On a wet and cold early spring day in March 2009 I found myself struggling across the featureless Slatepit Moor above Hollingworth. I was heading for a newly-found prehistoric site at the interestingly named Irontongue Hill, 400m above sea level. Here amongst the scrubby heather and close to Irontongue Stream was the edge of a large area of eroding blanket peat, and from beneath this a series of small pits associated with a scatter of several hundred late Mesolithic flint work (tools and debatage). One of the items excavated by TAS was a finely worked pale chert core 22mm x 34mm (see left). The many facets on this small piece indicate the high level of expertise and dexterity of the tool workers of this period, since each of these facets produced flakes that would be used as tools or combined into a tool. Its unclear clear where the source material for this core is located: the pale chert may well have been quarried in North Wales, but it’s also possible that glacial processes brought this material to the southern Pennines rather than it being carried here by a Late Mesolithic human.
The work at Irontongue Hill was being undertaken by the Tameside Archaeological Society (TAS) and led by Kevin Wright. TAS had been working in the Slatepit Moor area since 2005, initially following up and locating with handheld GPS a number of potential cairn sites I had first noticed in the early 1990s.(1) TAS had already done a fabulous job finding many more cairns and other early features than I had been able to locate and record in my solitary rambles in 1990 and 1991, at that time without the aid of a hand-held GPS tracker and a mobile phone. I remember discussing the project in a warm and dry meeting room in Denton in 2005 when Kevin Wright and then TAS chairman John Marsland explained how the erosion of the blanket peat on the moors above Hollingworth and Mottram had suddenly increased after a large and widespread heather fire. Subsequently in 2006 fieldwalking had located Mesolithic flints then appearing beneath and along the edge of the eroding peat in one area of the moor, Irontongue Hill. Here was an opportunity to excavate scientifically in Tameside one of the many prehistoric ‘camp’ sites in this part of the southern Pennines.
Kevin Wright was my guide on that bleak March morning and as we arrived a figure covered in mud and seemingly soaked to the skin rose to greet us with a wide grin. This was Ron Cowell from the National Museums Liverpool, whose expertise in flint work TAS had sort after the initial survey in 2006. He had been so enthused by the material TAS was finding that he offered to help run the excavations. Ron was happy to bring his huge knowledge of lowland Mesolithic sites in North West England (Greasby, Lunt and Thurston) to this upland find. The site proved to be very significant since the concentration of several hundred late Mesolithic flints over a few square metres were associated with a hearth pit and three, possibly four, intercutting pits; a rare find for such an upland site. Penny Spikins’ work above Oldham, at March Hill and Lominot, in the mid-1990s was the last occasion when this kind of structural evidence was found in the southern Pennines.(2) On lowland sites these type of intercutting pits are sometimes found within a structure: the site at Howick in Northumberland springs to mind. Is that the case here at Irontongue Hill? Excavation in several areas around the pits failed to provide any evidence for a wider structure, but that could be because of the emphemeral nature of any possible structure. What is clear is that this site was visited on a number of occasions, so there must have been some form of landscape marker, natural or human-made.
The radio-carbon dates for the pit features at Irontongue are due later in 2015 so further speculation must await this new data. Yet what this evidence already demonstrates is that our understanding of the first prehistoric peoples of Tameside has radically changed since my survey work in the early 1990s first noted upland manmade structures beneath the peat. That fieldwork itself had added a new dimension to the flint tools found in the 1890s and 1900s. The changing environment of the moors of the southern Pennines demonstrates the value, indeed the need, of revisiting these areas to record fresh evidence with all the latest scientific techniques available before this archaeological evidence is lost due to erosion.
(1) Nevell M, 1991, A History and Archaeology of Tameside. Volume 1: Tameside before 1066. Tameside MBC & University of Manchester.
(2) Spikins P, 1999, Mesolithic Northern England: Environment, Population and Settlement. Oxford: Archaeopress.