Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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In the last issue of CA, I explored the archaeology of Merseyside, Liverpool, and Manchester. This month, I head into the surrounding countryside of modern-day Cheshire. The county is rich in prehistoric, Roman, and medieval remains – in fact, I explored Alderley Edge in CA 354 (September 2019), so readers may wish to revisit that column alongside this one.
RESEARCH AND HAPPY ACCIDENTS: BRONZE AGE CHESHIRE
Three particularly fine prehistoric sites located in Cheshire have featured in CA. The oldest of these is at Poulton, just to the south of Chester, where issue 213 (December 2007) featured what was originally a late Neolithic timber circle. This phased into a middle-late Bronze Age ring ditch, with final ‘sealing’ and abandonment around 900 BC. The site was identified as part of the larger Poulton Research Project that had originally focused on the Cistercian Abbey founded here in 1153 – as reported in CA 180 (July 2002). Geophysical surveys identified the likely presence of prehistoric remains, later confirmed by excavation – see CA 366 (September 2020) for the latest news from this long-running investigation.
Next in date comes Shaw Cairn on Mellor Moor, right on the edge of Stockport and technically in Greater Manchester. CA 257 (August 2011) reported on the exploration of an early Bronze Age burial cairn, originally excavated in the 1970s. In the early 2000s, archaeologists returned to the site when the original archive and finds were identified and rescued from a garage, allowing the surviving material to be written up. This led to fresh excavations that revealed more about the Bronze Age use of the site, such as a possible ‘princess’ burial with associated high-status grave goods, including the remains of a fine amber-bead necklace.
The youngest site is also at Mellor, slightly to the west of the Bronze Age features mentioned above and on the edge of the modern-day village: both had come to be explored as part of the wider Mellor Heritage Project of 2007-2009. CA 189 (December 2003) examined a previously unknown Iron Age hillfort here and explained the remarkable circumstances of its discovery, which occurred when local resident Ann Hearle, Chairman of Marple Local History Society, noticed a line of lush green grass arcing across an otherwise brown field in the middle of a prolonged dry spell. Ann sent photos of this feature to Peter Arrowsmith of the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit for his opinion – which was that the line followed an infilled ditch. Geophysical survey, followed by excavation, revealed a substantial ditch that been laboriously cut through underlying rock. It was 4m wide and more than 2.1m deep (no wonder the grass was so green!). The top fills contained fragments of Roman tile and glass but, lower down, Iron Age pottery and fragments of crucibles used for bronzeworking were found. Finally, charcoal from near the base of the ditch gave a radiocarbon date in the 5th century BC.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH IN ROMAN CHESTER
Chester is one of the finest Roman towns in England, and, as such, discoveries here have featured repeatedly in the pages of this magazine. CA 84 (October 1982) focused on the later Roman history of the city, in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, after the abandonment of the legionary fortress in c.AD 300. A succession of excavations undertaken across the late 1970s and early 1980s demonstrated that the administrative buildings in the middle of the fortress remained in use and were even refurbished in this period, evolving into a purely administrative centre surrounded by acres of open space where a field army, when it did eventually come to the base, would occasionally bivouac.
CA’s next significant visit to Chester came in issue 167 (March 2000), reporting on the examination of an unusual elliptical building first identified in the late 1960s, prior to its lamentable demolition to make way for a car park. The building originally lay near the heart of the fortress, with the central hall formed from two intersecting arcs, making it unique in the Roman Empire. The building’s function is unknown. There was no seating within the arcs, which precludes its use as a theatre. The best guess is that the 12 alcoves contained images of the gods, and that the structure might be a temple dedicated to the 12 primary gods of the Roman pantheon.
Chester’s amphitheatre is arguably the jewel of this Roman crown, a site that CA reported on repeatedly across the early 2000s. The theatre was first identified in 1929 by the Chester Archaeological Society, which persuaded no less a person than Ramsay MacDonald, then the prime minister, to protect it from the construction of a road. CA 193 (August 2004) reported on works undertaken in partnership by the city council and English Heritage to reinterpret the site, with improved access and interpretation, and CA 224 (November 2008) returned to give an update on the outcome of those works. The excavations revealed new evidence about the early origins and development of the site, the phasing of successive amphitheatres, and the post-Roman use of the site. Most recently, CA 304 (July 2015) returned to the site to report on stunning new discoveries that overturned traditional thinking about the chronology of not only the amphitheatre but of Chester itself. It had previously been assumed that the origins of the city dated to the arrival of the Roman army in the AD 70s, but discoveries deep beneath the amphitheatre revealed upstanding earthworks of Iron Age date, one of only two places in Britain where such evidence has been excavated (the other location is in South Shields). Other parts of the site go back even earlier – in a small pit, the team found two tiny prismatic blades dating to the late Mesolithic period.
A TALE OF THREE CASTLES
For those of you in search of more recent remains, I conclude this month’s column by pointing you towards three fabulous Cheshire castles. The first of these, Beeston, lies some 12 miles southeast of Chester. It is a prominent local landmark in the care of English Heritage. CA 91 (March 1984) visited excavations that were under way at the time, their aim being to improve visitor access and stabilise points of erosion. This work revealed much about the early medieval origins of the castle, but also produced evidence for much earlier occupation of the site, including late Bronze Age metal-working; precastle banks, ditches, and approach roads; and an Iron Age settlement. CA 225 (December 2008) visited Buckton Castle, which – like Shaw Cairn – is technically in Greater Manchester, on the far north-eastern edge of the larger urban area near Mossley. It was built in the mid-12th century, expanded in the mid-14th century, and abandoned by the 16th century. A University of Manchester team was on site in the early 2000s to explore the site and improve understanding of its equally complex history.
Most recently, CA 323 (February 2017) reported from Halton Castle in Runcorn at the head of the River Mersey. The castle sits on a promontory and was begun shortly after the Norman conquest of the area in 1070; it expanded gradually across the next few centuries, before finally being used by the Royalist side in the Civil War. Excavations revealed two unexpected burials that had not been identified in fieldwork undertaken in the mid-1980s and again in 2015. Both had been given a traditional Christian burial, and analyses identified one as a man in his mid-40s who died somewhere between 1425 and 1470, and the other as a woman in her early 30s who had died somewhere between 1520 and1665. Why two such different individuals were buried around a century apart but in close proximity at this site remains a mystery.
In the next issue, I head further east into the neighbouring county of Derbyshire. The Peak District’s outstanding archaeology beckons, with literal highs and lows, both up into the peaks and down into the many caves and mines of this stunning part of the country.
About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.