The Middle Bronze Age (c 1800-1200 BC)
In southwestern Britain, the Middle Bronze Age is characterised by the extraordinarily rich graves of the so-called Wessex Cultures. Elsewhere we see less evidence for human activity except in stray finds of metalwork and burials. The copper mines at Great Orme and Alderley Edge, which had probably been established in the Early Bronze Age, were flourishing at this time and probably led to a shift in wealth away from southern England towards the north-west. This is one of the few periods when the region has been economically dominant in Britain.
After about 1400 BC, fewer burials were deposited with grave goods and, outside south-west England, the practice of constructing new mounds ceased (although secondary burials continued to be inserted into existing barrows). Flat cremation cemeteries (known as urnfields) became the norm, making them more difficult to identify. On the other hand, settlements of this period are more easily located, as they tend to consist of enclosures.
Evidence for this period in the region is typically sparse and consists largely of stray finds without context. There are palstaves from Chester and Huntington. A hoard (consisting of a chisel, two looped palstaves and a basal looped spearhead) from Broxton belongs to the Acton Park tradition (c 1500-1300 BC), and there is a late socketed axe/palstave from Coddington. Another hoard was found at Hampton or Egerton, containing two gold spiral armlets. A burial described from Kelsall is not fully published, but appears to have consisted of a cremation placed inside a collared urn buried in the middle of a stone ring. It is not altogether clear if this was the kerb of a destroyed barrow or a plain stone setting: both forms are known in the region (at Church Lawton, Grappenhall, Delamere and Wincle).
Finds of metalworking debris beneath the ramparts at Beeston Castle are nationally important evidence for bronze production at this time. The excavations there in the 1980s located a bronze-working hearth together with crucible and mould fragments. The associated metalwork was of the Ewart Park phase (c 800-700 BC), but metalworking may have begun at the site much earlier. The source of copper was perhaps the vein that runs along the eastern side of the mid Cheshire ridge. Mines at Bickerton were commercially exploited during the nineteenth century, and it is possible that mines were located nearby in the prehistoric period. Although there is no direct evidence yet for prehistoric mining in the area, there is well-known Bronze Age mining in the region at Alderley Edge and the Great Orme (Llandudno).
Some of the oval enclosures that have been identified in Cheshire probably originate at this time. The partially excavated Romano-British farmstead at Irby (Wirral) produced evidence for prehistoric activity, including Bronze Age pottery. The oval enclosure at High Legh, southeast of Warrington, also produced Bronze Age flintwork during fieldwalking.
Environment and economy
During this period, the climate began to deteriorate, leading to the abandonment of the east Cheshire uplands and the establishment of blanket mosses on previously cultivated land. In lowland areas, such as west Cheshire, there will have been a consequent rising of the water table. It is perhaps significant that nothing of certainly second-millennium date has been identified in the low-lying ritual landscape north of Farndon, which may have been abandoned as a result of these climatic changes.
The Late Bronze and Iron Ages (c 1200 BC-AD c 60)
Around 1200 BC there was a major change in virtually every aspect of life in Bronze Age Britain, although the enclosed farmstead remains the commonest form of settlement. The upland regions, which had been intensively occupied during the climatic optimum of the Earlier Bronze Age, were now abandoned. Burials virtually disappear from the archaeological record, having been the most common form of Earlier Bronze Age site. Small hilltop enclosures are found, consisting of a double ring of ditches. Larger hilltop enclosures (generally known as hillforts) were also first constructed in this period. The site at Beeston Castle is one of the very few such sites that can be shown to have been constructed before about 1000 BC.
This period in Cheshire is known primarily from the hilltop enclosures situated on the Mid Cheshire Ridge. Beeston is a unique topographical feature with obvious defensive advantages. The line of the outer bailey of the medieval castle follows the prehistoric rampart, which originated before 1000 BC as a palisade. It was later strengthened to create the formidable rampart on which the medieval outer bailey wall now sits. Although cereal grains from the site have been dated to the Iron Age, the nature of the stratigraphy made it impossible to assign structures with any certainty to this period. The primary ditch at Maiden Castle, Bickerton, is dated to the middle of the fifth century. All the hillforts of the ridge appear to belong to the Early and Middle Iron Ages and to have been abandoned by about 350 BC.
On the northern end of the Longley Ridge in Kelsall, slight earthworks discovered by aerial photography are probably the boundaries of a 'Celtic' field system. Such fields cannot be closely dated, and it is possible that they are earlier or even considerably later in date. Single finds of stone spindle whorls of Iron Age or Romano-British type have been made in Ashton and Barrow. A fragment of a quernstone from Tarvin is of similar date.
Apart from the so-called Very Coarse Pottery of Iron Age date, very little late prehistoric pottery has been identified in the region. One sherd among the prehistoric pottery from the Roman ramparts at Abbey Green, Chester, was of VCP. At Beeston, excavation revealed substantial quantities of VCP together with a little other Iron Age pottery of uncertain affinities. Although these are the only finds of apparently domestic pottery from the District, it now seems likely that the Iron Age was not completely aceramic, as has previously been thought.
Very Coarse Pottery has been associated with salt production at Droitwich and in Cheshire, although no single site has yet been established for the activity in the county. Recent observations at Coppenhall (near Crewe) have found VCP close to Romano-British salt production, and a silver coin of the Corieltauvi has been identified at Brindley, near Nantwich, which may point to long-distance trade. It is probable that the industry was as widespread in the Iron Age as in later periods. At this early date it would have used the natural brine springs found predominantly in the south of the county. It has been suggested that the salt industry at Droitwich was the focus for ceramic exchange, and it is likely that the exchange included other types of goods. This probably also occurred in Cheshire and the exotic coins are probably evidence for external contacts. It is less likely, though, that the prestige and traded goods found at Meols on the northern tip of the Wirral peninsula derive solely from this trade.
The hilltop enclosures may be evidence that western Cheshire had already been partitioned into estates by the middle of the first millennium, with élites controlling long-distance trade, perhaps largely based around the distribution of Cheshire salt. It is also probable that a network of small farmsteads and some larger settlements had long been established within a substantially cleared landscape by the end of the Iron Age (the earlier first century AD). The sites excavated at Irby, Brookhouse Farm (Bruen Stapleford) and Great Woolden Hall (in Merseyside and Greater Manchester respectively) each produced evidence for Iron Age activity.
Environment and economy
Environmental evidence from pollen cores shows that major woodland clearance began late in the second millennium BC, probably for cereal cultivation. This seems to have continued throughout the first millennium, so that by the time of the Roman invasion in the first century AD, there was little woodland left.