Revisiting the Bronze Age: CBA North West Spring Seminar 2015

The CBA North West conference delegates touring the Prehistoric and Industrial mine remains at Engine Vein, Alderley Edge, 9 May 2015

The CBA North West conference delegates touring the Prehistoric and Industrial mine remains at Engine Vein, Alderley Edge, 9 May 2015

CBA North West’s 2015 spring conference took as its theme recent work on the Bronze Age in North West and northern England. This reflects the revival of interest, and application of new field techniques, over the last decade in several aspects of Bronze Age archaeology in the region: death and burial; art; and mining.

Two talks looked at death and burial. Peter Noble reviewed the Mellor Archaeological Trust’s excavations at Shaw Cairn. This is a curbed cairn first excavated in 1970s and 1980s. In the centre lay a double cist back-to-back. A radio-carbon date from one of the cists, which contained an amber bead necklace, centred on 3665+/-35bp (Early to Middle Bronze Age). Staining of a possible body was found in the other cist. He also described a second newly found cairn in the Cowen Edge area. 25m in diameter it was investigated in 2013 and 2014 by Glossop Archaeology Society. Like Shaw Cairn it was defined by a curb. A jet fastener for a knecklace was found near the kerb along with fragments of cord Bronze Age pottery. Part of the kerb was found to have been robbed as were parts of the mound: perhaps a metre of material had been removed from the mound. A possible cist also discovered in the centre and next to this was a large robber pit over a metre wide and deep. 50 jet disc beads and jet buttons were found in the backfill and edges of the robber pit.

Dan Garner discussed the rediscovery of the Seven Lows barrows near Delamere Forest in central Cheshire. First described in the 16th century and then investigated in early 19th century and described at the time by Cheshire historian Ormerod, when two barrows were destroyed for road building, although an urn was found in one mound. By 1911 mostly had been levelled. The project had to relocate the sites shown on Ormerod’s early 19th century plan using modern OS maps and the known location of the three scheduled surviving earthworks. 20th century ploughing also damaged the sites so that several were descheduled in 1994, which in hindsight seems a little hasty. The Cheshire Habitats and Hillforts project in 2010 commissioned a large scale LiDAR survey which captured some of the earthworks as surviving features. Geophysics in 2012 corroberated one of the sites whilst a new site located on the survey was evaluated by excavated in 2012. Here a shallow quarry ditch surrounded the monument. Fragments of cremated bone and a scatter of mainly late Mesolithic 289 flints were also found. In a central pit were two pieces of collared urn associated with cremated human bone. An intact urn was also found near the pit whilst a second urn was found near to this. Two further partial urns with cremated bone also located in the wider mound area but had been plough damaged. The strangest object was a burnt bone whistle or toggle. Seven radio-carbon dates spanned the years 3540+/-30 to 3460+/-30 bp. The cremations included three adults, two of whom were male. Surprisingly one of the of robber pits was radio-carbon dated by to 1490-1650AD. Could this be the antiquarian activity noted in the 16th century?

Louise Brown looked at the prehistoric rock art recorded by the Watershed Landscape Project, a multi-disciplinary HLF project focussed on the southern Pennines between Bradford and Rochdale. There is little rock art known in the southern North West Portable, the exceptions being the Calderstones in Liverpool and a recently discover piece of portable rock art stone with cupmarks from the Eddisbury Hillfort excavations in 2010. The historic Environment was one of six themes and Rombalds Moor near Bradford produced extensive prehistoric rock art. This was undertaken by the volunteers on the project. Each panel was recorded in three dimensions using open software. 499 panels were recorded with 49 new sites noted by the volunteers in 2012 (as explained in a recent British Archaeology article). Google Earth and mobile GPS were used by the volunteers to accurately record the moorland locations. Talks with landowners were held about protecting panels for the future by clearing trees and shrubbery around them and moving footpaths away from sites. Over 200 of these panels have now been scheduled and the data is available on the ‘England’s Rock Art’ website. The hope is that skilled volunteers will continue this work and spread their knowledge.

Jamie Quartermaine brought the twin themes of cairns and rock art together in his discussion of the Ravensheulgh Crags. Sitting in western Northumberland near Hadrian’s Wall this was another HLF project training volunteers. It is a landscape with lots of earthworks of multi-periods. 41 rock art panels were found in half a square kilometer; all cup marks. Also six funerary monuments were noted on top of the cragg; five of these round and kerbed cairn had rock art . There was also a four-stone circular 4.9m across. All this material proved to be late Neolithic to early Bronze Age. Two cairn fields were associated with the improvement of land after woodland clearance, not just for arable farming, but for grazing too. The eastern cairnfield has fields and stone-founded roundhouses. In amongst this is a horseshoe-shaped burnt stone mound. Excavations of an example at Sizergh in western Cumbria showed two phases of burnt stone with an in situ wooden trough, to heat water with hot stones, dated to 2466-2212 cal BC. 2km from the cragg was a row of standing stones, both single and double lines continued by pits to a length of 134m and ending at a burial cairn. Over part of the cairnfield was cord rigg and later enclosures. Both sealed the cairnfield and could be Iron Age. The craggs show c. 2000 years of landscape improvement and settlement emergence is representative of the story of much of upland England. The volunteers are continuing this work

The final talk was by Carolanne King on the prehistoric mines at Alderley Edge. Here too volunteers have been central to 18 years of research. It should be noted that there is some small evidence for prehistoric copper mining at nearby Mottram St Andrew to the east. Known prehistoric mining on the edge can be found at Brynlow, Pillar Stormy Point and Engine Vein mines. The Alderley Edge sandstone ridge is 250 million years old with secondary and primary mineralisation producing a wide range of mineral types; Azurite and Malachite are the main copper ores and both are brightly coloured. A grid of fault lines cross the edge and the minerals are concentrated along these. Copper, lead and cobalt are main ores. There is no Bronze Age smelting at the Edge but there is extensive evidence for mining and processing. A Bronze Age shovel from a mine pit has been radio-carbon dated to 1888-1677 cal BC. Lots of cobble mining stones and pits were found in 19th and early 20th century, as was this shovel. The Alderley Edge Landscape Survey Project in 1990s and early 2000s recorded pit workings at the surface in Engine Vein. Excavation to the south of Engine Vein in 1998 revealed a Bronze Age mining prospection pit radio-carbon  dated to c. 1700 cal BC. Evidence for fire setting came from the bottom of the pit. The radio-carbon dates from the Edge suggest mining activity from 1920 to 1640 cal BC. Later excavations at Stormy Point in the 2000s showed the presence of trench mining, pit mining, and copper ore processing. Also, intriguingly, there was iron metal working slag and iron hammer scale from Stormy Point, though the date of this activity is unclear.

Two themes emerged from the day: landscape study and community involvement. The recent work on the Bronze Age of the North West has highlighted the survival of a variety of early landscapes and much of the survey work needed to study these areas could not be done without community volunteers. Thus, more people than ever before have been involved in recovering the region’s Bronze Age past: a genuine golden age for prehistoric studies.

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