Throughout the 22 years of the Tameside Archaeological Survey (1990-2012) one of the more frustrating aspects of the project, at least for me, was the lack of later prehistoric archaeology. With a PhD in the archaeology of this period in the North West this was something I was very keen to explore right from the start of the project. Despite having roughly 150 square kilometres of valley and upland landscape to investigate the Iron Age remained elusive. Yet, during the life of the survey Iron Age settlements were located in other parts of the Greater Manchester region; on a promontory at the Burrs in Bury; at Oversley Farm beneath the second runway at Manchester airport; and surrounding Mellor parish church. Meanwhile in Tameside we discounted one possible late prehistoric site, when the excavations at Buckton Castle proved it was built in the 12th and 13th centuries. There was no earlier settlement on the site overlooking Stalybridge, despite the long tradition (which persists into the 21st century) that this was an Iron Age hillfort. Sadly, the survey project finished before LIDAR data became freely available for most of Britain, thereby revolutionising landscape surveys by making the identification of possible early earthworks much easier.
Nevertheless, two areas were identified as having potential for late prehistoric activity: Harrop Edge and Werneth Low. On the latter erarhworks relating to a double-ditched enclosure were discovered and excavated at Hanging Bank. It was dated by a just single sherd of Romano-British Cheshire Plains Ware from the inner ditch. Thus, it might be earlier in origin like other Roman rural settlements across the region, as at Great Woolden in Salford which was founded in the first century BC. Unfortunately, the centre of the site had been quarried away during the 19th century so we shall probably never know for certain.
The second area was Harrop Edge, which rises to 304m AOD and defines the north-western edge of Mottram. Here cropmarks and earthworks seen on the eastern slope of the hill in the early 1990s suggested possible early clearance activity. Access proved difficult and it was not until 2005 that small-scale excavation could be undertaken, by the Tameside Archaeological Society. Since then TAS has investigated a number of fields on the eastern flank of the hill north of Paddock Farm and more recently around Grange Farm. The ground conditions have been difficult with a surprisingly large amount of later ploughing disturbance and soil movement. The evidence from Paddock Farm, which took the form of a stone ridge or bank running roughly north to south and possibly marking the edge of a lynchet, indicated early land clearance. Fragments of two faience beads and three early Bronze Age flint tools, though all redeposited, suggest a broad date for this activity.
One find, though, stood out as being unusual. This was a small fragment of a cobalt blue bead made from obsidian. It was 10mm long, 5mm wide and 4mm thick and striations on the surface of the central hole are possibly drill markings. The bead was located in a stratified context above the initial clearance level at the eastern end of the trench beyond the bank, at a height of c. 261m AOD. In style this is an Iron Age object, not Bronze Age, whilst its position suggests that it was deposited after the initial clearance activity. Here then might be the first hint of Tameside’s missing Iron Age. Who owned the bead, where they lived and why it was lost remains, of course, a mystery.