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Alderley Edge is an irregularly shaped sandstone outcrop that rises to heights of between 100m and 180m out of the flat Cheshire Plain, some 15 miles south of Manchester and 6

miles north-west of Macclesfield. The sandstone acted as a trap for hot mineral-rich solutions rising up from deep within the earth around 205 to 175 million years ago. Copper and lead-bearing minerals precipitated on the surfaces of the sandstone and within the numerous fractures and faults.

Between 400,000 and 12,000 years ago, Britain was exposed to six waves of glaciation. As the sheets of ice and meltwater flowed around Alderley Edge, mineral veins within the sandstone were exposed, and clay, sand, gravel, and erratic boulders were deposited against the sides of the ridge. Mixed in with this glacial till were the nodules of flint, chert, and the finegrained volcanic rocks that Mesolithic hunters probably found in the beds of local rivers and streams and fashioned into knives, scrapers, and microliths for use as arrowheads. Tools and knapping debris have been found in significant quantities around Castle Rock, which commands the best views over the plain; dating from around 8400 to 4000 BC, they are the first evidence for human activity in this landscape.

Analysis of the chert (a silica-rich sedimentary rock that is less fine-grained than flint) found some samples that could not be matched to local glacial erratics. One grey/black variety has been matched to the Sheldon area of Derbyshire, raising the possibility that, even at this early date, Mesolithic people ranged over a wide territory, and had contacts that stretched some distance across northern England. For their tools and weapons, they did not just use locally available material, but were prepared to trade and carry with them the best and most attractive raw materials.

PPOSITE PAGE Beneath the apparently solid ground of Alderley Edge are the remains of centuries of mining activity, including Roman, medieval, and more recent workings, including West Mine, here seen cleared of debris and opened up for exploration by the Derbyshire Caving Club.

below Mesolithic micr oliths of flint and chert from Castle Rock.

below Alan Garner’s Alderley Edge shovel, once thought to be a Victorian child’s toy, but later radiocarbon dated to 1750 BC.

| Issue 315

| Issue 315

A ‘child’s toy spade’?

It is perfectly possible, though not proven, that Mesolithic people were aware of the mineral outcrops in the sandstone of the Edge, and that they could have used them as body pigment or as paint, but it is in the Bronze Age that we find the first evidence for systematic mining (the evidence for Neolithic activity on Alderley Edge is at best sparse). The intriguing story of how the earliest mines were dated to the Bronze Age was told in CA 137. It began with the local author Alan Garner, whose first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, is imbued with the landscape and folklore of Alderley Edge (CA 238). Garner sought to uncover the true age of a wooden shovel that he had been given as a schoolboy in 1953 by the headmistress of the Alderley Edge Council School, and that he subsequently carried with him everywhere – through National Service and his studies at Oxford.

Experts at the Ashmolean Museum said it was a ‘child’s toy spade: Victorian’; the British Museum thought it slightly older: ‘possibly a Tudor winnowing fan; possibly a peat-cutter’s spade – no older than medieval’. Forty years on, Alan found a more sympathetic archaeologist – John Prag, then Keeper of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum – who sent it for radiocarbon dating. The results showed that the shovel dated from

: Manc hester Museu m

IMAGES | current archaeology


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