Mark Olly is a Cheshire writer and archaeologist
who runs the Celtic Warrington Project Archaeological Unit. You can
read about Mark's work in the 'Celtic Warrington & Other Mysteries'
A postcard from the Hoxnian Interglacial!
The oldest man made objects so far found in Cheshire.
It has long been assumed that our region of north Cheshire spent the
vast majority of the Ice Ages under the ice. I say 'Ice Ages' (plural)
as the prevailing opinion of our day is that there were several long
breaks in 'The Ice Age' during which our climate improved sufficiently
to allow for human habitation and that a single 'Ice Age' did not
occur as such. The gap from 380 000 to 400 000 BC is known as the
'Hoxnian Interglacial' and now represents the oldest recorded visit
of 'Homo Erectus' or very early Stone Age man to north Cheshire.
On the 29th September 1998 myself and photographer Lesley Lowery were
surveying a ploughed field, looking for pottery fragments behind Tudor
Denfield Farm, Millington, when Leslie picked up a medium-sized flint
pebble which had obviously been shaped to form a primitive tool.
Finds displayed at Knutsford Heritage Centre's 'On The Celtic Road'
Further investigations revealed a
scatter of seven other flint pebbles within a radius of about 60 feet
(19m) of this first find, three of which resemble small tools. The
remaining four resemble 'pot boilers' which were heated in a fire
and then put into water in order to heat it - there were no heat-resistant
containers in this period of prehistory which could be put over a
Research has revealed that these finds come from the 'Hoxnian Interglacial'
dating them to between 380 000 and 400 000 years BC. These are the
oldest site finds in Cheshire and raise some important questions for
local and national archaeology. It has always been thought that the
Mersey Valley spent most of the Ice Ages under the ice, but the pebble-tool
and associated flints indicate the location of at least one tool-making
hunter here during this period. However, these finds are now known
not to be isolated examples.
Tear Drop Axe
A large 'tear drop' hand axe was found twenty-five years earlier in
1973 by Jennifer Ritchie (then Jennifer Cule, aged 7) in a garden
in Mobberly Road, Knutsford, and was handed in to Tatton Park who
sent it to the British Museum. They gave it a similar date to the
Millington axe at 250 000 to 350 000 BC, and observed that it had
been rolled arround in river gravel for some time before ending up
in the top soil of Knutsford.
On the 4th March 2000 I was walking in Tatton Park. In a hollow opposite
the wood by the lake at the Knutsford gate end I found another tool
in the soil of a mole hill dating from the 250 000 to 350 000 BC period,
a small 'tear drop' finger-and-thumb tool used for boring holes. Again
it is very water-worn but shows distinct signs of having been re-sharpened,
possibly during the Mesolithic period. This brings the total number
of very early Stone Age tools found along the north-south line of
Tatton Park to 10. Evidently the north Cheshire ridge must have overlooked
a much flooded Mersey valley as the ice sheets retreated north.
Finds displayed at Knutsford Heritage Centre's
'On The Celtic Road' 2000 exhibibition
Two distinct types of 'axe' tool were in use during the Hoxnian period
and are regarded as the oldest definitive identifiable tools of early
man. Type 1 is thought to be the older hand-sized 'chopping tool'
which does not appear again after the Hoxnian period and of which
we found a fine example at Denfield Farm.
Type 2 is the larger 'pear-shaped'
or 'tear-drop' hand axe found in 1973 by Jenny and the smaller example
found by myself in March 2000.
Tools of this kind are common in the South especially on the Downlands,
Suffolk, Kent and Essex, like the site at Clacton-on-Sea where they
have been found in the gravels underlying the golf course there. All
of these sites are waterside settlements and no Hoxnian cave sites
are known. These camps are virtually unheard of north of Oxfordshire
and The Wash on the East Coast, the most famous recent example being
that at Centre Parks featured on an episode of the 'Time Team' television
programme. Flint is also not a material native to Cheshire so must
have been brought here by the hunters. I have this distinct impression
of a skin-clad hunter wearing his antlered head piece, standing on
a grassy tundra ridge, gazing across a rushing torrent in the floor
of the Mersey Valley and outlined against a huge wall of glacial ice
just to the north. This sheet is about to return for 'Wolstonian 1'.
The climate changed and the animal species and the hunter culture
that hunted them died out.
ARTICLE ADAPTED FROM: CELTIC WARRINGTON
& OTHER MYSTERIES -
VOLUME TWO: EAST TO SOUTH. MARK OLLY. CHURNET VALLEY BOOKS,
43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs. (01538) 399033.