North West Region Archaeological Research Framework Prehistoric Resource Assessment Draft November 2004

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North West Region Archaeological Research Framework Prehistoric Resource Assessment Draft November 2004



Edited by John Hodgson and Mark Brennand

With contributions by David Barrowclough, Tom Clare, Ron Cowell, Mark Edmonds, Helen Evans, Elisabeth Huckerby, Keith Matthews, Philip Miles, David Mullin, Mike Nevell, John Prag, Jamie Quartermaine and Nick Thorpe.


The Palaeolithic period represents a time span covering almost the last half million years. Early material from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic is uncommon on a national scale, and there are no known sites from the North West. This is perhaps not surprising as for a considerable part of this time the region was inhospitable due to glaciation, although the warmer, interglacial and interstadial periods would have undoubtedly seen gatherers and hunters exploiting the area that now forms the region. The Late Upper Palaeolithic (c. 11,000 to 8000 BC) represents the final stages of the Devensian glaciation. The archaeological evidence is sparse but certainly demonstrates the presence of human groups in the region during this time. The Mesolithic represents the period from the end of the Devensian glaciation at c. 8000 BC to the widespread adoption of Neolithic culture and economy sometime after c. 4000 BC. The period is regularly divided into an early and late phase, with a dividing line of approximately 6500 BC.


Late Palaeolithic deposits from the Late Devensian late glacial epoch, although not abundant, have been identified throughout the North West, e.g. at St Bees (Coope and Joachim 1980, Coope 1994) and the tarns of Cumbria (Pennington 1970) in the north, to Cheshire (Leah et al 1997, 50) and Greater Manchester (Birks 1964-65) in the southern part of the region. As the ice retreated and the climate became warmer in the Late Devensian interstadial period, the vegetation on the drier land was an open birch, juniper and willow scrub with a rich herbaceous flora. This was ultimately replaced by more open grassland with less stable soil conditions.

Environmental changes involved a general rise in sea-level, as the ice cap melted, an increase in rainfall and natural successions of woodland vegetation. In the earliest phase of the Mesolithic, by c. 7250 BC, the coastline of North West England lay at c. -20 m OD (Tooley 1974, 33). This produced a coastline drawn roughly along a line from just west of Anglesey to west of Walney Island in Morecambe Bay, forming a belt of now submerged land, about 10-15 km wide (Tooley 1985, Fig. 6.1). This gradually diminished up to c. 5200 BC, when it lay at –2 m OD, by when Britain had become an island (Tooley 1974; 1978; 1985).

Palaeoenvironmental analysis has illustrated a sequence of environmental changes culminating in increasing forest cover, up to about 500 m OD (Tallis 1975, 1999). The open grassland of the Late Devensian III (c. 11,000 to 9500 BC) was succeeded in the Early Mesolithic firstly by juniper, willow and birch scrub, then by a hazel woodland with pine, followed by a mixed deciduous woodland of oak, elm, birch, hazel and lime. In many areas swamp, and subsequently fen, formed behind the present coastal zones and in poorly drained hollows within inland and upland areas. About 6000-7000 cal BC alder spread throughout the region possibly as a response to a change to wetter conditions or as the result of human or animal interference (Chambers and Elliot 1989). Throughout the Mesolithic, when mixed woodland covered much of the drier ground, there is evidence that suggests that mire surfaces were being burnt. The North West Wetlands Survey and Taylor et al (1994) have recorded discrete bands of charcoal in peat deposits, often dated to the period, throughout the region from Solway Moss (C) to Lindow Moss (Ch). These bands are often correlated with brief changes in pollen diagrams, e.g. at Little Haweswater (C) (Taylor et al 1994), Thwaite House Moss (L) (Middleton et al 1995, 182-190) and at Walker’s Heath (Ch) (Leah et al 1997, 81-7, 221-4), suggesting small clearances followed by woodland regeneration.

The wetland areas in North West England expanded further at the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic transition when the falling sea levels of the Lytham VI marine transgression (Tooley 1978) left behind large areas of wet minerogenic soils along the Irish Sea Coastal Plain, which developed into the coastal raised mires (Cowell and Innes 1994; Middleton et al 1995; Hodgkinson et al 2000, 23-84).

Post-Glacial Activity

Although it has traditionally been argued that there is no definitive proof for early activity in Northern Britain, there is evidence suggestive of a Later Palaeolithic presence in Cumbria (Young 2002). Interpretations have however been problematic, with the majority of assemblages mixed with typologically ‘later’ artefacts, often a result of disturbance of the cave deposits with which this material is commonly associated. Salisbury (1992) provided the first discussion of such evidence from caves around the southern Cumbrian limestone. Despite a piece of red deer antler from Kirkhead Cave being dated to 11,050-10,400 cal BC (Salisbury 1992) the close dating of artefacts from lower stratigraphic contexts remains unresolved (Wood et al 1969; Ashmead and Wood 1974; Gale and Hunt 1985; Salisbury 1986, 1988; 1997; Tipping 1986; 1990). However, the Late Devensian zone III (c. 11,000 to 9500 BC) dating for some of the Kirkhead Cave lithic material remains unchallenged (Young 2002). A single flint bladelet from Badger Hole, Warton (L) has parallels with the Kirkhead material, and may also represent Late Upper Palaeolithic activity. Early indications of human activity have been identified at High Furlong in the Fylde (Hallam et al 1973) in the Late Devensian II warm interstadial period. Here the skeleton of an elk displaying signs of hunting was preserved within shallow water deposits. The skeleton was dated to 13,500 - 11,500 cal BC (Jacobi et al 1986; Middleton et al 1995, 87), although this date has recently been slightly refined towards the later end of this spectrum (R. Jacobi pers. comm.).

Excavations at Lindale Low Cave (C) recovered potentially the earliest evidence for occupation in the region in the form of a large angle-backed blade of Creswellian type, sealed beneath a stalagmite floor (Salisbury 1988; 1992). A single flint bladelet similar to those from Kirkhead Cave and Badgers Hole was recovered from a separate location within the cave, and is unlikely to be contemporary. Excavations in caves at Blenkett Wood, Allithwaite (Salisbury 1997) may also have produced Late Upper Palaeolithic tools alongside later lithic artefacts, faunal remains and human burials from within highly disturbed contexts (Young 2002). Excavations at the cave of Bart's Shelter on the Furness Peninsula have produced 80 complete lithic implements (Young 2002), including a Late Upper Palaeolithic shouldered point (R. Jacobi pers. comm.). The late glacial faunal assemblage includes elk and reindeer, while remains of bear and pig remain undated (R. Jacobi pers. comm.). Recent excavations at Carden Park (Ch) have also produced Late Upper Palaeolithic material including a Cresswell point, representing the first in situ Late Upper Palaeolithic material from the county (


The evidence for Mesolithic activity across the region activity is heavily influenced by the exposure of diagnostic material, and concentrations of fieldwork in particular areas. The evidence for occupation, of any nature, is primarily represented by scatters of lithic material (Harding 2002, 15) and there have been few organic or structural remains identified Palaeoenvironmental evidence is however, fairly widespread. This is suggestive of repeated woodland reduction episodes and in the uplands burning of the woodland to encourage regeneration and browsing, which may have been an important part of landuse (Mellars 1976a; Middleton et al 1995). The clustering of Later Mesolithic material in raised beach contexts around the Esk estuary (C) in particular is suggestive that communities were exploiting coastal resources and inland freshwater tarns (Bonsall et al 1994). Perhaps the most dramatic evidence is represented by a series of human footprints preserved in silts and muds at Formby (M), which have been dated to the later Mesolithic (Gonzalez et al 1996) and represent activity along a near-shore intertidal environment.

In western Cumbria, Later Mesolithic flint scatters have been located on the raised beaches of the maximum marine transgression and along clifftops north of St. Bees (Cherry and Cherry 1983; 2002). There are extremely few perceptible technological differences between Later Mesolithic and Early Neolithic lithic scatters in the region and it has been suggested that a microlithic technology persisted in Cumbria into the Neolithic (Cherry and Cherry 2002; Evans 2004). With perhaps the exception of some sites where microliths form the majority of tool forms represented, the identification of purely Later Mesolithic scatters in the area is problematic as the majority of assemblages derive from surface scatters and erosion scars. The visibility of earlier material is influenced by sea level changes and may have been truncated over the course of the Later Mesolithic, Early Neolithic or later (Cherry and Cherry 2002).

At Monk Moors on the west Cumbrian coast two large microlithic scatters incorporating a variety of largely geometric microlith forms have been investigated (Cherry and Cherry, 1986). Site 1 revealed an arrangement of hearths and stakeholes covering an area of 7 m by 2.4 m, corresponding with highest densities of artefacts recovered from the ploughsoil (Bonsall, 1989). Radiocarbon determinations from a hearth indicate occupation of the site at 5970-5630 cal BC (Bonsall et al 1986, Hodgkinson et al 2000). Nearby at Williamsons Moss, extensive activity was centred around the banks of an inland lake formed after 5473-5074 cal BC (Bonsall et al 1994). Excavations revealed a lithic assemblage of more than 32,000 pieces and a variety of occupation remains that have not seen full publication. Radiocarbon dates of ‘wooden structures’ dated to the fifth millennium BC and taken to be indicative of year round occupation of the site (Bonsall 1981) are however now believed to have been natural features (Hodgkinson et al 2000; Croft et al 2002). The lithic assemblages and the range of dates from both Williamsons Moss and Monk Moors span from c. 5790-5360 cal BC to 1252-910 cal BC and are indicative of multiple activity phases, not solely Later Mesolithic as has commonly been implied. The only current artefactual evidence for Mesolithic activity from the central Lake District is the find of a small number of microliths from the environs of the Roman fort at Waterhead, at the north end of Windermere (Fell 1971; CFA 1993; Manning and Dunwell 1995).

Both Earlier and Later Mesolithic material has been identified from cave sites on the southern Cumbrian limestone (Salisbury 1992; 1997; Young 2002). An assemblage of Early Mesolithic microliths, some manufactured from volcanic tuff, have been recovered from Bart’s Shelter, along with a bone or antler point dated to 6210-6190 cal BC (R. Jacobi pers. comm.). Further sites in Furness have been identified and have seen some excavation, both at the hands of antiquarian and more recent investigators. The finds from these excavations are believed to incorporate a variety of material dating from the Later Palaeolithic, Early and Later Mesolithic onwards but few sites or full assemblages have seen detailed analysis or publication. Without close analysis of finds (a number of which are at present unaccounted for) the typological dating of a number of these implements as Early Mesolithic remains unresolved, with interpretations based on individual analyses of difficult and often chronologically mixed assemblages. Mesolithic flintwork has also been identified on the limestone in eastern Cumbria together with an early find of bone harpoon heads at Crosby-on-Eden (Hodgson 1895; Cherry and Cherry 1987a; Cherry and Cherry 1995). Assemblages of Late Mesolithic and Neolithic date have been found sealed beneath burial mounds at Levens Park, (C) (Cherry and Cherry 2000) and Borwick (L) (Olivier 1988), implying repeated use of some locations into the Neolithic.

Until recently, to the south of Morecambe Bay the main areas of prehistoric occupation were thought to be confined to the north Wirral coast (Hume 1863; Varley 1964; Roeder 1900). The North West Wetland Survey (Middleton 1990) together with a large scale programme of systematic field survey (Cowell 1991; 1992c; Cowell and Innes 1994) has added considerably to the picture. This has extended the pattern of coastal Mesolithic settlement along the present Sefton coast, around the valley of the river Alt. Potential Later Mesolithic material has been identified within the area of the former coastal zone and large scatters at Banks near Southport and on the north side of the Ribble estuary at Peel. Smaller scatters have been identified on islands of sandy soils, such as at Halsall (L) and Downholland (L) (Middleton 1997). Systematic fieldwork in inland areas is more generally characterised by the recovery of small numbers of lithic forms, generally debitage, scattered widely across the landscape (Cowell 1991a; Cowell and Innes 1994; Middleton 1993; Middleton 1997; Hall et al. 1995). The main exception to this pattern comes from a concentration of Later Mesolithic lithic material from Halton (L) in the Lune valley (Penney 1978). These are only small assemblages in comparison to many sites in the Pennines (Mellars 1976a), but are reasonably consistent, suggesting that they are representative of the nature of occupation in south Merseyside, west Lancashire and the Fylde (Cowell and Innes, 1994; Middleton 1997; Middleton et al 1995).

The western Wirral sandstone ridge has produced the best Early Mesolithic evidence from the western lowlands at Greasby (M) and Thurstaston (M) (Cowell 1992b), which includes the densest concentration of Mesolithic finds in the county. Later Mesolithic assemblages are also known from sites such as at Irby (M) (Philpott and Adams forthcoming; Philpott and Cowell 1992). Excavation of Early Mesolithic sites at Greasby Copse and Thurstaston Dungeon has shown that these sites are fairly typical of those found elsewhere in that they cover relatively large areas, 200 square metres or more, and incorporate a full range of flint reduction material and a wide variety of tool forms. The Greasby site also includes stone lined pits. Radiocarbon dates from Greasby Copse are awaited. Raw material at both sites strongly suggests that the North Welsh coast was being used for the exploitation of local chert sources (Cowell 1992b). South of the Mersey, the Triassic sandstone mid-Cheshire ridge forms the focus for Mesolithic sites where a small number have been located by fieldwalking around Frodsham (Varley 1964; Longley 1987). A little to the south, four separate flint scatters from fields around the village of Ashton include both early and later forms (Leach 1942).

The central Pennine uplands of Lancashire and Yorkshire have produced one of greatest concentrations of Mesolithic sites in the country, and this evidence has played a dominant role in interpretations of the period. Early work was undertaken on the flint assemblages of the Pennines during the late nineteenth century (Stonehouse 2001, 19) and from the 1920s by Francis Buckley (1924), whose work has subsequently been developed by others (Clark 1932, Switsur and Jacobi 1975; Jacobi, Tallis et al 1976). In addition to Buckley’s finds and records a large collection of lithics and archives were accumulated by Pat Stonehouse (Stonehouse 1989; 1994; 2001). During the 1990s the West Yorkshire Archaeological Unit also undertook research on the Mesolithic archaeology of the southern Pennines, sometimes working on sites first investigated by the earlier researchers (Spikins 1995; 1996). The sites largely occur where erosion of the post-Mesolithic peat overlying mineral soil has taken place. Such material ranges from a few pieces of struck flint to several thousand (Stonehouse 1989). In contrast, sites within the Pennine foothills at Tatton (Higham and Cane 1999), Manchester Airport and Mellor (Redhead and Roberts 2003) have been located as a result of excavating sites of later periods.

The southern Pennine sites are represented by surface assemblages of varying sizes (Jacobi et al 1976; Tallis et al 1976). Most of the upland scatters are dominated by microliths, often forming more than 90% of the assemblage, with the greatest concentration being found in a fairly restricted area between Saddleworth and Marsden (Barnes 1982). Further south, a foothill valley ridge location at Alderley Edge (Ch), has produced several locations with Mesolithic lithics, including potentially early material (Longley 1987). Further to the north, the Pennines are seemingly almost devoid of sites but this may be a reflection of the limited fieldwork undertaken there.

Where excavation has taken place (Barnes 1982; Buckley 1924; Radley and Mellars 1964; Stonehouse 1986) upland sites are generally represented by circular arrangements of struck flint over small areas, often with hearths or evidence of burning (Spikins 1995; 1996; Poole 1986; Howard-Davis 1996). Structural evidence may be represented by small stake holes or circular arrangements of stone. A small flint assemblage was excavated at Radcliffe (GM) in the Irwell valley, including an axe sharpening flake. A multi-ringed post structure was also excavated but a direct association with the flint was not established (Spencer 1950; Clarke 1954). The site at Tatton Park (Ch) has produced an early Mesolithic flint scatter associated with a natural hollow (Higham and Cane 1999), while details are still awaited for the associations of the relatively large lithic scatter from the Manchester Airport excavations (Thompson 1998).

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