The Excavation of a Late Prehistoric Settlement in Poulton

By EssentialsMAG archaeology contributor DR KEVIN COOTES

The Iron Age is an intriguing time in British prehistory. Covering the last eight centuries BC, it officially ends with the Roman invasion of Britain of AD43, when writing is first introduced into this country. This is a time that the Welsh, Irish and Scottish nations look back to the origin of their Celtic culture and identity. For archaeologists, we look for distinct signs of settlement which occurred during this period, especially the remains of gullies and ditches which once surrounded habitations made from earth, straw and mud that we call roundhouses. Such structures occur in lowland areas, but are also found within large, defended hilltop enclosures which people would have retreated to in times of war. Notable examples in the region are found at Beeston and Oswestry.

The study of the Iron Age in Britain has traditionally focused on southern and eastern Britain, with far fewer settlement remains known in the North-West of England and into Wales. It has even been suggested that the area around Cheshire was a backwater in the last few centuries of the first millennium BC, with only a few poorly preserved sites indicative of low population density. The discovery of a major riverine settlement at Poulton in Cheshire, however, is set to change the way Iron Age settlement is viewed in this region.

During the excavation of the Medieval Chapel at Poulton, the chance discovery of prehistoric artefacts within the graves led archaeologists to the remains a hitherto unknown and affluent settlement hidden beneath the ploughsoil. The site was characterised by circular ditches which once surrounded Iron Age roundhouses and were further used for the disposal of domestic waste from food preparation and other activities. These remains provided a rare time-capsule, allowing us to investigate the day to day lives of our ancient ancestors.

A large quantity of animal bone was recovered, demonstrating that cattle, sheep and pig were kept and slaughtered at the site for food. Red and Roe Deer were also eaten, with their antlers collected and made into a variety of items such as handles and toggles. More macabre activities were evidenced in the discovery of two partial dog skeletons, possibly representing sacrificial offerings. Additionally, pottery fragments that once contained salt demonstrated that this commodity was imported into Poulton for meat preservation. Other evidence for cooking includes vast quantities of charcoal from domestic hearths, which contained vital information for reconstructing the ancient landscape and providing a refined chronology of the site. Scientific analysis of charred plants has shown that the site was inhabited from the 8thh-1st centuries BC and was surrounded by a mixed woodland, dominated by blackthorn, oak, ash, and alder. The population also grew barley and wheat, whilst collecting wild foods such as hazelnut. In conclusion, the abundance of evidence for Iron Age habitation in Poulton is unparalleled in Cheshire and may well rewrite this enigmatic period for the whole of North-West England.

For details on the Poulton Research Project, email:

Victoria Lee