundant remains of charred cereals. Their similar compositions, including not only naked barley and emmer wheat cereal grains and emmer glumes, but also some whole spikelets of emmer, may indicate the use of the main structure or an adjacent one as a grain store (Huntley 2010).

Puddington Lane, Burton (Ch) is another multi-period site on the Wirral peninsula, only nine miles (15 km) south of Irby. Prehistoric flint and chert lithics were found, including some of Mesolithic type, as well as a Middle Bronze Age hearth, and Iron Age, Romano-British, pre-Conquest and high Medieval features and materials, indicating the long-term attractiveness of the location for habitation and land-use (Gregory and Adams et al forthcoming).

The Middle Bronze Age hearth is remarkable for its extremely high concentration of charred plant materials, dominated by grains of naked barley, plus a few hulled barley grains and oat grains. One of the barley grains yielded a radiocarbon date of 1400-1220 cal BC. A 20 litre subsample of the deposit produced more than 6300 grains- a density of 315 grains per litre of deposit. Some weed seeds and cereal chaff were also recovered from the subsample, but the relatively low numbers of both suggest that the crop had been cleaned before it became burnt. The chaff was mainly from barley, but there were also a few glumes of emmer wheat (Druce forthcoming). 

The hearth sample also produced abundant charcoal fragments, but it was poorly preserved due to being heated either to high temperature or repeatedly. A few pieces could be identified and indicate the use of a range of common tree species (Druce forthcoming).

In addition, the sample contained very rare ceramic building material (CBM) which might indicate the remains of a structure. Two small pits located adjacent to the hearth were probably post holes but no structure was identified (Gregory and Adams et al forthcoming).

The only known Middle Bronze Age roundhouse in Greater Manchester was excavated at Cutacre (GM) open cast coal mine by Oxford Archaeology North in 2006. This was a single roundhouse radiocarbon dated to c 1480-1260 BC. The house lay on gravel close to a palaeo-channel in an area dominated by boulder clay. Lying close by were two sequential four-post structures with analysis of charred plant remains suggesting a function as malting floors. This was also radiocarbon dated to the Middle Bronze Age and a small assemblage of Middle Bronze Age pottery was recovered (Gregory 2016).

The Carlisle Northern Development Route (C) investigations found evidence for a settled landscape in the Bronze Age, with a small hilltop settlement comprising three roundhouses. Hearth samples yielded radiocarbon dates from both the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age, and environmental analysis revealed the presence of cereal grains, chaff, and spelt wheat (Brown and Clark, 2011). The final excavation report will include important information about structures, artefacts, and people’s relationships with their environment (Brown et al in prep).

Other settlement sites potentially dating to the Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age periods include Cocklakes (C) and a group of five sites in north Cumbria (C). The archives for these sites were assessed in the Carlisle archives project as having high potential for further work (Zant 2010).

In the uplands of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park a large number of surveys have identified features relating to the establishment of early field boundaries, field clearance and possibly other activities such as burial. Many of these have been undertaken by volunteer groups, under the auspices of the Lake District National Park Authority. Others have been commissioned by English Heritage/Historic England or the National Park Authority, and some have been undertaken by in-house English Heritage/Historic England survey teams.

In the absence of direct dating evidence, period assignment is generally through formal comparisons with dated sites.

The results of archaeological surveys undertaken between 1981 and 1989 have been brought together in a very useful but slightly out of date comprehensive review by Quartermaine and Leech (2012). In total, the surveys covered 78 square kilometres of uplands, and recorded over 10,300 monuments. Since the topographical surveys targeted upstanding monuments, the volume does not cover the numerous Mesolithic and Neolithic lithic scatters found by field walking.

The majority of the identified remains are thought to date to the Bronze Age, and primarily consist of cairnfields. The authors suggest a typological development, starting with localised sub-circular clusters of cairns, perhaps implying the exploitation of small woodland clearances for agriculture, during a period of expansion upslope as the climate ameliorated. The cairns then began to be rationalised into lines, reflecting the beginnings of complex field systems, some of which incorporated substantial lyncheted boundaries, indicating the cultivation of marginal lands.

The greatest concentrations of cairnfields are found on the marginal uplands adjacent to the Cumbrian coastal plain, in western Cumbria. Other cairnfields and field systems were also found in the southern, central and eastern parts of the National Park, but not usually in such densities.

In the western Lake District the National Mapping Programme has revealed rich pockets of known and potential Neolithic and Bronze Age sites at Ennerdale Fell (C), Caw Fell (C) and Lank Rigg (C) where some 15 cairns were identified during field survey (Deegan 2016). The Dunmail Raise (C) and Greenburn Valley (C) surveys have identified a total of 90 sites of which about 70 are previously unreported, including a discrete area of cairns and an extensive cairnfield (Style 2015).

The Rydal Head and Beck Survey (C), undertaken in connection with MSc Research, has recognised a large number of prehistoric and later features, including cairns, clearance cairns, platforms, enclosures, standing stones, ruined buildings, quarries, revetments, hut circles and cup marks (Style 2010, LDNPA S5324). These features include a possible Bronze Age circular enclosure and two ring cairns (Style 2012).

On land around Carrock Beck (C), survey has revealed a number of possible enclosures and prehistoric round cairns. At Woodland Fell, Kirby Ireleth (C), field survey has identified possible prehistoric cairns, clearance cairns and stone alignments (LDNPA S5398).

The Upland Peats Study for North-West England has also identified new sites in low numbers for all four of its study areas. Three previously unknown cairnfields were identified in the South West Fells area (C), one of which displayed compact linear cairn groupings in association with a possible round-house, likely to date to the Late Bronze Age. The other two cairnfields are likely to be Bronze Age primary clearance features (Huckerby et al 2010a, 2010b).

Excavation at Shap Blue Quarry (LDNPA S5125), near a known Bronze Age settlement, identified some potential Bronze Age banks in two trenches (Weston 2010).

Prior to the geographical extensions of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks, Historic England undertook a mapping programme of the ‘new intake’ areas based on aerial photographs and lidar data. In the east of the project area – particularly in the Lune Valley and the Pennine fringe (C) – there were areas of extensive coaxial field systems and settlements, probably Iron Age or Roman in date but with potential Bronze Age origins.

None were specifically dated, but occasional areas such as High Park (C) showed stratigraphic sequences. At High Park, two sets of intersecting field systems (as well as a settlement feature) were targeted for sediment coring. They were assessed for Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating but none of the samples proved suitable (Oakey et al 2015).

Areas in north-west England outside of Hadrian’s Wall, the Lake District National Park and Cumbria have received very little survey. Mapping programmes based on aerial photographs and lidar data have been undertaken recently in pilot areas of Lancashire (Goodchild & Hardwick 2017) and Cheshire (Hardwick 2017, Goodchild in prep), but struggle to identify early prehistoric sites remotely. Upland areas, in particular, such as the Pennines and Forest of Bowland, should repay detailed topographic and walk-over field surveys.

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