Iron Age Merseyside

view of a field with an oval of slightly darker grass showing the location of an Iron Age enclosure

Aerial photograph of an Iron Age oval ditched enclosure, visible in the centre of the image, near Irby, Wirral

700BC - 43AD

Until recently this period was not represented in the county and only barely known in the rest of the region. However a picture of life during this period has now started to appear. 

It is a significant period in the development of the settlement pattern and human landscape in the region. It was this period that saw the first widespread occurrence of permanent farmsteads in the northwest. With them came the associated agricultural landscape of ditched fields and boundaries. These transformed the British landscape by about 300 BC.

In north west England however, these sites are very difficult to locate. Sometimes the typical form of the farmstead, often contained within an encircling oval or sub-rectangular ditch, can be recognised from the air. If ground conditions are not good for aerial photography, which is often the case, or the farmstead was not enclosed by a ditch, then other methods are necessary. Unfortunately, metalwork is very rare on these sites and neither does pottery appear to have been used much. This makes it very difficult to find them by fieldwalking surveys. However, as local archaeologists become more experienced at spotting the traces left by these sites, more are being found.

National Museum Liverpool has excavated three significant Iron Age sites:

  • Brook House Farm at Halewood, Liverpool, which was located through aerial photography
  • Lathom, in West Lancashire, found when a gas pipeline cut through a Roman site
  • Irby, on the Wirral, where Roman pottery was reported coming from the site owner's back garden.
Aerial view of fields showing a wide path of recently dug land where a pipeline was laid

The gas pipeline from Kirkham to Ormskirk as it cut through Lathom

Similar farmstead sites have recently been excavated by other archaeological organisations in the region. These include Great Woolden in Cheshire, near Urmston, a site near Stapleford, in Cheshire and a site at Mellor near Stockport.

There are a few defended, hill-fort type sites in the region. In general this type of site is not very common, unlike north Wales and the mid-Welsh borders with England. In north-central Cheshire they are found approximately between Frodsham and Bickerton. The only extensively excavated example, however, is at Beeston. In Lancashire, only two smaller examples are known, near Whalley and near Nelson, although these resemble the site at Mellor more than they do the Cheshire hill-forts.

Virtually all the excavated farmstead sites have Roman evidence on them as well. This shows one cannot make sharp distinctions between the archaeological terms Iron Age and Roman period. Even though Britain became part of the Roman empire, starting with the Emperor Claudius' invasion of 43 AD, life in the north west would hardly have changed for several decades. Native farmers in the countryside only slowly assimilated Roman customs and culture. Outside legionary fortress towns such as Chester and Manchester, few adopted Romanised life to the same extent as in southern England.