Dazzling Iron Age discovery

Decorated antler toggle paralelled on high status sites in southen England

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of the first wealthy Iron Age community in the North West of England. 

Until now no significant settlements had been found in the region, with most pre-historic discoveries centred in Wessex, the East and the south coast.

Now a team digging for a medieval abbey beside the River Dee have uncovered the remnants of at least ten Celtic roundhouses. Although the buildings are long gone, the deep ditches that surrounded them survived. 

These ditches were used by residents for the disposal of their daily rubbish and – thanks to the neutral clay soil – have been immaculately preserved. 

'Dazzling artefacts'

Dr Kevin Cootes, senior researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, said they had found ‘a dazzling time capsule of over 5,000 artefacts’, dated from 800BC.

Analysis of the remains has provided the ‘first detailed record of the lives, deaths, and ritual practices’ of an affluent trading community, whose inhabitants used the adjacent River Dee to trade goods, including large quantities of prized salt from the Cheshire plain, he said.

Kevin, is consultant archaeologist with the Poulton Research Project, a multi-period excavation south of Chester, which was discovered during the search for a lost Cistercian Abbey, when excavation revealed a medieval Chapel and graveyard, with 2,000 burials. Continual research has also uncovered Mesolithic flints and tools of Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers. 

Among the artefacts were vast numbers of broken pottery used to transport the salt and preserve meat and food, pieces of moulds and stone anvils, which demonstrated that residents were smelting copper and iron, plus the bones of domestic animals and deer, which were hunted for food. The archaeologists also discovered fragments of skulls and other human bones. Exactly why these ended up in the ordinary refuse is a mystery, but archaeologists believe it demonstrates that treatment of the dead back then was very different to today.

Chief's roundhouse

The most significant find, however, was of a roundhouse which, Dr Cootes says, appeared to be the home of the affluent community leader or tribal chief.

‘Over 2,500 finds came from this single structure alone, including items which had been ritually deposited as a statement of affluence,’ he added.

A beautifully decorated toggle made from Red Deer antler (pictured above) and a valuable axe-like farming implement, called an adze, were deposited near the entrance. Next to these items lay the remains of a dog, with a second buried in the centre of the building. The intentional sacrifice of such valuable animals would have been seen as a significant offering in exchange for the prosperity of the house.’

Dr Cootes said the discovery at Poulton was a ‘once in a thousand careers’ find’ which would ‘illuminate pre-history’ in north west England.

‘Very little was known of high status Iron Age communities in the north west of England until now,’ he added. ‘Such settlements have been discovered in southern England, east of the Pennines and in Scotland, but this area was considered a black hole by some archaeologists, that is why it is hugely significant.

‘We can tell from what we found that this community was very affluent, from trading along the river. Poulton is a well-preserved time capsule of thousands of years of life. It is not even a once in a lifetime find, it is a once in a thousand careers’ find. It is absolutely fascinating and a privilege to be involved with.’

- Kevin was joined on the LJMU research team by co-author Dr David Jordan and PhD student Carol Davenport.


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