Cheshire by VICTORIA AND PAUL MORGAN
First impressions of this volume are that is well presented, clearly laid out, with a wealth of original photographs and drawings. Aimed at the general, non-specialist reader, the book intends to focus on the long barrows and chambered tombs, henges, stone circles, round barrows, standing stones, ancient settlements and hillforts of the region in an attempt to raise the profile of the county, overlooked, as it often is, by the more archaeologically visible landscapes of the neighbouring Peak District. The authors claim that, despite the ravages of agriculture, industry and antiquarian excavation ‘for those who know where to look there remains a rich prehistoric landscape’ within Cheshire.
The book is well organised and deals with the landscape of the county before moving on to consider the archaeological evidence from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age. This is followed by a handy gazetteer, a list of useful addresses and a selection of references and further reading. One immediate irritation is the lack of the use of any referencing system in the text, making the arguments put forward by the authors difficult to disentangle from those made by others.
The introduction covers a very brief consideration of archaeological techniques and dating methods, a summary of previous research in the county and a time scale. The summary of previous research does not, however, explain the context for modern archaeological work and gives the impression that the last piece of research into the county’s prehistory was undertaken in 1980. Although finds from metal detecting surveys are illustrated in the text, there is no mention of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (apart from as a place to view recent finds on p.75).
Administrative boundaries and the physical characteristics of the county are broadly outlined in Chapter 2, before a consideration the evidence from the Mesolithic period in Chapter 3. The major sites from the county are outlined, and we swiftly move on to the Neolithic evidence. The Neolithic and Bronze Age periods form the bulk of the book, taking up over 100 pages, most of which contain a photograph, diagram or distribution map. Chapter 4 considers the Neolithic evidence and swiftly dispatches with the changes in material culture (Grimston, Peterborough and Grooved Ware are dealt with in three short paragraphs) which characterise the period.
The authors appear more at home when discussing the burial and ritual monuments of the period, which they divide into ‘Monuments of the Living’ (henges and causewayed enclosures) and ‘Monuments of the Dead’ (long barrows, mortuary enclosures and chambered tombs). Only a single ‘Monument of the Living’ is considered: a roughly circular earthwork adjacent to the Leek Old Road at Gawsworth, near Macclesfield. The authors offer three strands of evidence which, they believe, suggest the site might have been a henge. First, it is located close to a findspot of Neolithic pottery and only 7.5km from the chambered tomb of the Bridestones. Second, the site is central to the distribution of a number of round barrows and third, the entrances are on a similar alignment to those at other henges in the region, such as Arbor Low. The fact that Cheshire lies outside the known distribution of causewayed enclosures is not mentioned, and none are identified by the authors.
Monuments of the Dead are discussed in rather more detail and divided into chambered tombs and long barrows. Three long barrows from the county are considered which include two unconvincing sites, one of which, measuring c. 90m long, 40m wide and 7m high, was considered for scheduling as a long barrow in the 1960s before being rejected as a natural mound of glacial origin (Anon 1961). The third site considered as a long barrow has also been interpreted by John Barnatt (1996) as a round barrow situated on a natural outcrop. Barnatt is a source frequently cited elsewhere in the book, but not here. Later on (p.115), the same site is considered as a round barrow, this time quoting Barnatt and mentioning the Roman material found within and around the mound.
The description of the Bridestones, the only convincing chambered cairn in the county, dominates the Neolithic section of the book and there are extensive quotes from antiquarian investigations. The site is an impressive one and one which raises interesting questions about megalithic tomb typology and chronology outside of well known areas of Scotland, Wales and southern England. One of these questions, the similarity with the ‘Clyde Cairns’ of Scotland, is raised but left not addressed. An intriguing attempt at dating the Bridestones is, however, offered. This applies an argument forwarded by Burl (2000) for the construction of typologically early cairns in SW Scotland below 46m, with later cairns being constructed on higher land ‘on soils less easy to till’. This is applied to the Bridestones which, being located at 250m aOD, must therefore belong to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC.
The Calderstones are the final burial monument to be considered and the story of their discovery and subsequent removal to a greenhouse in a suburban Liverpool park is recounted. One finishes the consideration of the Neolithic evidence, which promised to examine the henges, causewayed enclosures, long barrows, mortuary enclosures and chambered tombs of Cheshire, with the impression that, rather than the rich, unexplored landscape promised at the start, there exist various unconvincing examples of some of these monument types within the county, and none at all of others. Perhaps the Bronze Age evidence will have more to offer?
At 78 pages, the Bronze Age section of the book is the longest and considers life and settlement, copper mining and metalworking, stone circles, round barrows and cairns and standing stones. The chapter begins with an explanation of social change at the end of the Neolithic which is entirely driven by climatic change. People brought Beakers and metals from the Continent into rainy Britain and a settled economy allowed a more settled society. A brief exploration of Bronze Age material culture (3 pages) includes a consideration of Iron Age spindle whorls and Medieval log boats. The end of the Bronze Age is again explained as entirely due to a climatic down-turn which ‘eventually led to the onset of the Iron Age’ (p.64).
A brief interlude by ‘local Macclesfield Historian’ Dorothy Bentley Smith explains the introduction of copper metallurgy in the Near East and its eventual, inevitable spread to Britain. It’s reassuring that, in these pages, the Phoenicians and Early Greeks are alive and well and trading for tin with Cornwall in the Bronze Age. The Morgans soon have the narrative back on track with an account of the 19th century discoveries at Alderley Edge and a brief review of the evidence for Bronze Age extraction at the site. No mention is made of Gale’s extensive work at Engine Vein (Gale 1986; 1989; 1990), and mention of the Alderley Edge Landscape Project is also conspicuous by its absence.
Bronze metalworking and artefacts are covered in two pages which include a description of a (stone) shafthole axe. The crucible and refractory fragments found during excavations at Beeston Castle are described as being almost unique, with the exception of similar finds from Cadbury Castle in Somerset. No mention is made of the material from Dainton (Needham 1980), Norton Fitzwarren (Ellis 1989), Springfield Lyons (Buckley & Hedges 1987), Mucking North Ring (Bond 1988) or Grimes Graves (Needham 1991), or other well known sites which have produced either mould fragments, refractory debris, or both. The introduction of lead into the mixture for bronze in the Late Bronze Age is described as having been pioneered in North Wales and the climate is once again blamed for the instigation of the deposition of metalwork in watery places during this period.
‘Five or six possible known examples of stone circles’ from Cheshire are considered next, the raison d’être for the practise of constructing these monuments explained as ‘perhaps’ the result of an asteroid or comet flying close to, or colliding with, the earth sometime around 2,300BC. The parallels drawn with Scottish Neolithic monuments is revisited here as an explanation for the Bullstones, a rather enigmatic monument in the east Cheshire uplands. Although this stone, surrounded by a cairn, has similarities to the Scottish monuments described by Burl as centre-stone circles, it was ‘excavated’ in the 19th century and cannot be considered to be in its original form. The site at New Farm, Henbury is described as a stone circle, despite there being no evidence for the excavated pits at the site ever having contained stones. Evidence instead comes from stones lying in nearby hedges and used to construct stile. These stones are described as ‘glacial erattics around 30 to 40 centimetres in diameter’ (p.81). All well and good (if a trifle small), until one learns that the pits at the site were 60 centimetres deep (p.82). Three further sites are considered to be stone circles. One at Delamere is 2m in diameter and subsequently described as a kerb cairn, another at Grapenhall is also clearly a cairn which covered the burial of a Food Vessel (Archaeological Surveys 1976). The stone circle at Alderley Edge, we are informed, is a Victorian folly.
Clearly much work has gone into the 41 pages of description of round barrows and cairns which follows, with many sites having been visited, photographed and relationships between the sites and the landscape explored. A selection of the more complex excavated examples are covered in some detail before five barrow cemeteries are considered. The plan of the Seven Lows cemetery in Delemere Forest is compared to that of the constellation of the Pleiades and, ‘although the two plans by no means match exactly’, the question is raised if it was possible that the constellation played a role in the lives of the communities living in Cheshire (p.95).
There follows a detailed selection of individual barrows which are ‘interesting either because of their position within the landscape or because they have been subject to investigation….’(p.100). The majority of these sites are in the Macclesfield area, coincidentally the town in which the authors live. The high land to the east of Macclesfield is also the location of several standing stones considered in the succeeding section. The standing stones are beautifully photographed but again, few appear convincingly prehistoric with parish boundary stones, gateposts and rubbing posts for cattle all uncritically included. A short section on christianised stones makes no mention of the presence of a number of Anglo Saxon carved stone crosses in the county, preferring instead to suggest that all carved stones are of prehistoric date, and subsequently re-used. There is no consideration of any monuments, sites or material culture later than the end of the Early Bronze Age in this chapter, despite the presence of burnt mounds, metalwork and settlement sites of Middle and Late Bronze Age date across the county. Rather, we rush on into the Iron Age.
The weather raises its deterministic head once again at the end of the 1st millennium BC with the high quantities of rain, and an apparent scarcity of copper and tin, by 600BC leading to the introduction of iron working. Despite the damp conditions, Iron Age people wore colourful, chequered clothes, had long hair and wore sandals. The social complexity of groups living in north west England during the Iron Age is considered in a single page before salt production and exchange is examined in detail. Much is made of Morris’ work on Cheshire and Midland VCP, although more questions are raised than answered.
The understanding of the Iron Age population throughout this chapter of the book is one almost entirely derived from classical writers such as Strabo, Caesar and Tacitus with a pinch of Living in the Iron Age thrown into the mix. Hillforts are considered at length, enclosed settlements less so, until finally we arrive at ‘Death in the Iron Age’ and the exciting discoveries at Lindow Moss. The various bog bodies are considered in both their British and European context and the usual stories of ritual sacrifice and dark deeds are rehearsed. Then the book ends. There is no conclusion as such, rather two short paragraphs entitled ‘The Lindow Legacy’, where it’s a relief to hear that ‘it is now possible to say that Cheshire was very important’ during prehistory (p.169).
Although the book is lavishly illustrated and the photographs and figures of excellent quality, there are points at which this standard unfortunately slips. The figures of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery on pages 30 and 87 seem to have been executed in a hurry and those of Bronze Age metalwork on p.74, although giving a general feel for the material, are poorly drawn. There are two Figures 18 and several geographical errors: Maxey is relocated to Wessex from Cambridgeshire, and Droitwich to Shropshire from Worcestershire. The tone of the book, aimed at the general reader, is the realm of ‘prehistoric man’ and sites are always ‘interesting’ or ‘mysterious’. The weather is the determining factor throughout the book, being used as an explanation for cultural change throughout prehistory, with little consideration of the European, or frequently the British, context. In terms of regional context, the authors continually refer to sites in the Peak District (subject of their previous book, Rock Around the Peak) or Scotland, but not to those in Shropshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire, Cumbria or North Wales. Indeed, the approach is very similar to that of Varley (1964) which sees Cheshire as an ‘outlier’ of the more sophisticated, monument-rich area immediately to its east. Both ignore the presence of the equally monument rich area of NE Wales to the west and the similarities in landscape and monumental traditions (or the lack of them) in the area to the south of the county boundary.
In conclusion, this book is a well produced, useful source of data, much of which is derived from the county SMR and antiquarian sources. Aimed at the general reader, rather than an academic audience, it may be guilty of over simplifying some of the more complex issues such as social structure and social change. However, what it may lack in theoretical complexity it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. The focus on the monumental, rather than material culture, is a product of this enthusiasm, with a strong element of ‘go and see for yourself’ underlying the entire text. This can surely be no bad thing. It is a shame, however, that this enthusiasm has, in places, led to a degree of over-excitement and a suspension of critical judgement which undermines much of the data presented here.
Review Submitted: October 2004
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