Later Prehistory


Compiled by Michael Nevell

(With contributions by Mark Brennand, Kevin Cootes, Dan Garner, Mark Leah, Andy Myers, Vanessa Oakden, Rachael Reader, Norman Redhead and Sue Stallibrass)


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 are arranged 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

Introduction: The Later Prehistory Resource

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.

The early twenty-first century has continued to make significant progress in exploring the later prehistoric period within North West England. The years 2006 to 2018 have seen a considerable amount of fieldwork through developer-funded activity, landscape management projects, and research-funded exploration. Developer-funded projects have produced significant Late Bronze Age and Iron Age evidence from road schemes (such as the Carlisle Northern Development Route and the Manchester Airport Relief Route), quarrying activity (Cut Acre in Greater Manchester), and urban-fringe construction, as at Saighton Camp near Chester. Smaller evaluations and watching briefs across the region have revealed significant material from this period. Landscape management projects have added important new material to our understanding of the Cheshire  hillforts and, through the Morecambe Bay Partnership, the later prehistoric landscape of the coastal fringe of southern Cumbria and northern Lancashire. Non-developer-funded research and work by the voluntary sector have contributed through several long-running excavation projects; notably at the Old Vicarage in Mellor, Greater Manchester, and Poulton, south of Chester. There have also been several important publications on sites excavated before 2006 relevant to the late prehistoric period; principally the Chester Amphitheatre, Irby, and Oversley Farm, as well as a major publication on the finds from the coastal site of Meols on the Wirral and overview work on Lancashire.

Three trends are visible in this work. Firstly, a steady, though not spectacular, increase in the number of known settlements. Secondly, the discovery that more of the region’s hillforts have origins in the Late Bronze Age. Thirdly, an increase in the volume of later prehistoric metalwork, specifically Late Bronze Age and Late Iron Age items, through items reported by members of the public to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

In many ways the later prehistoric in the North West is an amplification of the broader settlement trends of the Neolithic and Early and Middle Bronze Age. Investment continued to be made in the landscape, such as field systems and there is a general intensification of land-use. This period also continued the development and growth of an array of artefacts associated with conflict begun in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. Yet, there is now enough evidence to suggest a break in settlement forms and metalwork types between the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age and the Middle to Late Iron Age. There are suggestions that in the southern part of the region settlements evolved further in the later Iron Age, hinting at sub-regional differences in settlement patterns and perhaps social organisation (Rule 2018).

Later 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.

One Reply to “Later Prehistory”

Leave a Reply