Bronze Age Heywood: Beaker th' Moss?

People of the Bell-Beaker culture.

How long have people lived around this place we now know as Heywood? Although humans are known to have moved around the wider area during the Stone Age, archaeological evidence of their activities is thin on the ground. There is, however, stronger proof of Bronze Age human activity to the north of Heywood, around Ashworth Moor and Knowl Hill, dating to at least 4,000 years ago.

The moorland landscape looked very different back then. An analysis of the peat on Ashworth Moor by Rochdale geologist Walter Baldwin in 1902 - just prior to the construction of the reservoir there - found traces of ancient trees, predominantly Scotch fir and oak, along with birch, hazel, ash willow and Scotch elm, and also undergrowth plants such as holly, blackberry bush, and sloe. Baldwin noted that the site chosen for the reservoir had once been an ancient lake that had become choked with vegetation over time, and the waters would once have attracted much wildlife. He also found old bones of Celtic shorthorn cattle in the peat.

This area was evidently rich in natural resources, so it was no surprise that Baldwin also discovered traces of human activity. The crown of Knowl Hill, which dominates the local landscape, seems to have been used as a workshop for flint tools. Baldwin turned up a huge array of flint chippings there, along with arrowheads, thumbstones and flakes. He described the arrowheads as having a variety of shapes, including, ‘leaf-shaped, lozenge-shaped, stemmed, stemmed and barbed, and single barbed’. Items such as these would have originally been tied to wooden shafts with thin strips of animal hide. He also found necklace beads, a jet button, and charred wood-pine needles that he claimed were used to keep fires going.

Putting these finds in the context of other archaeological sites in the district, such as the Hades Hill burial barrow in Whitworth, Baldwin loosely dated the artefacts as being from the Bronze Age, which ended in Britain around 800 BC. He described the people of that era as colouring their skin with ruddle (red hematite), and wandering;
‘…about the forests, clothed in the skins of animals his prey, or dressed in roughly spun woollen garments, following the chase, grubbing in the ground for roots, or gathering for his food fruit, which grew on the bushes. It is possible, that as a rule, towards dusk he would leave the forest for the hill tops where he would be safer from wild beasts or perhaps from the spirits which he supposed haunted the trees.’
The Heywood and Middleton Water Board excavations for the new Ashworth Moor reservoir in 1905 yielded further evidence of ancient human activity. This included an implement used in the cutting up of trees, estimated to date back at least 1,000 years:
‘In cutting the peat on the side of the new reservoir… one of the workmen came across an old saw horse 16½ inches below the level of the soil. There was also a heap of sawdust lying near. The depth at which the saw horse was found proves clearly that it most have been used over 1000 years ago at least. The saw horse consisted of an old oak tree, about 9in. in diameter, with a hollow place cut out of it, the excavation being about 11in. long and 4in. deep. The purpose of this hollow chopped in the side of the tree was to put other trees into it to hold them like a vice while the persons concerned cut them with saws.’
Another interesting find was the head of a bronze axe (left), known as a ‘palstave’, which was dug up from under 25 cm of soil by reservoir workmen in February 1905. The palstave is thought to date from the late Bronze Age. It was an olive-green colour and measured about 12 cm in length, and just over 5 cm at the widest point. The joint of the two moulds in which it was cast was still visible on the sides of the instrument. 

Probably the most important local archaeological discovery was made just a few hundred metres away from the reservoir, when members of the Bury Archaeological Group excavated a ruined early-Bronze Age burial cairn in a field at Wind Hill Farm during 1968-72. A cairn is a mound of earth and/or stones placed over a complete or cremated body. Judging by the way the Wind Hill cairn had been built, and the type of objects found within it, it was estimated to date from the ‘Bell Beaker Phase’ of the early Bronze Age (circa 2100-1700 BC).

The remains of the cairn were about 11 metres in diameter and 60 cm high. Around the edge was an almost circular retaining kerb of horizontal stone slabs, up to three courses high. This kerb was higher and straighter on the eastern side, around an opening of 2 metres. Next to the opening was a rectangular ‘courtyard’ area, which was also enclosed by a stone kerb. All this had then been concealed by a pear-shaped earth mound.

Cross-section of typical Bronze Age burial cairn.

(1) Wind Hill Farm; (2) Ashworth Reservoir; (3) Knowl Hill.

Wind Hill Farm, Ashworth Road, site of the burial cairn. (Bill Boaden)

‘Beaker People’ were so named because of their custom of placing bell-shaped beaker pottery in graves, along with semi-precious stones, jewellery or weaponry. Although no grave pits were discovered during the Wind Hill dig, typical Beaker grave-goods were found among stones at the centre of the cairn there, indicating that bodies or cremated remains had been placed on the surface. These objects included a flint knife, a pebble hammer and a ‘V’-bored jet button. A few small pieces of flint were found in the ‘courtyard’ area, and four scrapers (for working on animal hides) were recovered from outside the cairn itself.

Early to middle Bronze Age cultures in Europe, 2800-2600 BC.
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There was no distinct race of ‘Beaker people’ as such, it was more a cultural ‘type’ that spread through Europe during the transitional Beaker Phase between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Beaker culture featured distinct religious beliefs, as well as ways of working with copper, bronze and gold, and items such as copper daggers, jet buttons and stone wrist-guards. The way of life was brought to Britain by Spanish and German groups, probably through the south-west coast of Britain. They readily mixed with any new people they encountered, including the Neolithic farmers around Britain. This is shown by the improvements they made to the existing temple at Stonehenge.

So what were their lives like around the Heywood area all those 4,000 years ago? While no evidence of local settlements from that time have survived, we do know that Beaker folk were barley and wheat farmers who lived in villages, usually consisting of a series of circular houses surrounded by a field system. The houses had low stone walls supporting wooden poles and rafters, and roofs were made of thatch, turf, or hides.

Typical roundhouse of the later Bronze Age.

They also kept pigs, cattle, sheep and goats, and hunting provided further food. Apart from making pottery, the Beaker folk also made the first woven garments in Britain, and introduced the first known alcoholic drink here, a form of mead.

Although no other archaeological evidence of their activities has yet been found, it would be quite reasonable to assume that sometime during an extended period of time of inhabiting or just visiting the area, possibly over centuries, the people responsible for the Bronze Age material found around Ashworth Moor would have also spent time down in the nearby woodlands towards what is now Heywood. Following the local brooks down to their confluence with the River Roch is less than a day's return journey on foot.

  • Walter Baldwin, 'Some Prehistoric finds from Ashworth Moor and neighbourhood', in Transactions of the Manchester Geological & Mining Society, vol. 28, 1903, pp. 108-114. 
  • English Heritage, National Monuments Register, 'Monument No. 890857', Pastscape
  • W. Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Volume 1, 1906. 
  • B.Pearson, J.Price, V.Tanner and J.Walker, 'The Rochdale Borough survey', in Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit Journal, vol. 1, 1985. 
  • Norman Tyson, Excavation of a Cairn at Wind Hill, Heywood, Lancashire, Bury Archaeological Group, 1972. 
  • 'Heywood and its Stone Age legacy', Heywood Advertiser, 10 March 2003.