Before The Romans

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This is part of a series of articles on the history of Chester through time:

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. At the earliest of times the population were not anatomically modern humans, but by the start of the Mesolithic (10,000 years ago) they were. If a Mesolithic Cheshire child was brought up in modern times from an early age, they would be physically indistinguishable from a modern inhabitant of Cheshire. In their own time average life expectancy would have been low, in part due to a very high infant mortallity. The chance of reaching the age of 15 was probably at most about 60%, overall life expectancy was then around an additional 30-35 years. As these figures are in part based on the proportions of bodies found in graves it is possible that selection of "high status" individuals for burial may have distorted them. Life expectancy among the masses would not inctrease significantaly until the Industrial Revolution. The under-5 mortality rate in London decreased from 74.5% in 1730–1749 to 31.8% in 1810–1829. Less than half of the people born in the mid-19th century made it past their 50th birthday. In contrast, 97% of the people born in 21st century England and Wales can expect to live longer than 50 years. In terms of intelligence, the pre-Roman inhabitants of Chester and the surroundings had the same capacity as those who inhabit the locale today, but obviously lacked access to the education, healthcare and technology which has developed since. The pace of change was generally slow and for most of them the world of their grandparents would be the same as that of their grandchildren. However at times there were quite sudden changes.

Pre-Roman Cheshire and Chester

The "Prehistoric" times commonly known as the "Stone Age" are divided into three periods. These are the Paleolithic ("Old Stone Age"), Mesolithic ("Middle Stone Age") and Neolithic ("New Stone Age"). As originally concieved these Ages start with the appearance of certain types of tools and agricultural practices and so can begin at different times in different locations and in different cultures. The model is now more complex. The stone ages were followed by the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age. Some systems place a Chalcolithic ("Copper Age") between the "Stone" and "Bronze" ages. The Iron Age conventionally ends with the arrival of the Romans although this brought about no fundamental change in tool use for the vast majority.

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

In 2010 archaeologists working near Happisburgh in Norfolk uncovered flint tools dated to about 900,000 years ago. The people who used them were early humans (known as hominoids) who periodically visited Britain in warmer eras between Ice Ages. Although no bones were found, they were probably Homo antecessor (Latin "pioneer") an archaic human species during the Early Pleistocene (often called the "Ice Age"). They do not appear to be the direct ancestors of modern humans but an off-shoot before the split of what would become modern humans and Neanderthals. The oldest human fossils in Britain, around 500,000 years old, are of Homo heidelbergensis at Boxgrove in Sussex. Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. They migrated widely, but in Europe had to contend with the Ice Ages which made much of Northern Europe uninhabitable at various times.

Fossils of very early Neanderthals dating to around 400,000 years ago have been found at Swanscombe in Kent, and of classic Neanderthals about 225,000 years old at Pontnewydd near St Asaph in Wales. Britain was unoccupied by humans between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago, when Neanderthals returned. By 40,000 years ago they had become extinct and modern humans had reached Britain. But even their occupations were brief and intermittent due to a climate which swung between low temperatures with a tundra habitat and severe ice ages which made Britain uninhabitable for long periods. The last of these, the Younger Dryas, ended around 11,700 years ago, and since then Britain has been continuously occupied.


The Paleolithic is by far the major part of human history. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene c. 11,650 cal BP. At the end of the preceding Pliocene, the previously isolated North and South American continents were joined by the Isthmus of Panama, changing ocean circulation patterns, with the onset of glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere occurring around 2.7 million years ago. During the Early Pleistocene (2.58–0.8 Ma), archaic humans of the genus Homo originated in Africa and spread throughout Afro-Eurasia. The end of the Early Pleistocene is marked by the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, with the cyclicity of glacial cycles changing from 41,000 year cycles to 100,000 year cycles. The Late Pleistocene witnessed the spread of modern humans outside of Africa as well as the eradication of all other human species.

A little local geography and geology helps to understand the development of settlement in and around Chester. The Cheshire plain is mostly covered with glacial clay deposits and consists of a broad valley between the Welsh Hills and the Pennines. The underlying rock is sandstone, and the Sandstone Ridge runs down the middle of the plain. The landscape has been modified by the ice ages, during which the course of drainage flow shifted considerably and sea-levels changed both up and down. Erosion has left the Sandstone Ridge with several steep escarpments that provided sites for hill forts. The sheltering effect of the Welsh mountains has given the Cheshire plain a slightly modified climate. The River Dee flows north over the plain and is prone to flooding, in part due to the alignment of Bala Lake which lies upstream and where wind could once significantly alter outflow.

The past half-million years have seen repeated cycles of Ice Ages (blue) and warmer "Inter-Glacial" periods (red). The ebb and flow of the ice-sheets has meant that, during the "Old Stone Age", at some times Britain was habitable (yellow) and at others it was not.

An abrupt period of intense cold drove a readvance of glaciers from 12,900 to 11,700 years ago. This was the Younger Dryas Stadial; in Britain, this is commonly referred to as the Loch Lomond Readvance. During this period, there was a small ice cap centered on the Scottish mountains, and small ice caps on mountains in the Lake District, North Wales, and the Brecon Beacons (Bickerdike et al., 2018). Climate warmed rapidly after 11,700 years ago, forcing the rapid collapse of the Younger Dryas ice cap in Scotland and recession of the smaller glaciers in the Lake District, Wales and on mountains in Scotland. This was the start of the Holocene, the warm period in which we currently live.

Poulton (see map) lies on the western bank of the River Dee near Pulford 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 quantities of Roman material, occasional Saxon ware and numerous burials have 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, woolly rhinoceros and lion. One kill would keep a group of hunters in food and supplies for some months. By the late Upper Palaeolithic, when evidence for occupation of Cheshire becomes clearer, these large game species were extinct and the dominant food animals included reindeer and wild horses. Burial at this time is characterized by single or multiple cave burials, possibly because these sites have survived glaciation, or perhaps indicating a preference for burial in such places. Extant physical remains of late Pleistocene Homo sapiens are extremely scarce in Britain. At Paviland (28,000 BC) on the South coast of the Gower Peninsula, South Wales, an adult male, c.25 years old and 1.7m tall, was excavated in a cave in 1823 by the famous antiquary, William Buckland. The skull, vertebrae and part of the right side were missing. The body was sprinkled with red ochre and was assumed to be an "Ancient British woman", named the "Red Lady of Paviland". It was associated with a mammoth skull, mammoth ivory rods, an ivory bracelet and some small snail shells. Others have been found at Gough's Cave, Cheddar (c.14,000 BC), Kent's Cavern, Torquay, and Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire. The arrangement of the graves varies considerably and while shell, tooth and ivory ornaments are commonly associated with bones it is not known whether these are "funeral gifts" or decorations associated with clothing.

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.

Mesolithic (10,000-4500 BC)

The start of the Mesolithic period is marked by the final retreat of the ice from Chester. The climate was still cold and the mode of human life was that of the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer. Agriculture was unknown.

The Last Glacial Period (LGP) occurred from the end of the Eemian to the end of the Younger Dryas, encompassing the period c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago. British geologists refer to the LGP as the "Devensian": the name being derived from the Latin Dēvenses, people living by the River Dee (Dēva in Latin), near which deposits from the period are particularly well represented.

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 Ice Age to c.6500 years ago. A microlith is a small stone tool usually made of flint or chert and typically a centimetre or so in length and half a centimetre wide. They were made by humans from around 35,000 to 3,000 years ago, across Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The microliths were used, for example, in spear points and arrowheads. The increasing use of the bow and arrow seems to be associated with the start of the Mesolithic, and possibly reflects a shift in hunting from large grazing herds and the presence of woodland populated by smaller and more mobile prey.

It was once believed that in the early part of this period, and for much later, 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, and melt waters flowed into the River Dee. The precise course taken by the waters around Chester is not certain, but it is possible that they flowed "upstream" through Chester and helped to create the "Chester Gorge" between the City and Handbridge.

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.


In 1988 a shelter was dating from the Mesolithic was excavated at Greasby. The remains of burnt hazelnut shells found at the site were used for radiocarbon dating. The results specified a time period between 8300 BC and 8500 BC. The shelter had a packed sandstone floor and possibly three poles held up a roof. The site was probably a base camp belonging to a family, or several families of hunter-gatherers during the Mesolithic period. The finds included worked chert, a type of stone which only occurs naturally in this region in north Wales and the southern Pennines. Nearby there are believed to be other such sites but only the one has been excavated. During the Mesolithic period the sea level was much lower and what is now the north shoreline of the Wirral was actually quite some distance inland. The consensus is that several families of hunter-gatherers used the location as a semi-permanent camp during the colder months and from there made foraging and hunring trips, possibly as far as North Wales and the Pennines.

Greasby was probably one of a large number of Mesolithic sites in the north-west, some of which will have been lost under the Irish Sea, others may be buried under sand-dunes and silts and clays deposited during a period of fluctuating sea-level. Greasby seemed ideally placed for the exploitation of its local environment, with a plentiful supply of flint/chert raw material only 16km away across the river Dee in North Wales.

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 late Mesolithic or "Middle Stone Age"). Some have argued that 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. The first Mesolithic remains at Aldford were first discovered in 1989 and in subsequent investigations a total of 25 flints were discovered. The origins of the stones is varied with some possibly being from local drift deposits and others deliberately brought from futher afield.

Carden Park has a rock-shelter which may have been inhabited as early as 14,000 years ago, given the evidence of flints found in 1985. The evidence does not suggesst any permanent settlement, but rather that people camped here for thousands of years. The rock shelter survives but has been much altered. Remains of another Mesolithic camp site existed at Bache Pool in Chester but these have been destroyed: the pool, which had become a millpond was allowed to silt after 1845 and finally filled-in around 1883. Excavations at Tatton Park have found a Middle Stone Age flint working site: about 900 flints were recovered and the remains of a shelter were identified.

Burial remains from the Mesolithic are very rare and there are none from Cheshire. Burial in the Mesolithic is characterized by a shift from single or small groups of burials to larger cemeteries in the open. These seem to continue the later Palaeolithic traditions of burial with the apparent importance of red ochre, ornaments of shell and teeth, and provision of tools and food.

This provision of tools and food provides an indication that the Mesolithic people had some form of philosophical/religious belief concerning death although it is possible to reconstruct these in any detail.

Neolithic (4500-2300 BC)

The Neolithic brought agriculture on a significant scale. Having crops to tend and defend would tie populations to one location and require changes in social structure.

At the start of the Neolithic most of Cheshire was still covered in forest. In low-lying areas this was dense, but on higher ground it was more open. These more open area, along the mid-cheshire ridge and towards the north of the Wirral were the first to be settled as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were slowly replaced by Neolithicc farmers. The archaeological finds tell of a settled life. For example, pottery was not made before this period, and flint tools now reflected the need for cereal gathering implements such as sickles. For the first time, permanent structures were built both for the living and the dead. An example of a Neolithic village is preserved at Skara Brae in Orkney.

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.

It is from the Neolithic that the first structures associated with funeral rights appear indicating that a community effort was being put into their construction. The religion seems to have been particularly concerned with the bones of ancestors. There are three known burial sites in Cheshire. They are a crop mark of a suspected mortuary enclosure at Churton (very little to see on site), a possible long barrow at Somerford and the best known are the Bridestones at Congleton. It is not known what the critera were for burial in these structures. While their size indicates that a group effort would be needed for their construction, the actual burials may have been restricted to certain high status individuals. A common theme is that the chambers contain the broken-up remains of between five and 50 individuals – men, women and children of all ages. Grave goods were few – just the occasional pot and selected personal ornaments. It appears that these barrows were opened from time to time for the addition of corpses and parts of bodies that had been stored or buried elsewhere. As the number increased it became necessary to make room for new additions by moving the remains of earlier depositions deeper into the chamber.

The Bridestones is regarded as an outlier to the more extensive and somewhat later Beaker culture of the Peak District, and is a chambered cairn. It was once one of the most impressive Neolithic monuments in Europe and is now little more than a few stones at the edge of a field. It was described in 1764 as being 120 yards (110 m) long and 12 yards (11 m) wide, containing three separate compartments, of which only one remains today. The remaining compartment is 6 metres (20 ft) long by 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) wide, and consists of vertical stone slabs, divided by a now-broken cross slab. The cairn originally had a stone circle surrounding it, with four portal stones; two of these portal stones still remain.

Many hundreds of tons of stones were removed from the Bridestones site for building the local turnpike road in arounf 1764, and other factors have lead to the virtual destruction of the monument. The southern side of the main chamber was originally a single, 18-foot-long stone (5.5 m), it was split in 1843 by a picknicker's bonfire. Of the portal stones, only two remain, one of which is broken and concreted back together. This was reputedly caused by an engineer from the Manchester Ship Canal, who used the stone to demonstrate a detonator. Other stones were robbed-out to construct local farm buildings and even a rockery at Tunstall Park. Before this large scale ransacking occurred, it appears that the Bridestones was an incredible monument, perhaps unique in England. The evidence suggests a chambered tomb of massive proportions with a paved, crescent-shaped forecourt and a port-holed stone in the passage to the interior. Such a structure clearly implies a settled population and probably a significant degree of organisation.

In the Neolithic ("New Stone Age") when forest clearance and agriculture some have argued that a Timber Circle ('wood henge') was constructed at Poulton, although this could also be interpreted a round house.

Regardless of specific chronology, many European Neolithic groups share basic characteristics, such as living in small-scale, family-based communities, subsisting on domesticated plants and animals supplemented with the collection of wild plant foods and with hunting, and producing hand-made pottery, that is, pottery made without the potter's wheel. Polished stone axes lie at the heart of the neolithic (new stone) culture, enabling forest clearance for agriculture and production of wood for permanent dwellings, as well as fuel. Archaeologists agreed for some time that the culture of the early Neolithic is relatively homogeneous, compared to the late Mesolithic. DNA studies tend to confirm this, indicating that agriculture was brought to Western Europe by the Aegean populations, that are known as ‘the Aegean Neolithic farmers’. When these farmers arrived in Britain, DNA studies show that they did not seem to mix much with the earlier population of the Western Hunter-Gatherers. Instead, there was a substantial population replacement. The diffusion of these farmers across Europe, from the Aegean to Britain, took about 2,500 years (6500–4000 BCE). They must have made the final step in their trip to Britain by boat as the land bridge to the continent was flooded by rising sea levels around 6500–6200 BCE. A recent hypothesis suggests that around 6200 BCE much of the remaining coastal land was flooded by a tsunami caused by a submarine landslide off the coast of Norway known as the Storegga Slide.

The jadeite axe in the Grosvenor Museum.

There have been a large number of Neolithic axe-head finds in Cheshire, including one from Chester itself found in Hunter Street, in 1914. The stone from which the axe-head is constructed is Alpine jadeite and so it must have travelled a considerable distance. The excavations were carried out by Professor Robert Newstead, curator of Grosvenor Museum, in 1909 and 1914. The find was made in the garden, to the west of the Masonic Hall which was built in the early 20th century and has since been demolished. Cartographic evidence indicates that the Masonic Hall had not been built in 1911, but Newstead states that he had been given permission to excavate in its garden in 1914 (Newstead 1928), so it must have been built by this latter date. This rules-out any possible association between the jade axe-head and the Masonic Hall. In 2006, Earthworks Archaeology conducted an evaluation on the former bowling green, just a few metres from Newstead’s excavations, though in this investigation no evidence for prehistoric activity was found. These jadeite axe heads were not everyday tools for felling trees and chopping wood – they were sacred and precious ceremonial objects. The makers of these axeheads climbed to heights of over 2,000 metres in the Italian Alps to extract the rare and prized rock from Monte Viso, south-west of Turin, and Monte Beigua above Genoa. They took blocks and roughed-out axeheads down to their villages to finish them there, before exporting them. The axeheads travelled north-westwards through France, passing through many hands. Some were re-shaped and re-polished during their journey. Most would have been at least 100 years old. They would have been treasured heirlooms, each with its own story. Sometimes, the axe-heads appear to have been deliberately buried, although it is not known whether the axe-head found at Chester was in an original burial site or had been moved at some later time.

Bronze Age (2300-800 BC)

Early metals were not universally available with some, such as copper and tin, only being found in specific and widely spaced locations. The arrival of these metal technologies came with the establishment of long-distance trade.

The Mold Cope, now in the British Museum. The object is considered to be one of the most spectacular examples of prehistoric sheet-gold working yet discovered. It is of particular interest as both its form and its design are unparalleled.

The Bronze Age is characterised in a culture because it either produced bronze by smelting its own copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals, or traded other items for bronze from production areas elsewhere. Bronze was harder and more durable than other metals available at the time, allowing Bronze Age civilizations to gain a technological advantage. In Bronze age Britain migration brought new people to the islands from the continent. Recent tooth enamel isotope research on bodies found in early Bronze Age graves around Stonehenge indicates that at least some of the migrants came from the area of modern Switzerland. Around 2000 BC, a new pottery style arrived in Great Britain: the Beaker culture. There has been debate amongst archaeologists as to whether the "Beaker people" were a race of people who migrated to Britain en masse from the continent, or whether a Beaker cultural "package" of goods and behaviour (which eventually spread across most of Western Europe) diffused to Britain's existing inhabitants through trade across tribal boundaries. The former seems incontestable now since a 2017 study showed a major genetic shift in late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Britain, so that more than 90% of Britain's Neolithic gene pool was replaced with the coming of a people genetically similar to the Beaker people of the Lower Rhine region (modern Netherlands/central-western Germany).

The precise start date and circumstances of the Bronze Age in Britain is still the subject of debate. Some archaeologists have proposed a brief "Copper Age". This is locally interesting in view of the Great Orme Mines at Llandudno, which are the largest Bronze Age mines so far discovered anywhere in the world. While some moderately long distance travel might have been required to obtain flint and chert, the copper and tin needed to make bronze required much more commerce, which would in turn have significant local economic effects. The Mold Cope, dating from about 1900–1600 BC, dates from roughly the same period that the Bronze-Age copper mines were active. It would of course have taken some time for Bronze tools to spread through society - farmers would have continued to use stone/flint tools for quite some time. Agriculture remained a mixture of animal hubandry and the management of cereal crops for bread, porridge and beer. Some finds from Chester indicate that hunting continued: both for food and to obtain materials for other uses. In Foregate Street a collection of bone pins were discovered when the Co-Operative store was being built in 1904, while in 1885 an axe-handle made from red deer antler was unearthed during construction of the gas-works at Portpool. The people of the Bronze Age invented the wheel and knew how to to produce woolen cloth: two spindle whorls for making thread were found in 1893 on the site of what is now the Grosvenor Museum. Other examples of Bronze-Age artifacts found in Cheshire include bowls, spoons, ladders, boxes, spades, boats made of wood. Jet and amber were used for jewelry and drums and whistles have also been found. The "old relgion" concerned with the bones of the dead, appears to have been replaced by one concerned more with the sky.

The burial of the dead (which, until this period, had usually been communal) became more individual. For example, whereas in the Neolithic a large chambered cairn or long barrow housed the dead, Early Bronze Age people buried their dead in individual barrows (also commonly known and marked on modern British Ordnance Survey maps as tumuli), or sometimes in cists covered with cairns.

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, although it does not appear on early maps. 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 800 BC with the introduction of reasonable quality iron. However the so-called "late Bronze Age collapse" now appears to be far more complex than simply marking the arrival of iron. Around 800BC Europe had suffered great upheaval as the climate deteriorated, economies collapsed, and the status of bronze, the cornerstone of long-distance trade networks, changed. The relationship between the cimate change and the societal changes is not fully understood. Decline in population at the end of the Bronze Age began more than a century before the climatic downturn of the mid-eighth century B.C.

Iron Age (after 800 BC)

Iron was an improvement on bronze and copper and had the advantage that it was more widely available from mineral sources rather than being only available at specific locations.

In technical terms the Iron Age still continues. Knives and forks and much else are still made from iron, and most tools are fashioned from it. The Iron Age is the final epoch of the three-age division of the prehistory and protohistory of humanity (stone, bronze, iron). In the Ancient Near East, this transition took place in the wake of the so-called Bronze Age collapse, in the 12th century BC. The technology soon spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin region and to South Asia. Its further spread to Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central Europe is somewhat delayed, and some parts of Northern Europe were not reached until later, by about 500 BC. Smelted iron appears sporadically in the archeological record from the middle Bronze Age. Whilst terrestrial iron is naturally abundant, its high melting point of 1,538 °C (2,800 °F) placed it out of reach of common use until the end of the second millennium BC. Tin's low melting point of 231.9 °C (449.4 °F) and copper's relatively moderate melting point of 1,085 °C (1,985 °F) placed them within the capabilities of the Neolithic pottery kilns, which date back to 6000 BC and were able to produce temperatures greater than 900 °C (1,650 °F). In addition to specially designed furnaces, ancient iron production needed to develop complex procedures for the removal of impurities, the regulation of the admixture of carbon, and for hot-working to achieve a useful balance of hardness and strength in steel. Early iron would have been inferior to bronze in weapons, and so the simple idea that the first discoverers of iron were able to conquer bronze-age people has now been discredited. Only with the capability of the production of carbon steel does ferrous metallurgy result in tools or weapons that are equal or superior to bronze.

The magnitude of the Bronze Age collapse in the Middle-East is staggering. The collapse appears to have started in the middle-east, and the period in which it occurs includes the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the Hittite Old Kingdom, Minoan Eruption, the Hittite Middle Kingdom, The Hittite New Kingdom, Mitanni and Ugarit Kingdoms, the Sea Peoples, Troy VII and the Hekla III eruption. The catastrophe lasted from c.1200–c.1150 BCE and was characterized by its short time frame of about 50 years, mass migrations of populations and mass destruction where whole cities were destroyed and burnt, but also curiously many whole cities were just abandoned intact. Bronze-based economies relied on complex, long-distance trade networks to bring together the raw materials necessary for bronze production. Control of these networks appears to have formed the basis of social power in Bronze Age Europe and promoted the development of complex, hierarchical social structures . It has long been argued that the widespread availability of iron ores fatally undermined these social structures by democratizing access to metals. The adoption of iron technology thus made redundant the long-established networks that underpinned Late Bronze Age society. Resultant social destabilization, it has been argued, was therefore the cause of the population collapse at the end of the Bronze Age. Historians now favour a more multifunctional explanation. This could have been as a result of factors including earhquakes, or volcanic eruptions.

Hekla III

In "Prehistoric Cheshire" an argument is made that the end of the Bronze Age was beought about by an asteroid or comet impact. This view is not widespread. Various alternative explanations for the collapse have been proposed, including climatic changes (such as drought or effects of volcanic eruptions), invasions by groups such as the Sea Peoples, effects of the spread of iron metallurgy, developments in military weapons and tactics, and a variety of failures of political, social and economic systems, but none has achieved consensus.

The erumption of Hekla in Iceland in 1159 BCE would have blocked out the sun leading to cooler temperatures in the northern parts of the globe for a few years afterwards. Thus plants would not grow causing famine and eventual disease in the weakened population. There is some ongoing debate about the exact dare of the eruption and its consequences. Some Egyptologists have firmly dated the eruption to 1159 BC, and blamed it for famines under Ramesses III during the wider Bronze Age collapse. Traces of this eruption have been identified in Scottish peat bogs, and in Ireland a study of tree rings dating from this period has shown negligible tree ring growth for a decade. A series of natural disasters, migration pressures and the emergence of a new technology in the form of iron appear to have co-incided with a "system collapse" of the Late Bronze Age society.

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). However, itis worth noting that the hill-fort site at the Wrekin, which belongs to the same culture, was occupied at the time of the Roman invasion.

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 possibly gave their controlling leaders 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. The name "Cornovii" appears to be derived from "people of the horn" and sveral theories have been proposed to explain this. One proposes that it was derived from a cattle-based economy. Another that they had a religion based on a horned god. A third theory is that their territory had an extension, between the Dee and the Mersey which was somewhat horn-shaped.

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. As noted above, 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 "very coarse pottery" (VCP) 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 VCP 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 transport of these vessels does present a puzzle as it would have been more inconvenient than to use rather more lightweight containers. It is possible that the VCP vessels represent some form of measure of quantity, or indication of origin, possibly associated with a form of tribute.

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. The first currency in Britain appears to have been iron currency bars first appearing around 200BC. Coins were first imported in large numbers in around 150 BC and domestic minting began around 100BC. There appears to be little or no coin use on the north. In common with other regions on the edge of the empire, Britain had enjoyed diplomatic and trading links with the Romans in the century since Julius Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, and Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south.

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.

The Eve of Rome

Britain during the reign of Julius Caesar had an "Iron Age" culture, with an estimated population of between one and four million. The extent to which iron itself had penetrated into the north is still somewhat uncertain. It may have been only used by certain "elites" with the majority of agriculture still using bronze tools. Since Julius Caesar's expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south. Ruling hegemonies could exploit the local populace and use the proceeds to import what they may well have percieved as high-status Roman goods.

Between 55 BC and the 40s AD, the status quo of tribute, hostages, and client states without direct military occupation, begun by Caesar's invasions of Britain, largely remained intact. Augustus prepared invasions in 34 BC, 27 BC and 25 BC. The first and third were called off due to revolts elsewhere in the empire, the second because the Britons seemed ready to come to terms. According to Augustus's Res Gestae, two British kings, Dubnovellaunus and Tincomarus, fled to Rome as supplicants during his reign, and Strabo's Geography, written during this period, says Britain paid more in customs and duties than could be raised by taxation if the island were conquered and entered the Roman version of the "European Union".

The Fosse Way may indicate the border of the initial area of Roman occupation..

By the 40s AD, the political situation within southern Britain was in ferment. It appears that this might have been due to previous migration of tribes from mainland Europe The Catuvellauni (the name means "War Chiefs") had displaced the Trinovantes (which possibly means "newcomers") as the most powerful kingdom in south-eastern Britain, taking over the former Trinovantian capital of Camulodunum(Colchester). The Atrebates tribe who appear to have been Belgians and whose capital was at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) had friendly trade and diplomatic links with Rome and Verica was recognised by Rome as their king, but Caratacus' Catuvellauni conquered the entire kingdom some time after 40 AD and Verica was expelled from Britain. The effects on the Chester region are unknown and can only be speculated upon.

Verica's relationship with Rome has been used to argue for the site of the Roman invasion of Britain as being along the south coast to assist him, rather than being at the traditional spot at Richborough in Kent. Verica's southern Atrebatic kingdom of what is now Sussex and east Hampshire, had maintained a good relationship with Rome for many years. Verica is likely to have been seen by the Romans as an ally and a counter-balance to the powerful Catuvellaunian tribe to the north. This may have led to Roman military intervention to support Verica against the Catuvellauni who were becoming a threat to the Roman Empire's north-west frontier, or at least to trade there. Unlike other nearby areas, the hillforts in the core of Verica's kingdom show no sign of refortification and this may indicate the apparently pro-Roman attitude of the area's inhabitants.

The Claudian invasion of Britain took place in AD 43, it would be a generation before Roman Chester was established. One reason for the invasion may have been the political instability in southern Britain. Within four years of the initial landing it is likely that an area south of a line from the Humber to the Severn Estuary was under Roman control. That this line is followed by the Roman road of the Fosse Way has led many historians to debate the route's role as a convenient frontier during the early occupation. It is unlikely that the border between Roman and Iron Age Britain was fixed with modern precision during this period. As noted above, the Cornovii are believed to have lived to the north of this border, principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, north Herefordshire and eastern parts of the Welsh counties of Flintshire, Powys and Wrexham. Their territory was bordered by the Brigantes to the North, the Corieltauvi to the East, the Dobunni to the South, and the Deceangli, and Ordovices to the West. The Dobunni were not a warlike people and, located in the Severn valley between the more warlike Silures and the Catuvellauni, submitted to the Romans even before they reached their lands. Afterwards they readily adopted the Romano-British lifestyle.

A replica of the Roman-style tombstone of Vedica from the Museum of Liverpool. She appears to be the daughter of a high-ranking member of the Cornovii and died at Ilkley.

One tribal center of the Cornovii appears to have been at or near what was to become Viroconium Cornoviorum at Wroxeter in Shropshire, with possibly a major military center at the Wrekin hillfort. Archaeological evidence from the site at Poulton has shown extensive evidence of metal working and ceramics. In particular, a fine example of the ritual deposition of an iron adze in the ditch of a round house, suggests a significant disposable wealth. These aforesaid lowland areas seem by this time to have been populated by rural peasants who were obliged to pay tribute in cattle and grain to the local chieftains. One possible interpretation of the situation prior to the Roman invasion of Cheshire is that teritory of the Cornovii had become a border area between powerful groups and was controlled by a faction who re-used the previously abandonned hill-forts to dominate the local population. It is possible that the inhabitants of the Cheshire plain might even see the Romans as liberators. It is likely that the occupiers of the Wrekin would have traded across the border with the Romans to the south to obtain high-status goods, as the Brigantes in the Pennines are known to have been a Roman "client" tribe.

Late in 47 the new governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula, began a campaign against the tribes of modern-day Wales, and nothwards towards the Cheshire Gap. It is unlikely that he was advancing into unknown teritory, given that there would have been local knowledge available for a price or a promise of reward. In AD 47 Roman invaders stormed the fort at the Wrekin and set fire to it, moving the administrative center of the defeated tribe on to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum).

The tombstone of a thirty-year-old woman of the Cornovii called Vedica was found at Ilkley in Yorkshire (outside known Cornovii territory). It dates from about AD 90. The inscription on it reads:

  • DIS MANIBVS VEDIC [...] RICONIS FILIA ANNORVM XXX C CORNOVIA H S E ("To the spirits of the departed and to Vedica, thirty years old, daughter of Virico of the Cornovii; she lies here.")

This is the only epigraphic evidence of civilian occupation at Ilkley (Roman Verbeia). It is only possible to speculate how the daughter of one of the Cornovii came to have a latin-inscribed tombstone. Vedica may possibly have been the daughter of a chieftain "Viroco" of the Cornovii, who was killed during the western and northern expansion of early AD 47 commanded by Publius Ostorius Scapula. This would fit with the rulers at the Wrekin being exposed to and influenced by Roman culture prior to the eventual Roman occupation of their territory. Perhaps the creation of a new administration center at Wroxeter was welcomed by a population that had been dominated by those living in the hillfort at the Wrekin.

The Silures of southeast Wales caused considerable problems to Ostorius and fiercely defended the Welsh border country. Caratacus himself, the displaced leader of the Catuvellauni, led this guerilla campaign but was defeated when he finally chose to offer a decisive battle; he fled to the Roman client tribe of the Brigantes who occupied the Pennines. Their queen Cartimandua was unable or unwilling to protect him however, given her own accommodation with the Romans, and handed him over to the invaders. Ostorius died and was replaced by Aulus Didius Gallus who brought the Welsh borders under control but did not move further north or west, probably because Claudius was keen to avoid what he considered a difficult and drawn-out war for little material gain in the mountainous terrain of upland Britain. When Nero became emperor in 54, he seems to have decided to continue the invasion and appointed Quintus Veranius as governor, a man experienced in dealing with the troublesome hill tribes of Anatolia. Veranius and his successor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus mounted a successful campaign across North Wales, famously killing many druids when he invaded the island of Anglesey in 60. Final occupation of Wales was postponed however when the rebellion of Boudica forced the Romans to return to the south east in 60 or 61. Suetonius regrouped his forces, possibly in the West Midlands; despite being heavily outnumbered, he decisively defeated the Britons. The crisis caused Nero to consider withdrawing all Roman forces from Britain, but Suetonius's victory over Boudica confirmed Roman control of the province. Boudica then either killed herself to avoid capture (according to Tacitus), or died of illness (according to Cassius Dio). Following the suppression of Boudicca, a number of new Roman governors continued the conquest by edging north. Quintus Petillius Cerialis took his legions from Lincoln as far as York and defeated Venutius near Stanwick around 69 AD. This resulted in the already Romanised Brigantes and Parisii tribes being further assimilated into the empire proper.

Oman (History of England, Methuen, 1910) gives the year c.57AD as the date that either Aulus Didius Gallus or Suetonius moved the headquarters of one or both of his legions from Wroxeter to Deva, and built a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats on the Dee so that in 60 A.D. he could invade North Wales. As Gallus died in 57 it was probably the latter who started and completed the invasion. However, most writers have Chester's permanent Roman foundation a little later, around 74 AD. As there Romans had been campaigning in North Wales for some time, they may well have visited the locale well before this and even established a semi-permanent "marching camp" at Chester. There is one unique feature of the realations between the Cornonovii and the Romans although this appears to date from much later: the Cohors Primae Cornoviorum was the only recorded native British unit known to have served in Britannia. The I Cohort of Cornovii were recruited from the tribe itself, thus bearing the name "Cornoviorum", i.e. "of the Cornovii". The strength of this military unit is unknown. The cohort was an infantry unit and is likely to have numbered only 500. The units formed the late-4th-century garrison of Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) at the eastern terminus of Hadrian's Wall.

In Summary: Pre-Roman Chester

The Pre-Roman period stretches back to the dawn of human settlement in the valley of the River Dee and the Gowy. Around 10,000 years ago, occupants in the mesolithic included semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who appear to have regularly over-wintered at Greasby on the Wirral. Flint and chert may have been gathered over comparatively large distances. The climate had slowly changed and hunting practices adapted with the dissappearance of larger game. After three thousand years, the Neolithic brought a genetically distinct population with knowledge of agriculture and a more settled life. They built large funereal structures and appear to have had a moderately complex religious callender. At times, ceremonial axe-heads travelled large distances. By clearing forests they began to change their environment in significant ways. Around 2000 BC, the start of the Bronze Age roughly conincides with the arrival of the "Beaker Culture" and the establishment of long-distance trade in rare metals such as copper and tin. New technology arrived in the form of the wheel. The Bronze Age may have ended c.1200–c.1150 BC with a series of catastrophes and a Dark Age out of which an Iron Age culture emerged. From around 800 BC the Iron Age culture developed slowly but does not appear to have enjoyed the sophistication of the south of England which had more contact with Europe. Towards the end of the period considered, the odd luxury from the Roman Empire may have been enjoyed by high-status individuals. We do not know whether the arrival of the Romans in person was welcomed or detested.

Exploring pre-Roman Cheshire

The Hill Forts are the most spectacular outdoor sight and the Grosvenor Museum has some artifacts to see indoors. Unfortunately the Bridestones site, which would have been one of the most spectacular remnants of the ancient world has been largely destroyed in relatively recent times.

Individual Hill Forts are described on the page relating to the Sandstone Ridge. The Maiden Castle hill fort offers specatular views and was probably occupied from its construction in 600 BC at the start of the Iron Age until the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD. At this time the Cornovii tribe probably occupied the surrounding area. At Beeston Castle the Bronze and Iron Age remains are overshadowed by the later construction but the view from the top of the crag on which it stands provides an insight into the the underlying geology and geography which shaped pre-Roman development in the area. The use of the hill-forts possibly changed over the years and they may even have finally become the bases of an occupying culture based at the Wrekin who extracted tribute from a local population before they were displaced by the Romans.

There have been various attempts to develop the site at Pulton as a research and educational centre. At present the facility offers students the opportunity to excavate well-preserved archaeology from a variety of periods. Currently, Iron Age and Roman features and the medieval chapel and graveyard are available as part of field courses open to volunteers. No experience is necessary but this is a site where 1-2 week "hands-on" courses are held rather than a "museum" open to casual visitors.

The artifacts in the Grosvenor Museum (to be completed)

Sources and Links

Related Pages



  • Prehistoric Cheshire - (2004) Victoria and Paul Morgan: a very readable yet comprehensive study and a good first purchase for those interested in the period.
  • The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Britons and Romans, Natives and Settlers (2017) Dennis W. Harding;
  • The Origins of Cheshire - (1993) N. J. Higham:

Chester in Other Historical Periods