T25 Part 3: The Ashton Moss Head

The Ashton Moss Head - a Late Bronze Age bog body from Ashton Moss in Tameside

The Ashton Moss Head – a Late Bronze Age bog body from Ashton Moss in Tameside

For me the most striking of the prehistoric remains from Tameside is a skull from Ashton Moss. I was lucky enough to be able to track this down during research for an early volume of the Archaeology and History of Tameside in 1992. The skull itself, that of an adult male, was found in the late 19th or early 20th centuries in the Droylsden area of Ashton Moss and was first reported in 1911, since when it has lain in the Anatomical Collection of the Department of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. It forms part of a series of bog burials in the Mersey Basin the most famous of which is undoubtedly Lindow Man, from Lindow Moss, but others are known from Worsley Moss and Red Moss. I have argued elsewhere that these remains are part of a late prehistoric and Romano-British cult of the head, which in a later period found expression in the ‘Celtic’ stone heads of the Manchester and Glossop areas.(1)

Unlike some other heads recovered from the mosses of the Mersey basin, when the head was re-examined in 1992 there was no indication of the cause of death. Since no skin survived on the skull it seemed unlikely that a precise date would ever be forthcoming. However, advances in radio-carbon dating techniques and the construction of the M66 across the moss, during the 1990s provided the context for further work on the skull. This second stage of research was aimed at obtaining a scientific date for the skull and was undertaken by the Palaeoecological Research Unit (PERU) at the University of Manchester.(2)

It proved difficult to determine the age at death from the cranial evidence ·alone, although the partial closure of the cranial sutures showed that the individual died before the age of 50 years. Establishing the absolute age of the bog body proved easier. Two maxillary molars were removed from the skull for radiocarbon dating which established that the head dated from approximately 2950 +/- 60 BP (Beta-97721). At a level of 95% probability this was calibrated to 1315-980 calendar years BC, with an intercept date of 1135 BC. This means that the Ashton Moss head predates both the Worsley Moss (third century AD) and Lindow Moss (probably first century AD) remains by more than a 1000 years.

The regional archaeological context of the Ashton Moss head is intriguing. 1200 BC marks the beginning of the transition from the Middle to the Later Bronze Age. This transition is characterised by a hiatus in the archaeological evidence from the Mersey Basin. For instance, the deposition of cremations in barrows ceased during the third quarter of the second millennium BC in line with the national shift away from barrow burials. The latest so far dated in the Mersey Basin are a cist burial from Shaw Carin, Mellor, dated to 1750-1680 BC; a cremation from Delamere Forest dated to 1540-1480 BC (see my recent blog on the Bronze Age); and a cremation from the Southworth Hall barrow cemetery near Winwick, which was dated to 1510-1370 BC. It is possible that the two flat cemeteries at Grappenhall, south of Warrington, and Breightrnet, near Bolton, represent part of this national shift towards open cemeteries from c. 1200 to c. 900 BC, although they have not been securely dated. One of the reasons for this decline in settlement activity may have been the increasing agricultural marginality of the Mersey Basin and the southern Pennines during most of the first millennium BC. This was due to the sharp decline in climate between c. 1200 BC and c. 750 BC.

Most of the artefactual types of the Early Bronze Age (in particular flintwork and pottery) also appear to fall out of use by the end of the second millennium BC, leaving only late Bronze Age metalwork as a physical indicator of a continuing human presence within the region. Finds of Bronze Age metalwork as a whole tend to be in wetland and riverine contexts, perhaps a recognition of the dominance of such habitats in the area. The largest concentration of such metalwork in the North West can be found in the Mersey Basin. In the second millennium BC this material centred on the lower reaches of the River Mersey and in particular the barrow complex at Winwick, north of Warrington. However, after c. 1200 BC the distribution of Late Bronze Age metalwork begins to extend much further up the river valleys of the Mersey Basin, perhaps indicating a shift in human activity in this period. Typical of these later finds is a piece of late Bronze Age metalwork from north-western edge of Ashton Moss in the vicinity of the Ashton Moss head but not directly associated with it. This was a bronze socketed axe head found in the 19th century with part of wooden shaft still attached. Although now lost it would seem to indicate that the Ashton Moss area saw some form of human activity in the later Bronze Age.

The archaeological evidence for human activity around Ashton Moss is very scanty. Apart from the skull, which I think we can safely call a bog body, and the late Bronze Age axe discussed above fieldwalking in 1991 recovered a single Mesolithic flint flake and three flintcores, two tools, and four waste flakes all belonging to the late Neolithic Early Bronze Age era. However, the extensive palaeoenvironmental work conducted on the moss site since 1991 (firstly by the North West Wetlands Survey  research project and then by PERU) has produced evidence not only for the development of the moss itself but also for nearby human activity. The context of this research is the construction of the M66 across the middle of the moss in the mid-1990s.

Studies of six pollen profiles from across the mossland indicated the presence of human activity around the fringes of Ashton Moss.(3) Of particular interest was the occurrence of charcoal particles throughout these cores, but especially in the lower horizons of the southern portion of the’ moss. Here this evidence coincided with a drier period in the history of the mossland, possibly from 1500-900 BC, and which may suggest localised clearance activity in this area.

Late prehistoric settlement sites in the Manchester region in relation to the Ashton Moss Head.

Late prehistoric settlement sites in the Manchester region in relation to the Ashton Moss Head.

The Late Bronze Age date for the Ashton Moss head focuses on a period when the archaeological database of the Mersey Basin undergoes rapid change, with the ending of many of the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age traditions in ceramics, metalwork and monument types. Consequently, the local context of this find is difficult to assess. The only activity around the mossland which may be contemporary is the occurrence of a piece of Late Bronze Age metalwork. The palaeoenvironmental evidence suggests scanty human activity around the mossland fringes, but the nature, date, and extent of this is unclear. Ultimately the Ashton Moss head remains a puzzle providing us with a tantalising glimpse into a period we know little about. Why was it deposited? Who deposited it? Where did Ashton Moss man live?

(1). Nevell, M D, 1992, A History and Archaeology of Tameside. Volume 1: Tameside Before 1066. Tameside Metropolitan Borough with the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, 29-31.

(2). Robinson M E & Shimwell D W, 1996, Radiocarbon Dates from Ashton Moss. A Supplementary Report. Palaeoecological Research Unit, University of Manchester, December 1996.

(3). Beenham A C, Hradil, I W, Ogle, M I, Robinson, ME & Shimwell, D W, 1996b, An Assessment of the Palaeoenvironmental Potential of the land in the ownership of Stayley Developments Ltd, Ashton Moss, Tameside, Greater Manchester. Palaeoecological Research Unit, University of Manchester, July 1996. Unpublished client report.

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