Wednesday 2 June 2021

Prehistoric and Roman Turton

Extract from Turton through the Ages, Chapter 3, pages 9-11.

As we anticipate the third millennium AD, it is a tempering thought to reflect upon what aeons of time man and his ancestors roamed the uplands of Turton in times BC. Prehistoric dates are notoriously difficult to establish but throughout our lifetimes these dates have been pushed further and further back by each scientific advance. Finds of shaped flints on the Bolton moors tell us that early hunters roamed these hills. With the coming of metals and the easier felling of trees the hunter-herdsmen could settle into communities and have time and resources enough to cooperate on the building of megalithic monuments. The earliest in our area is the Pikestones on Anglezarke moor, the remains of a five slab burial chamber of an unusual type unique in Lancashire. The nearest similar chambered long cairns are in Derbyshire and Southern Scotland which points to the slow spread of a common culture even in these early times. So too with the spread of knowledge of metal working. Finds of bronze implements have been recorded at Charters Moss, at Edgworth and at Belmont. Pottery techniques improved and a large pot now in Bolton museum came out of the Noon Hill excavation in the 1950s. Very fine pots of the same period can be seen in Darwen library. They came out of an excavation at Whitehall, Darwen which is very close to our Turton area. 

Plan of the Stone Circle discovered on Chetham Close,
near Bolton Drawn by Gilbert J French, 1894. 

The outstanding prehistoric remain in Turton is the stone circle at Chetham Close on Turton Heights about 1060 feet above sea level. Two antiquarian visitors in the last century, Matthew Dawes and Thomas Greenhalgh of Sharples described the circle then. The latter's paper for the Archaeological Society of London in 1871 speaks of seven stones which were mutilated in the very next year. The diameter of the circle is given as 51 feet 6 inches. The tallest stone was 55 inches by 18 inches wide and the shortest 8 inches in height. At the distance of 45 feet south-west from the circle stood a solitary stone 19 inches high and 10 inches wide. Many British stone circles are recorded as having such an outlying stone. It is thought the function would be directional for travellers. An excavation of the circle was undertaken and published in the transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society in 1894. The site proved very interesting as not only was there a stone circle, but also a paved area which archaeologists now call a ringed cairn.  Their juxtaposition may be attributed to the use of the same territory by different people who respected an old monument. Today, the Chetham Close circle is ruinous but recognisable. Its position on a commanding height reminds us that these high tops round Bolton like Winter Hill, Noon Hill and Round Loaf were the preserve of early man. He was prepared to put scarce resources into the making of these structures but as to their function we can only speculate. 

During the last five hundred years BC, bronze was giving way to iron. Iron tools enabled forest clearing to go on faster and in the Iron Age, Britain had its farms and workshops, craftsmen and merchants, chieftains and overseas traders, rich and poor. Loose tribal groupings of the Brigantes controlled much of northern 

Britain including the Turton area when the Romans slowly occupied England after the 42 AD landings. When they defeated the tribes, to secure their own authority the Romans built forts at strategic points. The fort at Manchester on Castlefield off Deansgate has been the subject of several excavations over the years. The Ribble was an important line of penetration and communication and a fort at Ribchester seems to have been established in the first century about the same date as Manchester. Roads were built from these forts and the one from Manchester to Ribchester passes through Turton where its line along Affetside is today known as Watling Street. Writing in 1883, W Thompson Watkin quotes John Just who had seen the road almost fifty years earlier. John Just had met an old man who told him that in the time of his father many portions of the agger of the Roman road were carted away for drainage and paths to dwellings. To repeated questions 'What was the name of the road?' I was answered 'Wadling Street, its caud Street, fur it wur paved formerly'. In spite of, no doubt, being robbed like this over the centuries, the line of the road has remained generally known. After the long, straight stretch from Redmangate through Affetside to the Bull's Head Inn, the line of the road is lost by Walves reservoir but re-appears to the left of the present highway in a field at Knott's Brow. 

In 1955 the Helmshore Local History Society examined the road at Knott's Brow. It lay only six inches below the ground surface, was 21 feet wide and 2 feet thick at its centre. Beneath a surface layer of gravel were three layers of rough sandstone slabs. In the top layer only were smaller pieces of coarser sandstone. All the road material is of local stone. As a result of this excavation, the road on Knott's Brow is now scheduled and protected as part of the English Heritage. Bolton Archaeogical Society has had various digs on the line of the Roman Road. On a recent dig near Pallet Farm a Roman pot was unearthed which had probably been made in the Chester area. 

Once there, the Roman roads, though for military use, would be of advantage to the local population. Native trackways would soon link into the main road. Turton farmers are likely to have been herdsmen and the Roman tax collectors would tax heads of cattle. Hides would be very important to the Roman army. Jerkins, breeches, tents and boots were all made of leather. Carcasses were needed to feed the soldiers. One of the effects of the Pax Romana which stopped cattle raiding would be the growth of the population of upland herdsmen, and cattle farmers would no doubt do a little private trading as well as pay their tribute to Rome. The Romans were a stimulus and Roman and native lived together to mutual advantage. Most facets of Romanisation were lost in the Dark Ages after the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century. The Roman road remained, falling into disrepair but still the main highway through the Turton district. 

Much about Roman Turton still awaits discovery. Where is the exact line of the Roman road through Edgworth? The long distance between Manchester and Ribchester would have required a staging post for marching soldiers. 

Some historians have cherished the thought that it was in our area and the foundations are below ground still to be discovered. A recent line of thought is about Roman era arable farming which it is suggested was carried on at higher altitudes than today. Pollen analysis will eventually produce evidence, as may aerial photography pinpoint large fields for cattle in Roman times. Questions like these remain to tantalise historians of the next millennium.

Plan of Stone Circle
on Chetham Close, near Bolton