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Cover of British Archaeology 110

Issue 110

Jan / Feb 2010



Burnt mound theory tested to perfection

Dig find proves flowers placed in bronze age graves

UK's first complete Roman lantern found in Suffolk

Research continues as Saxon hoard is valued at £3.3m

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Newhenge: Latest discoveries and interpretations from the Stonehenge Riverside Project team

Dig the beat: Exploring pop music from an archaeological perspective, including additional online content

THE BIG DIG Mellor: A hillfort in the garden: This long-running research excavation near Stockport, Greater Manchester, is now ready for publication

The Peat Men from Clonycavan and Oldcroghan: Findings of the Bog Bodies Research Project at the National Museum of Ireland, with Bibliography


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at archaeological gifts

Dan Pett summarises the website set-up and technologies for the Staffordshire Hoard


faux pas


Sebastian Payne asks what cremation burials can tell us

in view

Greg Bailey is impressed by Open University broadcasting

CBA Correspondent

Lynne Walker and Sue Morecroft look at the past year of listed building casework

my archaeology

David Attenborough remembers the early days of television


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


THE BIG DIG Mellor: A hillfort in the garden

John Hearle lives in the Old Vicarage in Mellor, a village in Stockport, Greater Manchester. In 1998 three students excavated part of a ditch close to the house. Now after 12 years of excavations with hundreds of volunteers, the complex site is being readied for publication. This is what they found.

It all began in the drought of 1995. When Ann Hearle looked over the wall into the field below, she saw a continuous green curve between the yellow and green shapes of the rest of the grass. With her interest in the history of Mellor, she thought the curve might have been caused by the buried footings of medieval buildings.

Two years later Peter Arrowsmith of the former University of Manchester Archaeological Unit (UMAU) came to talk to Ann about the history of Marple and Mellor for his forthcoming book on Stockport. He looked at the photos from 1995, walked round the garden and said, "This is old!" The following spring Graham Eyre-Morgan brought out three students to carry out resistivity surveys, which confirmed the significance of the green line and showed other features in the garden. In the summer, they started digging.

The first two trenches showed postholes. Then they opened a third trench next to the vegetable garden, which uncovered the edge of a ditch cut into the rock – this became known as trench 1. As the students went deeper they found Roman and iron age artefacts. Later they found a narrower ditch in the field. So began 12 years of summer digging, until all the accessible areas of the Old Vicarage garden had been excavated, plus some trenches in the adjacent fields.

Postholes and clay pipes

Mellor lies in a cusp of land bounded on the south-west by the river Goyt, heading up into the heart of the Peak District; on the north-west by the river Etherow, which leads up the Woodhead valley towards Yorkshire; and on the east by a long ridge, looking across the Ladygate brook towards Kinder Scout. The top of Mellor Moor is at 327m (1072 feet); the lowest point, where the rivers join, is at 72m (235 feet). It is this topography between peak and plain that has determined life in Mellor.

Three spurs lead west from the ridge. Two bronze age sites are known. To the north, Ludworth Moor contains Brownlow Barrow, which was "excavated" by the Reverend Marriott around 1800. To the south, Mellor Moor has Shaw Cairn at its highest point, excavated by amateurs in the 1970s and 80s and re-excavated in 2008 with the discovery of over 80 amber beads in a cist. The central spur rises from the ridge and then drops in a series of knolls, on the first of which stands Mellor Church alongside the Old Vicarage. No archaeology had been found there until the present dig started.

The following are the main features of the excavations.

Overview of Mellor Hillfort

Probable line of the hillfort's outer ditch, which runs from a smaller enclosure beneath the churchyard and gardens in the foreground; Xs mark excavated sections, Gs geophysical evidence. Click thumbnail for larger image (91KB).

• A large inner ditch from middle to late iron age (450BC–AD43), typically three metres wide and three metres deep, cut into the rock or into a band of boulder clay that crosses the site. This has been tracked from near the entrance to the Old Vicarage in the east, to pass under the house and on through trench 1 to the south-west corner of the garden. The rest is in the churchyard, covered by roses and rhododendrons, and not accessible for digging! The enclosed area is about 0.7ha.

• A narrower and shallower outer ditch, probably late bronze age (1150–800BC), which has been excavated in sections in fields owned by cooperative farmers to the north and south. The owners of the land up to the top of the hill to the east are less accommodating, but the line of the present stone walls suggests that the enclosure may have run round the hilltop enclosing about 20ha.

• Four large roundhouse gullies, which appear to date from the iron age, found inside the deep ditch and two just outside, which may be from the bronze age.

Palisade slots and other linear features.

• Four rows of five large post-holes of a medieval aisled hall.

• Abundant fire-cracked pebbles, some associated with pits in the boulder clay, which would have been used for heating water for cooking or other uses.

• A vast number of postholes and stake holes. They all lie in the rock or clay just below a small depth of topsoil, and with no deep stratigraphy most are puzzling to interpret: four lines of postholes for a medieval hall are an exception.

• A great many finds covering around 10,000 years, with the only gap being in what, for Mellor, can be called the dark ages.

In the middle of the area, hundreds of flints dating from the early to late mesolithic have been found (10,000–4000BC). They are a mixture of tools, such as scrapers, flakes and cores. The neolithic and bronze ages are represented by quality, not quantity: a fine neolithic flint chisel and a bronze age flint dagger.

There are hundreds of fragments of iron age pottery, but most notable are the 120 pieces of the Mellor pot found in the outer ditch. Carefully conserved, it still shows the thumbprint of the potter who coiled it. Briquetage (coarse pottery material used for making and transporting salt) indicates that salt was coming from Cheshire to be traded with the people of the Peak. Crucible fragments and lumps of slag show that there was metal-working on the site.

Iron age pottery came from the lower fills of the inner ditch. In the higher fills, Roman pottery from the late first to mid fourth century ranged from simple wares to Samian. Two Roman brooches and other pieces have been found in the inner ditch. Several coins dating from Vespasian (AD69–79) to Claudius II (AD268–270) have been found by metal detectorists in the surrounding area. A soldier's charm with Minerva's owl was found on the route from Mellor to the Roman fort at Melandra (Glossop).

The fills of the postholes of the medieval hall contained pottery from the late 11th to early 15th centuries, together with three medieval arrow heads. Among later pottery, there is high quality ware. Elizabethan and Carolingian coins have been found in the upper levels of excavation. Many clay pipes date from the start of smoking in Britain with a sharp cut off at the end of the 18th century.

Life on the edge

Map of Mellor site

Mellor Old Vicarage site plan. The lighter green areas to the north are fields where there will be more excavation; darker green to south, with bushes, is not accessible for excavation. Click thumbnail for larger image (98KB)

It is now possible to put together a plausible account of what has happened on this small area on the edge of the Peak District, linking it to the plain of the Mersey basin. Perhaps the palaeolithic people who produced the rock art in Creswell Crags 40 miles to the south-east (60km) wandered over the Mellor hills up to 15,000 years ago. Certainly their mesolithic successors came to Mellor in their summer search for animals. Mesolithic hunters are known to have been active in the Trent valley, or maybe they came from the Cheshire plain – always in Mellor one wonders whether to look east or west.

There was probably a settlement on the central spur in the bronze age time, though the more interesting funerary archaeology is on the spurs to the north and south. Around 500BC, possibly due o the change of climate, the high hillforts of Derbyshire were abandoned, and one of the chieftains may have decided to establish himself on the old area of Mellor. A deep ditch was dug, as much for status as defence. There was one entrance on the east and one on the north-west with an avenue, now revealed in the lines of small upright stones, running between the two.

The Romans reached the area around AD70. The Mellor chieftain must have decided to co-operate, and adopted some of the luxuries of Roman life, but otherwise continued in an iron age life style. There is only one minor piece of evidence of any possible Roman buildings on the site. However, one of the archaeological puzzles may relate to this period. When the inner ditch was excavated at the east end, one section of about three metres was only half as deep as the rest. This coincided with the change in the adjacent fill from iron age to Roman finds. Behind the ditch, there were two palisade slots. One had a gap opposite the higher level. The other ran right across. The most plausible explanation is that in some troubled times, maybe during the Brigantean conflicts which began in AD47 and were given focus when the resistance leader Caractacus sought protection from the Roman army, the old entrance was closed off and new defences built.

A millennium later, the archaeology of the medieval hall ties in with the historical record. In the reign of William I, a Norman known as de Melleur was appointed a Forester of the Peak and his heirs held rights to the land. When the last of the de Melleurs died around 1400, the estate was divided between his three daughters. The eldest, who had married a Ratcliffe from Ordsall Hall, built a new hall half a mile away.

The building, which is now the Old Vicarage, had become the Church Inn by at least 1530. The innkeeper was a wealthy man, lending money to his neighbours and enjoying high quality pottery. In 1782, the Reverend Ollerenshaw, who was the perpetual curate of Mellor within the large parish of Glossop, bought the inn as a vicarage – explaining the sudden change in the clay pipe record. He was followed by his son-in-law and grandson, but in 1906 the widow held onto the deeds and the Church had to find a new vicarage.

In 12 years, archaeology has added greatly to the historical record of Mellor, a village on the edge of the Peak. Its location and physical features have led to its use in a variety of ways. In mesolithic times, the hills provided good resting places above the valley swamps. In the bronze age, with a warm climate, it was well suited to growing crops. In the iron age and Romano-British period, it provided a place of defence, status and trade. Again in medieval times, it was on the boundary and the King's Foresters were able to establish themselves as Lords of the Manor. The fast-flowing streams led to Mellor becoming a major force in the early industrial revolution, before going into decline, and reviving as a Manchester lung and commuter community – but that is another story.

John Hearle is chairman of the Mellor Archaeological Trust. Since 2001, the excavations in Mellor have been directed by John Roberts and then Peter Noble, with support from UMAU staff and Donald Reid, amateur archaeologist and trustee.

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