In common with much of Britain, the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic is poorly documented in the region. There are intriguing hints of late Mesolithic cereal cultivation from Merseyside and Northern Ireland. These may point both to the early adoption of arable farming and to the importance of the Irish Sea as a route for transmitting innovations. Nevertheless, this early agriculture did not include the full 'Neolithic toolkit’ of polished stone tools, pottery and ritual monuments.
However, following the introduction of full-scale farming towards the end of the fifth millennium BC, these large ritual monuments began to be constructed, perhaps to legitimise claims to areas of land. In some places, such as at Farndon in the Dee Valley and Sutton Weaver, south of Runcorn, evidence is beginning to accumulate for concentrations of such monuments. Their date range runs from the Neolithic to the later Bronze Age (c 4300 to 1250 BC). This suggests continuity not only of land use but also of social practice over huge spans of time.
Cheshire has few of the impressive monuments such as long barrows, cursus and causewayed enclosures that characterise the earlier Neolithic of other areas. The Bridestones near Congleton are the denuded remains of the county’s only known chambered tomb, a typically early Neolithic form of communal burial. There is also a possible earthen long barrow at Somerford, although this has not been tested by excavation. There are no certain upstanding monuments or permanent settlements of the period in the District. Most of the evidence – as with the earlier periods – comes from flint scatters and other stray finds.
One possible site has been identified from aerial photographs in Farndon, where there is a subrectangular ditched enclosure within a larger rectangular enclosure and associated with pits. Parallels for this class of monument suggest that it may have been an early Neolithic mortuary enclosure, a site where corpses were exposed to reduce the body to bones. They had internal timber structures in which the burials were deposited and are the precursors of earthen long barrows and chambered tombs and date from the centuries before 4000 BC. A second site has been discovered a short distance to the northeast, in Churton-by-Farndon.
A possible earthen long barrow has also been identified at Wervin. Although Cheshire is outside the known distribution of these monuments, the form, location and alignment of the mound conform exactly to the type known as a short long barrow. This identification would be strengthened if the possible barrow at Somerford Booths can be shown to be Neolithic. Only excavation will confirm this.
The remaining evidence for the period is derived almost entirely from the find spots of flint tools and stone axes. There are flint scatters of Neolithic date from Hockenhull, Mouldsworth and Willington. Two separate collections from either side of a small brook have been found between Tarvin and Oscroft. Several of the lithics from Carden appear to be Neolithic in form. Axes have been found in Ashton, Barrow, Carden, Guilden Sutton, Tiverton and Newton-by-Malpas (although the latter is of doubtful provenance and date). Sherds from a bowl in the Grimston-Lyles Hill tradition were found incorporated into the defences of the Roman fortress at Chester. Flints of earlier Neolithic date have been found on excavations throughout the city, suggesting that the site was well used by early farmers.
Environment and economy
The Elm Decline, which has often been associated with the beginnings of woodland clearance for agriculture, is dated 3990-3640 Cal BC at Red Moss and 4034-3790 Cal BC at Meols. It is seen in Cheshire sites at Dane’s Moss and Wybunbury Moss. It probably also corresponds to a band of macroscopic charcoal at Lindow Moss, dated 3970-3640 Cal BC. Although it is now believed that the causes of the Elm Decline were multiple and complex, it nevertheless frequently occurs at the same time as the first occurrence of cereal pollens in the sequence. This probably means that the adoption of farming began in the region early in the fourth millennium.
It is now known that farming did not immediately and completely replace hunting and gathering. For many communities, both forms of food acquisition remained important throughout the fourth millennium, although there was probably an increasing reliance on farming as time passed. It has been suggested that on the Wirral, the earlier Neolithic land use differed little from that of the later Mesolithic. This consisted of small-scale and temporary woodland clearances by communities with medium-term mobility.
During the second half of the fourth millennium, the climate of northwest England seems to have become drier. This is likely to have made more land available for agriculture by lowering the water table. This would have enabled the colonisation of low-lying formerly wet areas such as the Dee and Gowy valleys as well as permitting arable farming on higher ground.