Who was Worsely Man?

Astley Moss image by Lorna Smithers

Great Manchester Wetlands Trainee, Lorna, uncovers the haunting story of the Worsley Man.

Mist haunts Astley Moss as the last leaves fall from the trees and we enter the dead season, evoking ghosts, spirits of the past when this mossland was part of the larger complex of Chat Moss.

Approaching from what was once the edge of the mossland, following ways once far more treacherous, stepping across tussocks of hare’s tail cottongrass to avoid spongy hummocks of Sphagnum moss and deeper bog pools in between comes a group of misty figures.

It is impossible to tell how many are ghosts and how many but shapes conjured by the mist. There are three, at least, two of them holding, leading, a third, who looks like a prisoner. He is a man, aged around 25 years old, with defined brows, a square jaw, and a broad, flat nose. His eyes are blue and his hair is light brown, oddly touched by grey, in spite of his youth. What stands out most is his swollen right ear suggesting he’s been in many fights.

He’s a big man, strong, well-built, and yet he comes quietly. He puts up no resistance when they halt before a bog pool and the two cloaked figures strip him of his cloak and force him to his knees. He begins to pray in a language that sounds a little like present-day Welsh.

His prayers are put to an end by a bloody blow behind his right ear and replaced by harsher invocations as one of the figures raises an axe and smashes it down on top of his skull. As he topples forward he is held upright as the axe cuts once, nicks his neck, twice, severs his head. The man with the axe picks up his head and deposits it in the bog pool with whispered words.

A moody shot of Astley Moss shrouded in morning mist

Astley Moss image by Lorna Smithers

This scene evokes the death of Worsley Man. In 1958, in trench eight of flat six, just north of Astley Moss, his skull was found with his hair and deformed right ear and surrounding flesh. It has been dated to the Romano-British period 131–251 AD. The damage to his skull shows he was struck two blows to the head, then decapacitated, and his head placed in the bog.

Who was Worsley Man? Why was he killed so violently? Why was his head deposited in the peat bog? For a better understanding, we can take a look at the historical and cultural context.

Worsley Man lived at a turbulent time 50–150 years after the Romans conquered northern Britain. However, violence, head-hunting, and bog burials occurred amongst the Britons long before.

A number of skulls have been dated to the Bronze Age. One of these was Ashton Man, from Ashton Moss. A female head with red hair was found on Red Moss and another with long, plaited auburn hair and two strings of jet beads and an amber bead, wrapped in yellow woollen cloth, on Pilling Moss. The latter was clearly deposited with love and care, suggesting she was a woman of stature. Contrastingly, from Briarfield, we have a man’s head with the mandible removed and evidence of de-fleshing, evidencing it was a war trophy.

Most famous are the Romano-British burials from Lindow Moss. The first discovery, in 1983, during peat-cutting, was the head of Lindow Woman. The body of Lindow Man was found in 1984. His injuries demonstrate, like Worsley Man, he died a violent death. He was hit on the head twice with an axe, garrotted, and his throat slashed. Then he was pushed face down into the bog. This ‘overkill’ has led to the interpretation he was ritually sacrificed.

David Barrowclough, in Prehistoric Lancashire, notes ‘the severed head represents a discrete category of bog deposit, which appears to be particularly well represented in Lancashire’.

After the Romans invaded Britain they recorded the names of some of our Iron Age tribes. The name for the people inhabiting the lowlands of Lancashire has been derived as ‘the Setantii’ from Ptolemy’s Geography 2 AD in which he labels the estuary of the Mersey Seteia and places Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’ at the mouth of the Wyre.

Setantii has been translated by Andrew Breeze as ‘reapers of men’ (set is corrupted from *met ‘cut, harvest’ as in Welsh medaf ‘I reap’ and Medel ‘reaper’ ‘killer’) so perhaps it would not be going too far to interpret this tribe to have been renowned as reapers of heads?

Their behaviour may be located within the wider Celtic ‘cult of the head’ in which the head was ‘the seat of the soul’ and possessed the magical ability to live on after death.

Whilst heads left outside to the elements eventually decayed, those placed in peat bogs did not. It seems likely the Setantii were aware of the capacity of a bog to preserve human remains. This is brought about by the water-logged anaerobic conditions combined with the action of Sphagnum acids, which slow microbial action, slowing decay, and tanning skin and hair. Thus, the soul, in the head, was kept in limbo, and could not return to the Otherworld.

Close-up of Sphagnum Palustre on Astley Moss

Sphagnum Palustre on Astley Moss image by Lorna Smithers

Can the archaeology of Chat Moss tell us anything about who Worsley Man was and who killed him and buried his head in the bog, perhaps for the purpose of delaying his passing?

Just over two miles south-west of his burial place, at Great Woolden, on a sandy promontory at the edge of Chat Moss, beside the Glazebrook, was an Iron Age roundhouse site. This was occupied from 120 BC until 340 AD so during the period Worsley Man lived and died.

The evidence suggests that, in spite of the Roman occupation, the inhabitants continued with their own way of life, living self-sufficiently by practicing small-scale agriculture, grinding grain, keeping sheep, pigs, and perhaps cattle, and making their own pots and tools. A small surplus allowed them to buy Cheshire Very Coarse Pottery and Roman Coarse Pottery.

The double ditches were for drainage or livestock, not defence, and no weapons were found onsite. The Roman pottery suggests the inhabitants were on trading terms with the Romans, who had forts at Mamucium (Manchester), Deva (Chester) and a settlement at Wilderspool. Overall, we have a picture of a peaceful life based around agriculture and animal husbandry. The archaeological record holds no evidence for conflict, yet neither does it rule it out.

We can derive that Worsley Man was not killed in battle or in a fit of rage, but was taken purposefully from the edge of the bog across treacherous terrain and into its watery midst, where he was ritually executed and his head deposited in one of its deepest places.

Astley Moss bog pool

Astley Moss bog pool image by Lorna Smithers

Why he was chosen for this fate is less certain. Was he an enemy or criminal taken to his execution? Was he victimised because he was seen as ‘other’ perhaps because of his ‘cauliflower ear’ or some other physical or mental difference or disability? Was his head placed in the bog as a punishment or to prevent his spirit from returning to take vengeance?

Or was he a revered person such as a chieftain, a warrior, or a seer who had been selected or had chosen to go to death so his spirit could live on to commune with and defend his people? Was he sacrificed as a gift to the deities of the bog or in hope of an exchange of power?

The story of Worsley Man’s death remains a mystery and, unless further evidence emerges, or he speaks to us from where he is no longer on view in Manchester Museum due to ethical debates about displaying the ancient dead, it will remain so – mysterious as Astley Moss and its mists.

Bibliography

Aldhouse Green, M. (2015), Bog Bodies Uncovered, Thames and Hudson

Barrowclough, D., (2008), Prehistoric Lancashire, The History Press, p205 – 206 and p209

Breeze, A., (2006) ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-y-Ghent’, Northern History, XLIII:1

Giles, M., (2020), Bog Bodies: Face to Face with the Past, Manchester University Press

Joy, J., (2009), Lindow Man, The British Museum Press

Nevell, M. (1998) ‘Great Woolden Hall Farm: A Model for the Material Culture of Iron Age and Romano-British Rural Settlement in North-West England?’, Archaeology North West, Vol. 3, Issue 13

Nevell, M., ‘T25 Part Three: The Ashton Moss Head’, Archaeology Tea

Restall-Orr, E., (2008), Lindow Man in Manchester: On Display, Honouring the Ancient Dead

Ross, A., (1974), Pagan Celtic Britain, Sphere Books

Thayer, B., (1991), ‘Location of Albion, Island of Britannia,’ The Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, Dover Publications

Encylopedia Britannica

 

Lorna's traineeship has been funded by The Green Recovery Challenge Fund - a short-term competitive fund to kick-start environmental renewal whilst creating and retaining a range of jobs. Accessed through the Greater Manchester Environment Fund it supports environmental charities and their partners to deliver projects in England. 

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