Citadel of the Scots
Reading the land
Great sites: Meols
Editor Simon Denison
Great Sites: Meols
Meols was once the most important ancient port in the North-West. Then it eroded into the Irish Sea. David Griffiths reports on the remarkable collection of objects found in the sands by antiquaries in the 19th century
The name Meols may not be familiar to many people, but the archaeological remains uncovered at this site on the north coast of the Wirral peninsula may be some of the most important evidence in Britain for prehistoric, Roman and medieval coastal settlement and trade.
During the 19th century, over 3,000 objects dating to between the Mesolithic and post-medieval periods were collected from the eroding shoreline. Some of the Iron Age, Roman and medieval objects indicate trade as far afield as Ireland, Europe, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, and are exceptional as a regional group. But the finds also shed light on the everyday life of a remote community on the edge of the Irish Sea.
The name Meols (pronounced 'Mells') comes from the Viking word for sand banks or sand dunes, which dominate this landscape and tidal seascape. When standing on the concrete sea-wall looking out towards the Irish Sea, there is little obviously to suggest that this undramatic low-lying coastline was once the site of the most important port in the North-West.
From the end of the 18th century, there were major changes in the offshore channels and sand banks, partly caused by the beginnings of large-scale dredging on the approaches to the growing port of Liverpool. One of the effects of this was a sudden acceleration in coastal erosion at Meols. Throughout the 19th century, until the sea defences were completed in the mid-1890s, the Wirral coastline retreated southwards for up to half a kilometre in places. As large areas of dune sand were washed away by storms, extensive traces of ancient settlements along the coast were exposed.
When the tide is out, the sands stretch offshore almost as far as the eye can see. One clue that this tidal zone was once dry land can be found on the beach from time to time. Patches of blackened mud with fibrous decayed wood are occasionally visible in the shifting sands. These are the last remnants of the forest which stood in late Mesolithic times in this area.
Maps of the coastline in the 18th century show a low sandy promontory, known as Dove Point (the name comes from Celtic dubh meaning black), which once existed to the north of the present coastline. As the dune sand was washed away during the 19th century, centuries of accumulated soil under the sand, together with middens and occupation deposits associated with later prehistoric, Roman and medieval settlements became mixed with the forest remains beneath.
From around 1810, people from the local villages of Great Meols and Hoylake began to find small metal brooches, mounts, pins, tokens, seals, pilgrim badges, coins and knives, glass beads, pieces of leather and worked wood, iron weapons, knives and keys, sherds of pottery and flint tools, all as far as they could see from within the remains of the 'Ancient Forest'.
The finds created a stir of interest in the isolated fishing community. Some of the Roman brooches were used as toys by local children, and other objects were kept as curiosities. A boy described as 'deaf and dumb' was one of the more prolific collectors. More people went down to the beach to search, and word got wider afield.
A Mr PB Ainslie of Liverpool had amassed a collection as early as 1817, but the first person to realise the archaeological significance of this material was the Rev Abraham Hume, a respected Liverpool antiquary. Hume noticed a group of objects owned by Mrs Longueville, wife of the Vicar of Hoylake, on display in the parsonage early in 1846. In July 1846, he read a short paper on the discoveries to an archaeological congress in York, and interest amongst other antiquaries grew.
Hume began paying regular visits to the Wirral shore to search the eroding layers for himself. He encouraged local people to look for objects, and paid them a few pence for their trouble.
He was soon joined by Henry Ecroyd Smith, the first curator of Liverpool Museum. In the 1860s and 1870s, Charles Potter also began amassing a collection, as did Edward Cox, an American merchant settled in Liverpool, Albert Way and J Romilly Allen. In addition, the wealthy Liverpool businessman Joseph Mayer purchased objects from the site to add to his varied collection of antiquities.
Hume's monograph 'Ancient Meols', published in 1863, contained an illustrated account of the site, but interest in Meols continued until the end of the century. Much discussion, with yearly reports of discoveries, was published by Ecroyd Smith and Potter in the Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire.
There was some personal rivalry amongst the antiquaries, and their collections, like those of the locals, were their own private possessions. Ecroyd Smith was the first to donate his discoveries and purchases to a museum, principally to the early holdings of Liverpool Museum, but in 1858 he also sent a small parcel of 'representative objects' to the British Museum (where it lay almost forgotten until it was rediscovered deep in the museum archive last year). Potter donated his collection to the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, where it remains the largest of the groups of Meols objects. Mayer's collection was, like Ecroyd Smith's, donated to Liverpool Museum.
But what happened to the other collections, and in particular, Hume's? There is some evidence that Potter may have purchased some of Hume's objects, explaining the unusual variety and richness of his donation to Chester Museum. Other pieces probably never found their way into museums. As the owners died, some after moving to other parts of the country, the objects may have ended up almost anywhere, including sadly in the dustbin.
Smaller groups of objects from Meols (otherwise termed 'The Cheshire Shore', 'Hoylake' or 'Leasowe' after the neighbouring villages) have been identified in museums in Warrington, Birkenhead and even Verulamium. It is still possible that further objects from the site are lying forgotten in museum archives or private homes.
The 19th century finds were supplemented during the 20th century by a smaller but equally interesting series of chance discoveries, most recently by metal detectorists searching on the beach. These finds are broadly consistent in type and date with the previous ones, and show that traces of the ancient site may still remain amongst the sands.
What do the finds tell us? The presence of small groups of coastal hunter-gatherer settlers is suggested by the presence of Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age flints, together with a tiny amount of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery. The lithic finds, many of which are arrow heads, date back to the days of the forest, before the low-lying coastal lands were cleared and cultivated.
It is from the later Iron Age that long-distance trading connections seem to grow. Three coins of pre-Roman Carthage, together with two coins of the Coriosolites, an Iron Age tribe in Brittany, and a gold British coin were found. Perhaps equally interesting, very early Roman material of the mid-1st century AD - possibly from before the Roman Conquest - is also present. Claudian coins, a military belt-buckle and two Aucissa-type brooches confirm Meols as one of the earliest sites in the region producing Roman finds.
In fact the Roman material, including glass and pottery, continues through to the end of the Roman Empire in Britain. Over 70 brooches and 120 coins point to a metalwork-rich, coin-using oasis in an economically undeveloped landscape.
Indeed, Meols seems to have continued to trade with the classical world in the post-Roman period when few other sites in Britain were doing so. A pottery flask from the Early Christian shrine of St Menas, in Egypt, was found buried in mud on the shore in the 1950s, and more recently three 6th and 7th century Byzantine coins have turned up.
The Saxons and Vikings gave Meols a fresh lease of life as a port, especially after the Wirral was densely settled by Scandinavians in the 10th century AD. Hiberno-Norse ringed pins and a small bronze bell, strap ends, mounts, coins and over 20 Anglo-Saxon silver pennies are evidence that the site participated in a trading network which extended to Dublin, York and Scandinavia during the early medieval period.
These finds are, however, small in number compared to the hundreds dating from the 12th-16th centuries, which are the majority of those held in museum collections.
The extent and range of the medieval finds from Meols is greater than those known from any site outside London, including towns such as York, Bristol and Salisbury. This is astonishing for an otherwise obscure coastal landing place. As well as objects of bronze, iron and silver, the fragile metal known as lead tin, similar to pewter, has also survived at Meols, adding hundreds of artefacts - mostly items of personal ornament such as buckles, pilgrim badges and brooches - which may have decayed to nothing elsewhere.
The pilgrim badges include examples from Rome, southern France and several from Canterbury, but it seems that much else was being made locally. Some of the 14th century writing seals and later medieval cloth seals are apparently north-western products, indeed one is inscribed to Meols itself. An unfinished lead buckle suggests some metalworking was taking place at the site, and there are also crucibles. The medieval pottery and iron tools speak more of hard work and modest prosperity than of exotic trade links.
It seems that as the medieval period wore on, Meols became less of a trading port and more of an ordinary everyday settlement. The presence of nearly two hundred medieval coins, however, remind us that it must still have had a special role as a market site.
The Meols finds were almost all unstratified. Their immediate context was not recorded, and in many cases must have been destroyed by erosion before they were retrieved. Given the tendency towards rivalry of some of the antiquaries, could they have added objects from elsewhere, perhaps bought on the antiquities market, in order to impress their fellow-collectors? Could they have 'faked it'?
The likelihood of this is not as great as it seems. The principal collectors were all very familiar with the sorts of material coming from the site, and could easily have spotted anything but a very clever substitution. Many of the Meols finds show evidence of exposure to sea water and the bronzes have a distinctive dark patina.
Recent research has also shown that almost all of the finds have some sort of regional parallel - they are mostly the sort of things which occur in ones or twos elsewhere in the north west, but not in these huge quantities. In order to have obtained the right objects from elsewhere to supplement their collections, the antiquaries would have had to have an extraordinary insight into the archaeology of the region. Moreover, many of the regional parallels which support the authenticity of the Meols finds were not found until the 20th century.
For a place which produced this remarkable amount of material evidence, we have surprisingly little topographical information about the site. Maps and charts show the retreat of the coastline, and the gradual disappearance of Dove Point where much of the archaeology must have been located. The antiquaries, however, seem to have focused almost exclusively on collecting artefacts, as they left little by way of descriptions of any structures and layers.
Hume seemed content to understand the strata present within the sand dunes. He was aware that there were archaeologically-interesting layers above the 'Ancient Forest', but he did not make any detailed record.
Ecroyd Smith and Potter made some more tantalising observations. Ecroyd Smith referred to a 'British burial mound' and cremations. Potter described house structures in the eroding sand - round houses of wattle, beneath rectangular buildings with stone wall footings. These were surrounded by fences, middens and trackways. All of these observations sound convincing as descriptions of Iron Age, Romano-British and medieval domestic structures of types since excavated at other sites.
A recently re-identified group of iron weapons in the antiquarian collections, including a sword, a deliberately-bent spear head, an axe and a shield boss, suggest the presence of at least one pagan Viking grave at Meols. This could possibly link with some of the descriptions of burials.
Exasperatingly for modern archaeologists, Ecroyd Smith and Potter did not record the detailed location of the burials and structures. There are, however, some clues in the dates of the observations, many of which were made in the 1880s and early 1890s. Ordnance Survey maps of this time show that the coast had already retreated considerably since the mid-19th century, and was not far off the present coastline, which was stabilised by sea walls shortly afterwards.
If so, this suggests that the houses and graves cannot have been far out from the present shore. It also points to the exciting possibility that deep down in the sand behind the present sea wall, more of the ancient settlement may be preserved.
What, then, was Meols? Was it a coastal beach market, a port, a group of villages, or even a forgotten town? It almost certainly had elements of all of these at different times.
But we have very little documentary record of what happened there, and as far as we can tell, none at all before the name Meols is first recorded as a minor settlement in the Domesday Book. There are no known documents of the kind associated with medieval ports and towns.
Yet the artefacts tell a story of settlement and trade over thousands of years, with peaks in the Roman, Viking and medieval periods. The site is located at a point between two major river systems, the Mersey and Dee, with open access to the Irish Sea. Meols was also near several important territorial boundaries throughout history - Cornovian and Brigantian in the Iron Age, Anglo-Saxon and Viking, and English and Welsh in later times.
Seasonal fairs probably supplemented the permanent presence. Lead from the Welsh hills may have been traded at Meols, possibly as long ago as the Iron Age. Wool, grain and Cheshire salt were exchanged there over many centuries.
Perhaps the key to understanding Meols can never be found by studying one type of object, structure or period. Taking a step back from the detail reveals a geographically marginal place which went through numerous changes of fortune, but retained a special and unusual role as a trading centre over nearly two millennia.
David Griffiths lectures in archaeology at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education. He is working on the publication of Meols, together with Robert Philpott of Liverpool Museum and Geoff Egan of the Museum of London
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005