Mesolithic Marsden

Early Mesolithic Marsden illustration Jon-Prudhoe
Envisaged scene from the Early Mesolithic in Marsden.Illustration by Jon Prudhoe. (the cover of ‘Prehistoric people of the Pennines’: Penny Spikins)

Overview of Mesolithic Marsden

This page provides some ‘lay’ information about Marsden’s known links to the Mesolithic (‘middle stone age’) period. I mention March Hill and the Mesolithic period in some of this site’s blog posts (an area I became interested in after many a walk in that area). And Marsden Walkers are Welcome, which I was one of the steering team for, created a walk in 2020 that takes in March Hill and mentions the Mesolithic links to the hill and surrounding moor. So this page was created from those catalysts.

Academic papers linked to the Mesolithic period in Marsden

Academic papers have been written about March Hill and Marsden’s links to the Mesolithic, I can’t hope to summarise all the research but hopefully can provide a flavour of what is known about the Mesolithic in this corner of the world.

The Mesolithic period runs from after the last ice age in Britain – from approximately 9500 ‘BP’ up to approximately 5500 BP. ‘BP’ is Before Present (or rather, since 1950, for reasons you can check out elsewhere). It is divided further into Early, Late and ‘Terminal’ Mesolithic. In very rough terms, the Terminal period is when the nomadic Hunter-Gatherer way of life waned and the farming / settled way of life emerged. Books have been written about the transition from Meso- to Neo-lithic times, so that’s not for here.

Broadly speaking, the ‘Mesolithic’ is not a homogeneous ‘lump’ of static time. Changes occured in the fauna and flora of March Hill over that 4000 year span. As well as changes in how people lived, what they believed, what tools they used, how they knapped flint etc. 

After the ice age, people returned from the warmer ‘refuge’ areas of Europe (for example Iberia) to what was to become Britain. They were hunter-gathers and fisher folk and physiologically and cognitively were no different to us (note: that’s an untested lay person view from general reading. Culturally, Ethnographically different I’m sure.. but not physical).

Flint finds and fire pits on March Hill

People have been investigating small chipped stone tools (flints) and ancient fire pits on March Hill for a century or more.

Flint nodules/cobbles (from which small flakes are knapped – to form ‘microliths’) don’t occur naturally in Marsden or the surrounding areas, they would have been carried in (in leather pouches/bags) from the Yorkshire Coast or Lincolnshire.
And maybe further afield – I grew up in the chalklands of Buckinghamshire and I know the Chiltern hills are riddled with flint, perhaps some were traded from there too (that’s speculation by me). 

Mesolithic Scrapers
Five mesolithic scrapers. You can see how small these knapped tools / scrapers are.

(Image via Creative commons : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:777_Five_Mesolithic_scrappers_(FindID_114977).jpg)

There has been a lot of investigations – both amateur and professional / academic – in the March Hill area over the years. And on the nearby plateau ‘Lominot’, on Warcock near Pule Hill and up at Cupwith.

Some of the research goes back to the late 1880s and into the early 1900s with both renowned Saddleworth Poet Ammon Wrigley and George Marsden – another local poet and an inventor. Both coincidentally included in the Marsden Poetry trail. More digging and research continued in the 1920s to 1940s with the investigations of Francis Buckley and later on with the work of Dr Pat Stonehouse.

And then in the late 1990s there was extensive fieldwork undertaken by West Yorkshire Archeological Services. That research was directed and then published by Dr Penny Spikins and can be read in the excellent ‘Prehistoric people of the Pennines‘.

I have added some external references below, all far more rigorous than the lay information I can offer here. But I hope this page provides at least a clear overview.

As a final note: March Hill is on part of the National Trust estate and no unauthorised digging is allowed (or anywhere else on Marsden Moor). Walk up the hill, sit where others did millennia ago and look out for some of the things they would have seen – the Raptors, Corvids, Hare and even Deer (very occasionally spotted, from personal experience, as the valleys are re-wilded and re-wooded). But don’t go digging.

Further reading on the Mesolithic

When the last fires were put out“: ethnographic analogy and the symbolic use of fire in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. (includes information about the fire pits on March Hill).
Penny Spikins.

Prehistoric People of The Pennines. This large-format book is packed full of detail about mesolithic investigations in the March Hill area.
by Penny Spikins.

Lithics to Landscapes: Hunter-Gatherer tool use, resource exploitation, and mobility during the Mesolithic of the Central Pennines.
Paul Preston 2011/2012. 

An overview of recent research on the lithic (flint) scatters in the Central Pennine area.
Paul Preston 2013.

Britain Begins – a great book by Barry Cunliffe

Some additional historical notes from Andy Hemingway’s excellent photography blog: 

References to March Hill in a wider paper around the public perception of the Mesolithic: “The Meso-what?” : 

Allied moorland mesolithic research in North Yorkshire. And a great page with various curated videos all about the Mesolithic.

Francis Buckley, an important figure in the early archaeological study of March Hill.From the article linked above: “From the 1920s to the 1940s, Buckley collected tens of thousands of artefacts, mainly near his Pennines home, but also in Northumberland where his wife Bebba’s family lived (Brewis and Buckley 1928). His notebooks indicate that from one site, March Hill on Marsden Moor, over three years (1920–23) he recovered around 6,868 surface-finds, and excavated a further 1,159 lithics”

A video overview of the Mesolithic in Britain in 5 minutes: I was initially put off by the ‘shuffling cave dweller’ trope at the start of this short film but it is actually informative.

Star Carr – a Yorkshire Mesolithic site:
A similar (as in post-ice age) time frame to the March Hill activity and with lots of academic insight into the world of northern England’s hunter-gatherers. I took this online course and would really recommend it if your interest in the Mesolithic has been piqued.
A joint venture between the University of York and Future Learn.

The Tolson Museum in Huddersfield has a large amount of research material and finds in its collections, donated principally by Francis Buckley, Pat Stonehouse and EV Darby (whose family were involved in maintaining the reservoirs around Marsden and had collected a lot of lithic materials)

A comprehensive round-up of the published resources and physical materials and collections held in relation to the Mesolithic (as well as Palaeolithic) period across West Yorkshire carried out by Jason Dodds during 2015. [NOTE the link will download a pdf] 

A summary from (I believe) a National Trust report focussing on March Hill and remarking that in the 1880s, flints/ lithics could be found almost wherever you started to look on March Hill. I think from wider reading that thousands of flint knapping shards as well occasional recognisable tools / blades must have been removed (and were not always well documented, so not a great help for later professional archaeologists and researchers):

Ammon Wrigley publication from 1911 – an OCR version so it takes some ‘deciphering’ in places but interesting to read and note the historical context of flint finding in the Marsden / Saddleworth area. 

Flint Tools Resource Page from the Watershed Landscape website, related to neighbouring Castleshaw Valley.