Hello and welcome to the Wigan History Podcast
This episode is about Prehistoric Wigan and in particular the bronze age
First, let’s get a bit of context for the nation as a whole during this time.
Prehistoric Britain is a sizable period of time, when we talk about prehistoric, what we are actually referring to is anything before written history, so before writing. So let’s take a quick sprint through britain’s history before our story begins…
The first people living in britain have been recorded as far back as 900,000 years ago. These were very, very early humans who would have come in between ice ages, most likely not even settled. This was during a time when Britain wasn’t even an island and a landmass, which we now called “Doggerland”, would have bridged mainland Europe to Britain.
Yes, we were connected. If we were still connected today I’m sure it would have made things much more awkward over the past 5 years.
Ice ages came and went, and with them humans would have come and gone too – type of humans referred to as Neanderthals were living here 60,000 years ago , it wasn’t until the end of the last ice age did humans come to stay at around 9500BC, – these were hunter-gatherers, then farming began around 4000BC, this is when humans stopped roaming the lands looking for food and they start to settle in one place to grow and store food.
At this point that land bridge between Europe and Britain, disappeared and the English Channel was born.
This takes us from the stone age into the bronze age of Britain which started around 2300BC, which pretty much brings us to where our story begins…
I should probably come clean at this point that at the time of recording this podcast, there is no evidence of prehistoric settlements in Wigan.
This may seem like a bit of a false start when it comes to this podcast, however I think this starting point is still important. In any case we will only need to travel a tiny bit out of the Wigan borough to find evidence of prehistoric settlements.
But in any case, let’s just take a quick look at the geography of Wigan, which was super important for our early humans.
The centre of Wigan, for the sake of this podcast, is probably best referred to as between the Wiend and All Saints church. Which is one of the oldest, still standing structures in Wigan, even though most of it has been rebuilt at least once.
The Wiend lies on top of a hill and the church stands just off the top to the west. If you stood on the top of the Wiend with nothing around you to obstruct your view then the River Douglas, would surround you at the bottom of the valley to the south, east and west. Due to the river meandering path, which comes down from the north, turns towards the west, then returns back north west, ultimately ending up in the Ribble Estuary.
If you imagine now that the River Douglas, unlike today, would have most likely been much wider, larger and deeper. What you have is a natural defensive barrier encircling you on all sides, except to the North West.
Which would have made Wigan, back in prehistoric times, a very attractive prospect for settlers, However, no archaeological evidence has been found to support this.
With 2000 years of industrial and urban development in the town centre, however, it isn’t too surprising that no real evidence from that period has survived. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any settlement. There are potential sites within and around the district that are very likely to be prehistoric burial mounds dating between 2400 to 1500BC.
Toot Hill in Bryn and the Boar’s Denin Wrightington, two sites in the district which you may never have heard of, however within them is potentially a history millennia old. However, these are not too uncommon.
A burial was found in Astley Hall in Chorley and another at Newton-le-Willows called “Southworth Burial Mound”, when the latter was excavated in the 80’s the team found eight cremated remains plus urns and pottery cups.
There are 10,000 similar burial mounds in the UK many of which were excavated in the past but not necessarily to the best of standards. These days they are all protected as scheduled monuments.
Sadly Toot Hill in Bryn is no longer with us, now underneath a new industrial estate.
Boar’s Denis an oval mound around 2 meters high and approximately 65 meters across. Who knows what lies beneath it. It could even be nother, just a natural feature in the landscape. Frustratingly it will only be excavated if threatened by destruction, such as in the case of Southworth Burial Mound, where the site would have been at risk due to a new quarry.
As my new friend, Bill at th Wigan Archaeological Society put it…
“Archaeology in itself is a destructive process and can only be performed once.”
Which on reflection is really sad and frustrating. I mean, these glimpses into the past are only ever uncovered right on the brink of their ultimate destruction.
And how frustrating it must be to all historians out there that see these potential sites and know they may never get to discover what secrets they hide.
I can only hope that one day a non-destructive survey technology such as ground penetrating radar will give us a better understanding of the area in prehistoric times.
As I mentioned however, these burial mounds are commonplace. How about an actual prehistoric settlement? Well, very recently an excavation brought to light a rare bronze age settlement from around 1500 to 1100 BC in Cutacre Country Park near Tyldesley. Making it the first ever found in the Greater Manchester area.
This settlement consisted of a single roundhouse, now if you’re a fan of the sadly discontinued TV series, Time Team, you will probably have seen many an artist’s impression of a bronze age roundhouse. However, for the sake of the younger, a roundhouse is thought to be a very common form of housing during the bronze age, made with mud or wooden post walls and a large thatched roof, almost stretching down the floor.
This settlement in Cutacre, was a single round house with a separate square building off it. It’s thought the roundhouse would have house a typical large bronze age family, with the out building potentially being use to grow or cultivate cereal like wheat or barley. It’s even suggested that they have been malting barley for use in beer.
Which I think is nice, one of the earliest settlements found in the region, is a family making beer.
Let’s put this into a little context here in terms of where we are in time. Stonehenge was built (i.e. when the huge stone sarsens were erected) potentially 1,000 years before this roundhouse and we are still nearly 1,000 years away from the Roman conquest of Britain.
You may think I’ve gone a little off-track here, I’m now talking about bronze age settlements found nearBolton. Not what you want to do being on the Wigan History Podcast. But let’s be clear here, we are talking of a time way before district boundaries, and certainly way before local sporting rivalries.
The entire population of Britain at this point had only just reached approximately 1 million. So, not finding a huge amount of stuff in the colder north of the country is perhaps not surprising.
But, let’s talk about Wigan for the moment, although we might not have any burial mounds or settlements found in the region, that’s not to say artefacts have not been discovered here.
In fact, we have a few prehistoric items that have popped up in Wigan, tools, such as axes and scrapers, all typical tools of the time.
One item, referred to as a shaft-hole adze, which I can only presume means axe with a hole in it where the handle goes, is recorded as being found by a school boy near New Springs in 1974.
Another item, a flint scraper was found in someone’s garden in Winstanley.
Outside of tools we do have what is described as a bronze age battle axe, found in 1933 in Walken Aveune by a R Orrell.
You may be thinking why these finds don’t confirm that prehistoric settlers weren’t in Wigan? Well, simply because these are tools or weapons. The people who might have carried these could have brought them or dropped them from anywhere and at any time.
It’s not conclusive proof. However, the confirmed settlements nearby, possible burial mounds in the area and these finds in Wigan does mean that there was some activity in the area during the bronze age.
However, I suppose one of the exciting things about this, even though it’s disappointing we don’t have conclusive proof of a settlement in the borough. Perhaps one day we’ll find one, and it will open up another glimpse into history we’ve not seen before.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey into prehistoric times in the area, I hope you are not too disappointed that we didn’t have much to say about Wigan.
That won’t be the case next time however as we start to look at Celts in the region.