Before The Romans

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Life in and around Chester did not start with the Romans. There is evidence for habitation from at least as far as the 7th millenium BC. For even earlier see: River Dee Geology and River Dee.

Pre-Roman Chester

The early coastline, showing swamps (green), higher ground (brown) and hillforts.

Poulton (see map) lies on the western bank of the River Dee and is home to the Poulton Project, a landscape archaeology research project jointly established between Liverpool University and Chester Archaeology. The starting point was the investigation of a medieval chapel site, but the discovery of Stone-Age flints at Poulton along with large quantities of Roman material, occasional Saxon ware and numerous burials has extended the historical scope of the project back at least as far as the 7th millenium BC. In the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic ("Old Stone Age") hunting was based on big game animals, such as mammoth, bison, rhinoceros and lion. By the late Upper Palaeolithic, when evidence for occupation of Cheshire becomes clearer, these species were extinct and the dominant food animals included reindeer and wild horses.

This map shows the sea level raised 15meters shows the "Backford Gap" quite clearly. It can also be seen how Ince is an island. Inis is the old Irish, Manx word for "island". Burton Point protrudes into the estuary at the top left.

The first traces of mankind at Poulton are small, "microlithic", tools and weapons for hunting and fishing that were used by nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic ("Middle Stone Age") from the end of the Lower Dryas to c.6500 years ago. In the early part of the period, it was once believed that the Mersey still flowed through the "Deva Spillway/Backford Gap" (which runs north of Chester Zoo and is followed by the Canal) to enter the Dee estuary between Blacon and Chester. The further theory that, in Roman times, the Mersey flowed through the "Backford Gap" (now occupied by the Shropshire Union Canal) was put forward by a geographer called William Ashton around 1909. This was based on supposed local traditions;

  • the fact that the Mersey was not marked on Ptolemy's map of the world;
  • assertions that a Roman bridge at Wallasey Pool was found below the current sea level;
  • evidence for major flooding in parts of Cheshire around the 6th century; and,
  • evidence of silts and clay in the Backford Gap (aka Broxton Valley).

However, Ashton's theory is (according to Stephen Roberts, A History of Wirral, 2002), not accepted now. Research in the 1970s by Ray Kenna and others concluded that "There is no evidence for the Mersey flowing into the Dee through the Broxton Valley in historic times or during the last 10,000 years" The Backford Gap, it is now thought, was formed when the Mersey entrance was blocked, either by a glacial moraine or by ice itself in prehistoric times, and melt waters flowed into the Dee.

The sea level around 9000 years ago was still around 20m (66ft) lower than it is today and extensive areas of what is now the sea off the North Wirral would have been low lying wetlands - although whether there was a late-existing land-bridge between Britain and Ireland is still hotly disputed. The warmer climate changed the Arctic environment to one of pine, birch, and alder forest; this less open landscape was less conducive to the large herds of reindeer and wild horse that had previously sustained humans. Those animals were replaced in people's diets by pig and less social animals such as elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and aurochs (wild cattle). Part of the badly damaged skull of an auroch was found on the Roodee in Chester, buried in river silt, although it is not clear if the animal had been killed by hunters or simply died close to the riverbank.

The part circular rampart of the hillfort at Helsby can be seen. To the north and west the location is defended by spectacular and steep cliffs.

Perhaps the most significant palaeo-environmental evidence from the region concerns the discovery of cereal pollen at Bidston Moss on Wirral and Sefton park in Liverpool in peat deposits dated 4900-4500 BC (in the Mesolithic or "Middle Stone Age"). This shows that the local population was experimenting with crop raising over five centuries before the adoption of a true farming economy. This fits evidence from Northern Ireland for similarly early experimentation and suggests that the Irish Sea was becoming established as part of an important international trade route. Mesolithic flint scatters have been located around Kelsall, Ashton, Tarvin and Duddon. There are also records of flints from Hockenhull, Aldford, Churton-by-Farndon, a poolside site at Bache and from Poulton.

Field boundaries can say a lot about the ancient landscape, without getting into "fringe" area's like "ley lines". Here is a 9m rise in sea-level, which follows the England/Wales border around Blacon Point - the old coastline before the River Dee was modified.

In the Neolithic ("New Stone Age") forest clearance and agriculture arrived and a Timber Circle ('wood henge') was constructed at Poulton. From the Bronze Age (around 4000 years ago), Poulton has a cemetery group of barrows and evidence of cremations as well as some coarse pottery. Towards the end of the Bronze Age the ring-ditch of the ritual enclosure was ceremonially closed. Cheshire has few of the impressive monuments such as long barrows, cursus and causewayed enclosures that characterise the earlier Neolithic of other areas, but another possible site has been identified from aerial photographs in Farndon, where there is a subrectangular ditched enclosure within a larger rectangular enclosure and associated with pits. This may have also been an early Neolithic mortuary enclosure, a site where corpses were exposed to reduce the body to bones. They had internal timber structures in which the burials were deposited and are the precursors of earthen long barrows and chambered tombs and date from the centuries before 4000 BC.

There is a possible barrow at Eccleston (more likely the remains of a small Norman Motte) and it has been suggested that the small hill known as Henwalds Lowe is also a burial mound. There are flint scatters of Neolithic date from Hockenhull, Mouldsworth and Willington. Two separate collections from either side of a small brook have been found between Tarvin and Oscroft. Several of the lithics from Carden appear to be Neolithic in form. Axes have been found in Ashton, Barrow, Carden, Guilden Sutton and Tiverton. Sherds from a bowl in the Grimston-Lyles Hill tradition were found incorporated into the defences of the Roman fortress at Chester. Flints of earlier Neolithic date have been found on excavations throughout the city, suggesting that the site was well used by early farmers. There is a possible barrow at Broxton, located beneath the sandstone ridge at the point where the hilltop enclosure of Maiden Castle is sited (in Bickerton).

The people in the west of England at this time may well have spoken a language which was the ancestor of modern Welsh, while, the peoples of the east of England may already have been "Anglo-Saxons". In Britain, the Bronze Age is considered to have ended around 700 BC with the introduction of iron.

Hill Forts and Trackways

Roman Chester

Ancient trackways leave many marks on the modern map, whether that is a linear alignment of field boundaries, the course of a modern toad, parish boundaries or a line of trees. The map on the left shows the approximate route of the Roman Road south of Chester. This may well have followed the path of a much earlier trade route. The route possibly continues south to Hawkstone and the Bury Walls hill fort in Shropshire (where Roman buildings were discovered in the 1930's) and then on to The Wrekin.

Hill forts in Britain are known from the Bronze Age, but overall the great period of hill fort construction was during the Iron Age, between 200 BC and the Roman conquest. Although there are over 1,300 hill forts in England, they are concentrated in the south of the country, with only a few in Cheshire. Eddisbury is the largest and most complex of the Cheshire hill forts. The Cheshire hill forts differ from the southern hill-forts in one important respect: they belong to the late Bronze Age and the early to mid Iron Age. It has been suggested that the once widespread view that the Cheshire area was a hillfort dominated region at the time of the Roman invasion is false - an alternative view is that the hillforts were built early and abandoned by the Middle Iron Age (i.e after c500 BC).

Ormerod described the Eddisbury Hill Fort in 1819, wrongly attributing it to Æthelflæd:

This 1945 map probably gives some indication of the relative quality of farmland around Chester, before the widespread use of "modern" farming methods. The lower the number in the green areas - the better the farmland. The hillforts are close to what was probably the best farming land.
  • 'With respect to the camp of Eddisbury we have the authority of the old chronicles for its being formed by Ethelfleda in the year 914, at the time when Chester was newly fortified and enlarged by her husband Ethelred. It is erected at a point calculated to command the British road, as well as the Roman road from Condate to Deva. The form is nearly oval, and its situation within the enclosure called the old pale, on the summit of the hill which gives name to the Hundred. It contains 11 acres, 3 roods, and 10 poles, of statute measure, and extends 250 yards in breadth, and 400 in length, exclusive of the projection of rock at the south east angle. The eastern side is irregular, being defended by a natural precipice, the other parts, being accessible by a gentle slope, are defended by a ditch and double rampart, with an entrance to the West. The ditch is about twelve yards wide, the ramparts, which are constructed with red stone, now buried under the soil accumulated by the lapse of centuries, are still fourteen feet high in some places. No other vestiges of buildings are distinguishable'.

While it is likely that Æthelflæd restored the fort to some extent, the original is much older.

The forts form two geographical groups of three, with Maiden Castle (Bickerton) on its own in the south of the county; Eddisbury hill fort is in the southern group with Kelsborrow Castle and Oakmere hill fort. Helsby Hillfort, Bradley and Woodhouses, form the Northern group.

Pits dating from the 4th millennium BC indicate the site of Beeston Castle may have been inhabited or used as a communal gathering place during the Neolithic period. Archaeologists have discovered Neolithic flint arrow heads on the crag, as well as the remains of a Bronze Age community, and of an Iron Age hill fort. The rampart associated with the Bronze Age activity on the crag has been dated to around 1270–830 BC; seven circular buildings were identified as being either late Bronze Age or early Iron Age in origin. It may have been a specialist metalworking site - excavations there in the 1980s located a bronze-working hearth together with crucible and mould fragments. The associated metalwork was of the Ewart Park phase (c 800-700 BC), but metalworking may have begun at the site much earlier. The source of copper was perhaps the vein that runs along the eastern side of the mid Cheshire ridge. Mines at Bickerton were commercially exploited during the nineteenth century (hence the pub called "The Coppermine"), and it is possible that mines were located nearby in the prehistoric period (some details on the mines can be found here).

There was another Iron-Age fort at Burton Point, which like "Blacon Point" once projected into the Dee estuary. To the south of the fort is a burial site that was excavated in 1878, revealing the remains of between 50 and 60 burials. It is not known whether these are of an early Christian date, or if they are the remains of a shipwreck in 1637.

Pre-Roman Wales

The Cornovii were a "celtic" people of Iron Age and Roman Britain, who lived principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, north Herefordshire and eastern parts of the Welsh county of Powys. Their capital in pre-Roman times was probably a hill fort on The Wrekin. Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography names two of their towns: Deva Victrix (Chester), and Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter), which became their capital under Roman rule. Their control of the south-Cheshire salt-making industry and parts of its distribution network probably gave them a fair degree of wealth, multiplied by trading and cattle breeding. However, their economy was mainly a pastoral one. Since the early Iron Age they had a network of paved and semi-paved roads good enough to transport their famous chariots.

There is some direct evidence for settlement at Chester in pre-Roman times. However during the 2005 season of the Amphitheatre dig, a pair of large post-holes were discovered beneath the pre-Roman ground surface. The size of these holes suggests that they held timber posts 50cm in diameter. Radio-carbon dating indicated that post holes are from the middle of the Iron Age (~400 BC). Subsequent investigations showed not only evidence of animal herding, but also a possible enclosure for cattle and signs of farming. A Neolithic polished stone axe was found "at a low level, just above the rock a few feet south of room 4 of a Roman building in Hunter Street, Chester". The axe is in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester (Accession Number CC 277).


Meols, on the north-west tip of the Wirral appears to have been an important early settlement. All that remains of the site today is a series of sandbanks and mudflats close to Dove Point, as the settlement discovered there early in the nineteenth century has now been largely washed away by the sea (Cowell & Innes 1994, 26). The Iron Age material from Meols is small in quantity, but its significance is potentially huge. It is one of only a handful of sites in the North-West to have produced pre-Roman coins and other Iron Age metalwork. This material needs to be set alongside the other exotic objects from the region to provide a context for its deposition. Timber structures were reported during the nineteenth century as having been preserved in the peat and uncovered by marine erosion; they included both rectangular and circular forms, of which some may well have dated from the Iron Age. In the 1890s the local authorities built the first sea wall at Meols. During the early 19th century storms and high tides had progressively washed away occupation deposits from a succession of settlements along the north Wirral coast. In less than a hundred years the shoreline retreated nearly 500 metres at Dove Point.The rapidly eroding coastline was saved, but the sea wall changed the currents and archaeological sites at Meols were badly damaged. The remains of a submerged forest off Dove Point have now also disappeared but they were visible until the spring of 1982.

Some evidence for wider trade in pre-Roman times has been found. A fifth-century BC Massaliote (Marseilles-type) amphora in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, is said to have been dredged from the River Dee around 1900. It was presented to the museum some seventy years after its discovery, raising suspicions about its alleged provenance, and it has been thought to be an illegal import of recent date. However, the encrustations on the vessel, consisting of small oysters and marine worms, are more consistent with its having lain in the Dee estuary than the Mediterranean Sea. The principal distribution of these amphorae is along the southern coast of Gaul and the Rhône–Saône valley, although examples have been found in the upper Seine and upper Danube valleys. Although the population of north-west England in the Iron Age is not known to have minted coins, some minted elsewhere have nevertheless been found. They are uncommon and it is therefore difficult to comment on their distribution, but they include some very surprising exotics. The most extensive identifiable collection comes from Meols. The pre-Roman assemblage consists of three Carthaginian half-shekels, two silver coins of the Coriosolites (a tribe of northern Brittany), one very worn gold coin of uncertain origin, although of British Late Iron Age type, and a Syrian coin of the first century BC.

The Gloverstone? - middle Ordovician dolerite - about 460 million years old - twice the age of the local red sandstone. Photo by James Button

Salt is believed to have been an important commodity since at least the Iron Age. Archaeological evidence of Iron Age salt-making in Britain has been largely based on the discovery of remnants of "coarse pottery" vessels and supporting pillars recognised as being connected with salt-making and known as "briquetage". Sea water or brine from inland springs, such as those common in Cheshire, was evaporated in these vessels over fires to give a residual lump of salt. Clay dug between Middlewich and Nantwich has been shown to have been used to make the pottery fragments found at wide ranging Iron Age sites in a wide area of Wales and western England.

The spacing of settlements is relevant to the interpretation of their hierarchy. Seven kilometres is the distance accepted by anthropologists as an average day’s return journey by foot to a location at which a specialised activity will take place - that is the average spacing of village-type settlements whose principal economic function is the provision of food necessities. The eight-kilometre spacing of hillforts in Cheshire reflects this type of administrative arrangement in the early first millennium and it may be suggested that they were centres for the distribution of necessities such as livestock, everyday metalwork and salt.

Thus, the roads of the Cornovii possibly became the routes of the principal Roman roads of the region. "Watling Street" stretched from Chester to the Kentish coast. This route was probably a trade-route well before the Romans arrived. It continued to be a trade route into later times as a drovers road known in parts as the "Welsh Road", or the "Chester Road". Where cattle were herded in the middle ages may well have been where cattle had been herded for many, many years beforehand. Nowadays, it is more or less the A41. However the national distribution of what are presumed Chester salt vessels during the late Iron-Age indicates that there was a good deal of coastal trade.

The combination of cattle farming and the availability of salt possibly meant that Cheshire cheese was being produced here since the Iron Age or earlier.

Finally there is the enigmatic Gloverstone: a blue-grey boulder of (middle Ordovician ("speckled") dolerite - otherwise known as "Bluestone" and as used in the construction of Stonehenge. A connection between Chester and Stonehenge may seem unlikely, but, a 4,500 year-old limestone plaque has been found at the at the Poulton excavation. This bears a mysterious crisscross pattern - and there are faint hints of a similar pattern on the "back" of the Gloverstone. The closest previously known parallel to this was a chalk plaque found in 1969 on Salisbury Plain, just a kilomerer from Stonehenge. The markings on the Poulton stone were made with a flint tool and flint from Salisbury Plain has previously been found on the Poulton site.

Related Pages

Chester in Other Historical Periods


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