Bronze Age burials near Highfield Moss

Highfield Moss (c) Lorna Smithers

Greater Manchester Wetlands Trainee, Lorna, investigates the Bronze Age burials of Highfield Moss.

Highfield Moss is a valley mire in the Greater Manchester Wetlands area. With its Sphagnum mosses, round-leaved sundews, and rare marsh gentians it is a wonderful place to visit. It was seen as special and as sacred to our prehistoric ancestors too, for they built a burial mound on a sandy ridge near its south-eastern edge, close to present-day Kenyon Hall Farm.

At this point in time the mossland, some of which has been reclaimed as farmland, would have been larger. This is suggested by the reference to ‘moss pits’ in a neighbouring field. The A579, Winwick Lane, now passes through the centre of the location of the mound.

Site of the Kenyon Hall Burial Mound

Site of the Kenyon Hall Burial Mound (c) Lorna Smithers 

The first finds were uncovered by ploughing in 1826. These were the rim of an urn that contained burnt bones and what is described as ‘the tongue of a bronze fibula’ but is perhaps more likely to be a bronze awl (a pointed tool used to make holes in tough materials such as deer hides).

In 1903, when the new road was built, the site was excavated. Thomas May reported finding the ‘contour of a dome-shaped mound’ 34 feet in diameter and four feet high, with a surrounding trench seven feet wide and a foot deep.

Within the mound were found two burial urns. Unfortunately, both were broken. One was hand-made from brown clay and incised with chevron markings and the other was a similar vessel of ‘inferior ornamentation’. Both contained cremations and the former a later human internment - ‘an upper jaw with cavities for about a dozen teeth.’

It seems possible these people were interred close to Highfield Moss because it was a sacred place, both beautiful and treacherous, passage across which was seen as analogous as passing to the Otherworld.

The presence of grave goods, the bronze fibula or awl, shows that the dead were believed to take their belongings with them into the Otherworld, where their spirits lived on.

The nearby place-names ‘Barrow Road’ and ‘Barrow Field’ suggest there may have been other barrows in the vicinity that formed part of a ritual landscape.

The burial mound at Kenyon Hall was likely linked with others in the nearby area. At Southworth Hall there was a more complex monument, which was excavated in 1980. They discovered an Early Bronze Age burial mound, 12 metres in diameter, that was first built with an oval pit aligned north-east to south-west with two cremations. Later in the Bronze Age, it was replaced by a second, larger mound 24 metres in diameter. 10 cremations were found from this period, 7 aligned opposite each other along the axis of the pit.

Within one of the cremations part of a bone knife handle was found. Other finds preceding the 1980 excavations include flint arrowheads and scrapers and a bronze palstave (a type of early bronze axe).

Further south, either side of present-day Highfield Lane, there were two burial mounds. The mound to the west was recorded, in 1860, as being six feet tall and thirty yards in diameter, and as containing fragments of bone, pottery, and the head of a thigh bone of a 12 - 14-year-old. It is believed that the mound had previously been disturbed, the urns broken, and the bones reburied. Although it is marked on the map, nothing but a concrete structure is visible today.

Site of Highfield Lane burial mound

Site of Highfield Lane burial mound (c) Lorna Smithers

The east burial mound had previously been levelled to fill in a ditch. It contained an urn, which unfortunately broke into pieces, which had within it bones, the head of a stone hammer and the head of a bronze dagger. Other finds from this locality include a bronze palstave, a bronze ring, and a socket-looped axe with a herring-bone design. These elaborate grave goods suggest the individuals buried with them held high status amongst their people.

These records and finds are all that is left of a former ritual landscape where our Bronze Age ancestors were buried and venerated near to Highfield Moss.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Hannah White and Philip Jeffs at Warrington Museum and Archives for allowing me to view and photograph the objects and the records.

Bibliography

Freke, D. J., Holgate, R., 1980, ‘Excavations at Winwick, Cheshire, in 1980’, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, Vol. 70, Gee and Son Limited May, Thomas., 1903, ‘Notes on a Bronze Age Barrow’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, Vol. 21, Manchester

Robson, J., 1860, ’Tumuli at Winwick’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, T. Brakell

Appendix

Map of Bronze Age Burial Mounds near Highfield Moss

Highfield Moss Bronze Age Sites

Highfield Moss Bronze Age Sites