Ancient history of Mellor

Ancient history of Mellor

The ancient history of the village of Mellor and surrounding hamlets in Greater Manchester, England is still shrouded in considerable mystery and the excavations have so far done more to add to the puzzlement than dispel it.


Previously known ancient history

It has long been known that Mellor dates back to Saxon and Medieval times - the local church of St. Thomas has the oldest-known pulpit in Britain and quite possibly beyond, dating back to 1330 or 1340. Carved from a single oak trunk, it is astonishing in its elegance and durability. The baptismal font, carved from local gritstone, dates back to the pre-Norman era. Recent research, however, indicates that the settlement of Mellor is actually far older. Although nearby villages and hamlets sport round barrows and standing stones, it had been thought that the site of Mellor itself had been unoccupied. As such it was quite a surprise to locals when, during a particularly severe drout, evidence of a truly ancient settlement started to be uncovered.

Myths and legends

Legends of ancient battles and rebellions exist but the supposed sites of these events have not been excavated and so there is no firm evidence at this time for them having occurred. Legends of gold in a round barrow near Mellor led the Bishop of Disley to ransack the tomb in the 1800s, but local history describes nothing of value being found.

One of the older legends speaks of a Celtic chieftain asking his druids how to defeat the Romans who are approaching. He is told that he must sacrifice his eldest daughter. This he did at the site known as the Druid Stones (now known as the Robin Hood Picking Rods), at the time and in the manner demanded by the Druids. Together with anyone who could carry a spear or sword, he massed his forces at the top of a nearby hill (usually assumed to be the hill known as the Ludworth Intakes). The battle was long and fierce, but in the end the chieftain was dead and his people defeated. Depending on the version of the legend, he's either buried under the cairn at the very top of Ludworth Intakes, or in the round barrow slightly to the south of that. (The round barrow is marked on maps and on archaeological websites as Brown Low.)

Another legend refers to the Druid Stones being renamed Robin Hood Picking Rods due to Robin Hood shooting at them from an astonishing distance, chipping one of the stones as he did so.

Origin of the name

The origin of the word "Mellor" is uncertain. In one Celtic dialect, the term would translate to "the bare (or rounded) hill". This creates a number of problems. The hill is most certainly not bare (it has always had wooded sections) and is a ridge, so is definitely not round.

Another problem is that we do not know the age of the name and so cannot identify which dialect would have been used. If the name arose during or after the Roman Occupation, the dialect spoken in this region may well have been "Cwmbran" (or Cumbric), a dialect of Brythonic that is now extinct and may have had a different meaning attached. This is not unusual in the Brythonic family of Celtic languages, of which Welsh, Cornish and Breton are the three surviving forms. These fragmented from the original Brythonic through isolation and from borrowing words and ideas from the languages imported by the Romans. Very few Roman soldiers were actually from Rome, so many could speak languages other than Latin.

If, however, the name pre-dates Roman times but post-dates the Iron Age settlement, the original Brythonic language would have been in use - although, as the finds indicate that they traded extensively, there is room for speculation even on something so basic.

There are other possibilities, however. The name may post-date the Romans. The name "Mellor" does not appear in the Norman-era Domesday Book, although the neighboring town of Ludworth (recorded as Lodeuorde) is listed. This opens up the interesting possibility that Lodeuorde originally included Mellor and that they split into two distinct areas at a later date.

The Celts were well known for not writing things down (with a few exceptions in the far northwest of England and parts of Scotland), but the Romans and Saxons certainly did make fairly extensive records at times. None have been found in the areas excavated to date. In the absence of any such writings, the origin of the name cannot be established. There are simply too many possibilities and insufficient evidence to assert one over another.

Archaeological timeline

Archaeologists excavating in Mellor have uncovered evidence of a sizable settlement from around 400 BC, but a large number of finds have dated back as far as 10,000 BC, indicating much more ancient inhabitants. Finds now span from early Mesolithic times until the 13th or 14th centuries with no evidence of a sustained break.

Mesolithic and Neolithic eras

There was activity in Mellor from the early Mesolithic, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when there is evidence to suggest a knapping site or seasonal camp. Nearly 200 stone artefacts have been recovered, mainly from the area south west of the old vicarage. The discoveries indicate a focus of activity on the hill in Mellor (gbmapping|SJ98188890) and repeated use of the site. [Nevell and Redhead (2005), p. 20.]

Stone tools have also been found on the Mellor hilltop site that date from Neolithic times.

Nearby Sites

There are a few Neolithic artifacts in the immediate area which appear to be linked to activity on the Mellor hilltop. These are:
* Chisworth Cupmarked stone

Mellor hillfort, the Bronze Age and Iron Age

There is substantial evidence of a settlement existing in Mellor during the Bronze Age, but the extent of Bronze Age occupation is less clear than it is for the Iron age.

The Iron Age settlement is believed to have held between 2,000 and 4,000 individuals in a large number of roundhouses. Although the houses themselves have long since rotted away, there are very clear signs of postholes that would have supported the houses and drainage ditches around the larger houses.

There is also a perimeter ditch. This would probably not have been defensive in nature, as it is neither deep nor wide. Nor is there any clear evidence at this time of an earth bank on either side of the ditch, although there are some signs of a double-layer stone wall on the outside of excavated sections. Interestingly, some of the houses seem to have been built across the ditch, suggesting that the settlement changed shape over the time it was occupied.

Although there is no clear evidence of any defensive structures or fortifications, the settlement is nonetheless classified by archaeologists as a hill fort for reasons of convention, although it is now more often referred to as a hill settlement.

Artifacts discovered on the site itself from this period include large numbers of fire-cracked pebbles, pottery sherds and the remains of crucibles used for producing bronze items.

Nearby Sites

Sites near to Mellor that are believed to have been associated with the Mellor hilltop settlement during the Bronze Age and Iron Age are as follows:
* Brown Low
* Ludworth Intakes
* Shaw Cairn

Roman occupation

At this time, not much is known about the Roman occupation of Mellor. Jewelry and coins from the Roman times indicate someone of significant status lived in Mellor. This may have been a trader, as Mellor is within walking distance of the Pennine Way, which was used by the Roman army to transport men and goods from Londinium to their northern outposts and Hadrian's Wall.

There is now substantial evidence of manufacturing center in Mellor for pottery, although the site of manufacture itself has not yet been discovered. It is unclear if the person of significant status was linked to the pottery manufacture, as no houses or other Roman structures have been located.

So far, the evidence is suggestive of Romano-British natives, with nothing to indicate a Roman military presence, however a Roman hillfort may well have been located outside of the area so far excavated.

Nearby Sites

There are mentions of a nearby Roman signal post, but there is no clear location identified for it. Legends also talk of a battle between the Iron Age inhabitants and the Romans somewhere near the Ludworth Intakes.

The Saxon era and the Dark Ages

For reasons that are yet to be uncovered, the Saxons built a church at the southern-most end of the Iron Age settlement some time in the 7th or 8th centuries. The church was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt, possibly several times. However, the font and the altar survived intact and are still in use today. Geophysical surveys, carried out after part of the building subsided unexpectedly, indicate the church straddles a filled-in portion of the inner ditch. So far, not much from Saxon times has been discovered by the archaeological excavations.

Of the other marauders and invaders associated with the Dark Ages, such as the Angles, Jutes, Norse and Danes, no evidence has been found.

Nearby Sites

There are nearby sites which appear linked to Saxon activity in Mellor. These include:
* Robin Hood's Picking Rods
* St. Thomas' Church - although much of the existing structure is Victorian, with a Norman-era bell tower, the baptismal font and oak pulpit are Saxon.

The Norman conquest

Again, little is known for certain. The Domesday Book does not record the name of Mellor (although it does list Ludworth, a neighboring town) and suggests that everything in the area had been destroyed to suppress a major rebellion. Nonetheless, it is local lore that Mellor Hall is built on the foundations of the house of a Norman nobleman. At this time, no work at all has been carried out in or around Mellor Hall, making it impossible to know which story is closer to the truth. However, the recent find of a large 13th century Hall near the primary settlement would suggest that a Norman-era house would more likely be located in that area.

Nearby Sites

There are no firmly-established Norman sites other than that on Mellor hilltop (including parts of St. Thomas' Church), although the Domesday Book entry for Ludworth (which included Mellor at that time) mentions several residences for important figures.

The entry for Ludworth is worth mentioning in more detail as it refers to an abbey (which may well have existed on the site of a large collection of church buildings located in Marple Bridge) and a church that it names as the "Church of Hope". It mentions no other religious buildings. The Saxon church in Mellor certainly survived as the bell tower is 11th century, placing it in Norman times. The implication would be that this was the "Church of Hope" identified in the Domesday Book, assuming that if other religious buildings had existed, they would also have been mentioned. Aside from the abbey and the church, the entry also mentions the residences of two Bishops and an Abbot, although it is unclear if these would have been in Mellor or what period they would have dated from.

Mediaeval times

Post pits have been found that indicate that an Aisled Hall existed on the site of the prior settlements. These post pits are between 0.8 and 1.2 metres in diameter. The posts discovered to date have formed a crude rectangle, although two outer posts do not appear to have been made, possibly indicating a building or bay area was attached to one side, although if there was a solarium (an upper chamber found on some aisled halls), there are surviving examples of staircases to the solarium from outside the aisled hall. Normally, buildings were attached to the end of an aisled hall. This would be a common design when attached to a manor house. The lord of the manor would then enter his private section of the hall away from everyone else. Side attachments are less common, but they do exist. As the necessary post pits do not exist - they were never dug - the attachment was present in the original design and was not a later addition.

There have been four parallel rows of post pits excavated so far, averaging about a metre across, with several rows revealing five post pits, with the exceptions already noted. This would produce four equal bays, a design for which there are examples dating to the 12th and 13th centuries. These examples include the aisled halls at Oakham Castle and Farnham Castle, although these designs are primarily composed of stone, not wood. The post pits appear to be crudely dug and crudely positioned, though it is unclear if this is due to the shallow soil and low-grade gritstone, or if some were adaptations of previously-existing post pits for an earlier structure.

Very little more can be said with certainty, particularly as there is such limited information and there are few surviving aisled halls to compare it with.

Objects found within the post pits date to around the 13th century, suggesting that the hall had essentially ceased to exist by this time, although it is also possible that this is when the hall was built and the objects fell into the holes at the time of their construction. In either case, such halls were generally built around the 12th to 13th centuries and the archaeologists seem confident the hall did not exist into the 15th century.

Within the post pits and in the surrounding area, a few mediaeval objects – including iron arrowheads – have been discovered.

Later finds have primarily been pottery fragments.

The oldest existent building still in use in Mellor today dates from the middle of the 17th century. Furthermore, as the hall resided on the old settlement, it is unclear where the bulk of the population had moved to.

By the time of the English Civil War, Marple had become totally dominant in the region. So much so that the Lord of Marple Hall was the first to sign the death warrant of King Charles I.

Discoveries in the field

A great many artifacts, from mesolithic to Elizabethan times, have been found in the excavations at Mellor. Of these, most are fairly ordinary finds for a site of this kind and age, but a few are considered of high significance for one reason or another and worthy of special note.

The Mellor pot

Most of the archaeologists' finds are from the Iron Age, including a nearly-complete clay pot fashioned using a unique design and method. The pot was not found intact, but was in 125 fragments, or sherds. These were found very close to each other. It was only realized they were from the same object by an archaeologist fitting two pieces together and discovering they joined perfectly. Every fragment that could be found was then collected and scanned into a computer. The computer reassembled the pot electronically as a 3D jigsaw. Once the pattern had been determined, the instructions on how to reassemble the real pot were produced. The pot was then rebuilt and carefully glued so as not to damage it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the pot is that the top of the pot was squeezed and pinched into shape by fingertips, giving it a dimped appearance, and the fingerprints of the potter are still clearly visible. The outer surface had been carefully smoothed. X-Rays show the pot to be of uneven quality.

It is worth noting that it is conventional in archaeology to name items after the location the first example of that type of item was discovered. The location is then described as a "Named Site". The discovery of the unique style of pottery has earned Mellor the designation of a "Named Site" and future finds of pottery of that specific type will be referred to as Mellor pottery.

Flint Knives

A nearby cairn has yielded a flint knife, a pendant and the beads of a necklace as grave goods but also flint chippings from earlier knapping activity on the immediate site of the cairn. Although this leaves ample opportunity for speculation, there is little hard evidence connecting the burial goods with the flint knapping activities.

Flint Dagger

A nicely-crafted flint knife dating to Mesolithic times was located in the Mellor settlement. The knife is small but of high quality. Given the timeframe and the workmanship, the archaeological reports are assuming it to have been something ceremonial or marking prestige or high status in some way. One of the archaeologists attached to the dig, Dr. Andrew Myers, is quoted by the Mellor Archaeological Trust as describing it as: "Early Bronze Age 2350-1500BC. A relatively rare form of artefact traditionally associated with the appearance of Beaker pottery in Britain."cite web | title = Bronze Age Flint Dagger | publisher = Mellor Archaeological Trust | url = | accessdate = 2008-08-06]

Other finds

Other finds, so far, include iron arrowheads from the 13th or 14th century, Roman coins and brooches, fragments of pottery and Mesolithic flints - including those listed above and an axe head. Because there is a lot of charcoal present in the soil at the site being investigated, many of the fragments and items can be dated with considerable accuracy using carbon-14 dating. The flints, in particular, are of great interest to the archaeologists as they appear to be from around Scarborough - 120 miles away. This suggests there may have been extensive trade in Mesolithic times over significant distances.


The stone heads

These strange figures can be found above the doorways of some of the older buildings. They are apparently re-used stones obtained from abandoned wells. They are strongly reminiscent of the "severed head" figures that can be found in Yorkshire and elsewhere. The figures in other parts of the country have been generally dated to pre-Roman Celtic Britain. There is no firm agreement as to whether the stone heads in Mellor are of this period or if they are a later reproduction - the Victorians, in particular, delighting in producing replica artifacts.

Celtic "severed heads" in their original setting are usually associated with water in some way - typically streams, springs and wells.




*cite book |author=Nevell, Mike and Redhead, Norman: editiors |year=2005 |title=Mellor: Living on the Edge. A Regional Study of an Iron Age and Romano-British Upland Settlement. |publisher=University of Manchester Archaeological Unit, Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, and the Mellor Archaeological Trust |isbn=0-9527813-6-0

External links

* [ Mellor Archaeological Trust]
* [ Mellor Church and Mellor Hall]
* [ Photographs of the dig at Mellor, and of the Saxon Font and Pulpit]
* [ Archaeological Dig at Mellor Church's Old Vicarage]
* [ Mesolithic Culture]
* [ Images of artifacts discovered in Mellor]
* [ Origin of the name "Mellor"]
* [ Reconstruction of an Iron Age roundhouse]
* [ Yorkshire's Holy Wells and the Severed Head]
* [ Harby Stone Head]
* [ Early Aisled Buildings] - What the hall in Mellor may have looked like
* [ Entry for Lodeuorde (Ludworth) in the Domesday Book]
* [ Robin Hood and the Picking Rods]
* [ Mellor Church] - Near the center of the Iron Age settlement and possibly the site of the Church of Hope
* [ Chemical analysis of crucibles and slag]

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