Books, Prehistory, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Volume 18 Pages 114-124

Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Volume 18 Pages 114-124 is in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Volume 18.

On The Exploration Of Prehistoric Sepulchral Remains Of The Bronze Age At Bleasdale By S. Jackson, Esq. By Professor Boyd Dawkins, D.Sc,. Frs., F.S.A

1. The Discovery by Mr. Jackson.

The following account of the discovery of the remarkable group of remains at Bleasdale sent me by Mr. Jackson relates to the work done up to the 15th June, 1900, in continuation of his communication to the Society published in the "Proceedings," vol. xvii., p. 254. He writes as follows:-

"In the summer of 1898 my attention was directed to what appeared to be a circle in the grass upon Fairsnape Farm; it was not very distinct, but still sufficiently so to distinguish it from the surrounding moor. I did not think much of it at the time, but thought it worth making a search for anything which it might chance to contain. Mr. Thomas Kelsall, tenant of the farm, kindly gave his assistance, and to his most intelligent efforts we are indebted for much of interest in the discovery,

"Commencing from the inner part of the circle, at the depth of about four feet we came upon tree logs laid in front of each other horizontally, apparently round the circle. We did not examine the whole of these at the time, but satisfied ourselves that they were continuous, except at the eastern part of it (plate i., figs, i and 3, n.). I shall presently show that we were correct, and explain the reason for this omission.

''Judging that such a structure would not be laid without a purpose, I determined in 1899 to search again. Commencing in the centre of the circle, at a depth of about twenty-two inches we were rewarded by finding two cinerary urns (plate ii.). One of these was about eight inches high, the other about eight and a half inches. Inside this latter, inverted into its mouth, was a third small round urn. All were filled with small bits of bone and charcoal. They were very soft when found, and were coated both inside and out wdth small rootlets.

"Not feeling satisfied that all which this circle contained had been discovered, and having obtained the kind consent of the owner of the estate to make further researches, I determined this year to unearth the whole of the circle. Its diameter is about seventy-five feet (plate i., fig. I, inner circle) measured from the outside of the earth mound.

"I did not expect to find any further interments, but thought that either bronze or flint of some kind might be discovered. In this we were disappointed, but we found something of more importance, namely, a circle consisting of eleven oak logs, placed upright on the inside of the log platform at bottom of ditch. They were about eighteen inches or so below the top soil, whatever height they originally may have been, and varied in size, mostly being about eighteen inches diameter, and were charred at the top, apparently by the action of fire.

"A close examination of the ground showed that a layer of clay had been placed over the original vegetable soil beneath: this was thicker in the centre than at the edges, and so would form a slightly raised mound. "The outside earth circle (or vallum), which was first noticed, had been formed of the surplus soil which had been thrown up when digging the ditch in which rested the log platform (plate i., figs, i and 3).

"I am indebted to Canon Greenwell, of Durham, one of the best authorities upon ancient interments, for many valuable suggestions. He insisted strongly that the whole of the inner circle should be investigated, to see whether it was complete. We found that our first impression as to its non-continuation at the due eastern portion was correct. The entrance had evidently been planked on the circle side by a large pillar of wood, with two smaller pillars to the outside of them, in the line (see plan) of the earthen vallum or bank.

"Whilst pursuing these investigations, we thought that there were indications of a much larger circle outside the one I have been describing, which was certainly no more distinct than this one.

"We determined to examine it, and found below the surface, at the depth of about eighteen inches, large logs, evidently tree stumps, set upright, about thirteen feet apart; the spaces between were filled in by lesser stumps, placed side by side in the form of a stockade, except at the south-west, where they were omitted. The upright pillars were very large, the largest nearly three feet diameter. An entrance to this larger circle, about twelve and a half feet in breadth, was no doubt here.

"The circle itself is one hundred and fifty feet diameter and encloses the smaller one (plate i., fig. i). Its termination is by large pillars similar to the small ones and near to them. Wherever examined the bases of the log pillars were quite flat; they had not been sawn, but hacked with some cutting instrument, apparently of a slightly convex shape (plate iii.). A pretty accurate idea of the form of the two circles may be obtained by taking a crown piece and placing a sixpence upon it on the right hand side.

"Perhaps I cannot better close this imperfect description than by quoting from Canon Greenwell's last letter to me upon the subject. He says: 'The structure is certainly a most peculiar and interesting one, and must be put on permanent record, with plans and figures of the urns found. It looks as if there was an entrance on the east side leading into the inner circle, as well as one on the south-west. I should think it possible the charred wood had connection with burning the bodies. The finding of the interment close to one side of a circle is not singular; in a stone circle near Keswick the burial cist was close to one side of it. It is certainly a most novel and remarkable structure, and I only wish I were feeling equal to a journey to see it. There are two things to be done in the first instance, examination of the whole area and the making of complete plans; then comes the putting it on record. I see you found the original surface mould under the clay band (placed there by man's hands). I think there may be other burials there.'"

Since the above account of this most interesting discovery was written, Mr. Jackson has carried out further investigations and prepared a plan and section, which complete the work. These, at his request, I bring before the Society, along with notes of my own made during two visits to the sites.

The group of prehistoric remains at Bleasdale, near Garstang, Lancashire, occupy a most striking position on a knoll of boulders in the middle of an ampitheatre of moorland hills, about six hundred and fifty yards due west of Higher Fairsnape Farm. They consist, as described above, of two circles made of timber, the outer being one hundred and fifty feet in diameter and the inner seventy-five feet.

2. The Outer Circle

The outer circle consisted of (see plate i., fig. i) round logs of oak placed closely side by side, the principals being from two to three feet in diameter at intervals of about thirteen feet, and sunk into the ground to a depth of from five to six feet, while the secondary logs are about eight inches in diameter and do not penetrate further than three feet from the surface. Both have rotted away to a depth of from eighteen inches to two feet from the surface, but are sound and hard below, showing the marks of the axe with the greatest clearness. The lower ends of both have been trimmed truly at right angles with an axe or adze, and each log has been planted in the trench dug for the stockade in the boulder clay. It is probable that the principals from their larger size, and the greater depth of their insertion into the ground, were longer and higher than the secondaries (fig. 2). The entrance on the southwest was flanked on each side by a large principal, which formed a gate-post. This remarkable enclosure, although it was on a gently sloping knoll, was unprotected by ditch or vallum, and only marked off a circular area from the surrounding wet, marshy land.

3. The Inner Circle

The inner circle, close to the east side of the interior of that just described, is much more complex in its structure (see figs. I and 3). It is formed of an outside ring of earth (fig. 33) or "vallum" about five feet wide and nine inches high. It is composed of clay thrown out of the ditch on the inside. The ditch (c) is four feet wade and five feet deep, with the upper two feet sloping outwards from the lower part of the ditch, which is two feet wide. Inside this, a low mound, now ploughed down, formed also of clay out of the ditch, having a diameter of fifty-four feet and a height of two feet in the centre. It has been heaped up over the old ground surface (e). In this lay concealed a circle composed of eleven rounded oak logs, each measuring thirty inches across (fig. 4). These had been let into the ground to a depth of between three and four feet. They formed a circle of thirty-four feet in diameter. In the centre of this, in an excavation carried down to a depth of two feet below the old ground surface, a group of urns were discovered in a rectangular hole, measuring two feet by three feet, which had been filled with wood ashes. The two funeral urns contain calcined human bones; inside one of them was a third smaller vase. The only other human relic found within this circle was a mass of charcoal four feet to the west of the group of urns.

The ditch had been filled up with peat. When this was removed a curious flooring (d) of poles placed parallel to one another, and so wedged up as to make a horizontal surface, was exposed (see figs, i and 3). The poles were in lengths of from eleven to twelve feet. They measured six and a half inches in diameter and were laid on branches of birch, laid crosswise. Among them were some chips of oak, apparently made in trimming the oak logs of the circles; it is curious that no oak saplings were used in the trench. This flooring had been covered by a layer of leaves before the accumulation of the peat over it. On the southern side for about a couple of yards it had apparently been burnt, being represented by charcoal. The entrance to this burial mound was on the east side close to the stockade of the outer circle. It was flanked on the inside by two great oaken posts, which formed an entrance about thirteen feet wide and which widened outwards, being marked by a line of two smaller posts on either side at the termination of the vallum. The two outer were twenty-four feet apart.

A careful examination both of the inner and the outer circles revealed no other remains than those mentioned above, with the exception of a few broken slabs of sandstone, which may have been used for crushing corn or for fire-places. There were no remains of the animals which had been eaten or of fragments of domestic pottery, such as are usually found in prehistoric dwellings and burial-places. The whole of the inner circle was dug away and the area of the outer circle so trenched as to render it very improbable that any of the objects left behind have been missed in the exploration. It is worthy also of remark that a careful examination of the district immediately around has as yet failed to reveal any prehistoric remains which can be associated with the circles, the fragments of charcoal and burnt stones which occur on the edge of the moor close by being of uncertain origin, and not necessarily of high antiquity. They may be connected with modern farming operations, in which the soil has been burnt for application to the land.

4. Both Circles are the Same Age

We must now consider the relation of the outer stockaded circle to the inner ring containing the urns. We may infer that the large oaken timbers of the outer ring stood higher above the ground than the intervening smaller ones, because they were sunk deeper into the soil. We may also infer, from the absence of traces of occupation on the inside, that it had not been used, as might naturally be expected, as a place of habitation, although the entrance on the south side, the usual position in such cases, would lead to that hypothesis. It must further be noted that the damp situation on the clay would forbid its use by the living. The inner circle obviously was intended for purposes of burial. I should therefore conclude that both belong to the same age, and that the outer circle, as well as the inner, was the habitation of the dead; in other words, that both were made for purposes of burial of the same kind as those which are met with in the tumuli enclosed in circles of stones in various parts of the British Isles, timber being used here instead of stone to mark the resting-place of the dead, although there is no scarcity of stone in the millstone grit of the adjacent fells.

It is also interesting to note that the inner circle is seventy-five feet in diameter, or half that of the outer stockade. This, in its turn, is exactly half the diameter of the three hundred foot vallum surrounding the great temple of Stonehenge, a monument belonging to the Bronze Age.

The inner circle presents two points of more than usual interest, in the splayed entrance (fig. i) facing to the east and in the flooring of poles at the bottom of the ditch. A similar splayed entrance is presented by many burial-places in various parts of the British Isles — in the south of England in the tumuli of Uley [Map], Stoney Littleton [Map], Rodmarton, and Littleton Drew [Map], described by Dr. Thurnam; in Wales in that of Plas Newydd [Map], described by the Hon. Owen Stanley; and in Ireland by those of New Grange and Lough Crew, which probably belong to the Bronze Age.

The flooring of the ditch is, so far as I know, unique. It was carefully levelled. Its use is an open question; it may, however, have been intended for a ceremonial procession at stated times in honour of the dead,, as in the case of a tumulus dug in 1898 at Whatcombe, near Blandford, by Mr. Mansel Pleydell. Here we observed that the bottom of the ditch cut in the chalk was smoothed and polished into a perfectly well-defined track by human feet circling round the burial-mound. The ditch was entirely filled up with soil to the surface level of the ground, and had been cut into the solid chalk to a depth of about five feet. This burial-mound belongs to the Bronze Age.

5. Bleasdale Remains of Bronze Age.

The date of this remarkable burial-place at Bleasdale is proved by the examination of the pottery to fall within the remote period characterised by the use of bronze, in which cremation began to be practised in the British Isles. All three of the urns are characteristic of the Bronze Age, and have been repeatedly met with in burial mounds in various parts of the British Isles. The two urns, eight and a half and eight inches high, which contain the ashes of the dead, have the characteristic overhanging rim of Class A of Dr. Thurnam, while the smaller of the three, or the "incense cup," found inside the larger of the two urns, belongs to the type called by Dr. Thurnam the ''contracted cup.*' The ornamentation, too, in chevron and right lines is also characteristic of the Bronze Age. The coarse, imperfectly baked paste of all three vessels is that usually met with in the pottery of the Bronze Age (plate ii.).

The examination of the timbers points in the same direction. They bear unmistakable proof that they were trimmed and cut into shape with bronze axes or adzes. The ends of the timbers, so beautifully cut at right angles to the long axes, are covered with shallow lunules, slightly indenting the surface caused by the highly curved edge of the axe or adze (plate iii.). These varied in measurement from two to two and a half inches, and proved that the curved cutting edge was of the narrow type presented by bronze flat celts, palstaves, or socketed celts. In plate iii. are represented three of the cuts taken from a rubbing of one of these surfaces. These cuts, indeed, are so clear, and have so divided the fibre of the wood without bruising, that I doubt very much whether they could have been made in better fashion by a modern steel axe. It is very difficult to understand how so keen an edge as is implied by this could have been put on to a bronze axe.

This remarkable burial-place falls, therefore, into line with the large series of burial-mounds of the Bronze Age which lie scattered not only over the area of ttie British Isles, but over by far the greater portion of Europe. In other places the material employed for circles and fences is stone. Here, in place of stone, wood was employed. In this respect the Bleasdale burial-place is unique.

6. The Makers of the Burial-place.

Nor can there be very much doubt as to the race of men who made this burial-place, as well as those which abound on the moors of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Yorkshire. In some of these, more particularly in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, inhumation was practised and the skeleton was preserved. The examination of these, and more particularly that of Gristhorpe, proves that their makers were a tall, round-headed people with large heads, broad faces, aquiline noses, and a very massive build. They are now represented in the population of Britain by the tall fair Highlander, the tall fair Manxman, and the tall fair Irishman, who constitute the well-defined ethnological group known as the Goidels. They conquered, as I pointed out in my work on "Early Man," the greater part of France and of Spain in the Neolithic Age. They invaded this country at the beginning of the Bronze Age, introducing into it the arts and civilisation of that phase of human culture. They were masters of the British Isles in the Bronze Age, and there is scarcely an island off the west coast of Ireland or Scotland where they are unrepresented either by the prehistoric remains or in the existing population. We may then ascribe the Bleasdale burial-place to this ancient race, who continued to be masters of the British Isles until the invasion by the Brythons, in the prehistoric Iron Age, at some unknown date before the Greek sailors under Phythias brought back to the dwellers in the Mediterranean — to Massilia — the account of the British Isles, which they explored in the year 325 B.C.

In concluding this account I would add that not only are we of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, but also archaeologists at large, greatly indebted to Mr. Jackson and his fellow-worker Mr. Kelsall for the discovery and exploration of a group of remains of the greatest interest, which throw a new light on the ancient inhabitants of Lancashire.