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Left Mike Emery and colleagues pause inside a reconstructed timber henge formed of silver-birch trunks at Poulton in Cheshire. Having set out to find a lost Cistercian abbey – still lost – they now find themselves excavating a Bronze Age ritual landscape.

Opposite Bottom Left Aerial photograph taken by Hilary Kirk and Peter Hughes showing the Bronze Age site, including the henge, under excavation.

Opposite Bottom Right The reconstructed henge.

Right The Poulton site is on low-lying marginal land formed of glutinous ‘stagnogleys’ overlying sandstone – characteristics that preclude crop-marks and plough-scatters, leaving prehistoric remains shrouded in secrecy.

The focus of the Poulton Research Project has always been on finding the Cistercian abbey that we know was founded in the area in 1153. That search continues more than ten years after the project was set up. Despite it being the subject of a recent Time Team intervention, there is still no sign of the abbey. Instead, in layer upon layer of archaeology, we have found evidence of past activity stretching back thousands of years. We have a 17th century farmhouse, a medieval hall, a monastic grange, a medieval chapel with 300 graves, and a Roman presence represented by a road and a mass of potsherds, glass fragments, coins, brooches, and broken tiles bearing the stamp of the Twentieth Legion. What has really galvanised the project in the last four years, however, has been evidence for substantial and long-lasting prehistoric activity.

The Bronze Age is the most productive period in prehistory for sites and monuments in north-east Wales. There are settlements, field systems, and burial sites. The area has a dense concentration of stone circles, standing stones, and a variety of barrows and cairns that invariably contain cremations. Poulton is only 40m from the present-day Welsh border, lying on a slight ridge overlooking the Dee Valley. But the dominant soils are glutinous ‘stagnogleys’ overlying sandstone. Surface wetness is the main problem with this type of soil, so it is ideal for grassland and dairy farming, but makes for poor arable.

Finding Cheshire’s hidden Bronze Age Wet pastures offer few opportunities for locating sites – crop-marks are rare, and field-walking impossible. In this case, even aerial photography is highly restricted due to the proximity of the flight-paths of Manchester and Liverpool airports. Unsurprisingly, therefore, despite the richly varied and dense Bronze Age landscapes of Brenig (Denbighshire) some 50km to the west, the traditional view of Cheshire has been that it was only sparsely populated at this time. It seems highly likely, however, that in many areas the problem is that sites remain undetected. New discoveries at Poulton have begun to alter the traditional view.

In 2001-2002 we undertook a geophysical survey some 80m north of the medieval chapel and graveyard excavations. Despite our rather antiquated resistivity meter, the results hinted at the presence of at least two roughly circular features. When one of these was excavated, it turned out to be Middle-Late Bronze Age ringditch. Not only that, we found ourselves disentangling a sequence of prehistoric layers spanning up to 2,000 years.

Sometime in the later Neolithic (c. 30002300 BC), a timber circle had been constructed, with a ring of silver-birch trunks surrounding a single large central post, probably of oak. The monument was badly damaged – cut by the ring-ditch of the succeeding phase, and by two modern field-drains. No material was found associated with the post-holes – no bone, pot, or worked flint – that might give clues to function.

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