Mellor Hillfort

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The ditch at Mellor Hilltop Fort. There is permanent access to view this section of the ditch from a path leading off the church car park.

In the village of Mellor, just outside of Stockport, in the UK, there is an unremarkable and largely featureless hill. What is inside the hill is proving to be of a lot more interest to archaeologists.

Mellor Hilltop is a complex multi-period site approximately six miles south east of the centre of Stockport centred around National Grid Reference SJ 9818 8890. Usually designated as an Iron Age Hill Settlement dated to the around 500 to 1000 BC. The site continued to be occupied through the Romano-British period into Norman times. Excavations have also revealed flints from as far back as Mesolithic times, indicating the use of the site may go back 10,000 years.

Only discovered about ten years ago, crop marks noticed during the drought year of 1995 revealed under the soil, the presence of the deep rock-cut defensive ditch of a Hill Fort. Excavations have taken place annually by the Archaeology Dept. of Manchester University. Some interesting finds have been made including a Bronze Age flint dagger and Iron Age pottery. The core of the site is in a private garden and is not open to the public. However there is year round access to one small section of the excavated ditch. From the footpaths in the area and you can get a good feel of the sense of place and there is a magnificent view from the Churchyard. There is an open day every September for details see the link to the Mellor Archaeological Trust.

So far, the work of Anne Hearle, a team of archaeologists and a few thousand volunteers, have uncovered a surprisingly large Iron Age hillfort, Roman remains and some scattered Stone Age flints (up to 10,000 years old). The hillfort - if that is what it really is - is oddly shaped. It's not round at all, and the surrounding ditch is far too shallow to be defensive.

Inside the hillfort (or whatever it is), there are remains of numerous round houses, pottery shards, and assorted other remnants. Not all are local. Quite a number of finds are likely from up and down the opposite coast of the country. It would appear that this settlement had quite good trading connections with the rest of Britain.

In addition, many of the round houses seem to have either been used for storage or were not permanently occupied, indicating that whilst a segment of the population was settled (guesstimates place it at about 1,500 - which is quite large for the times!), there was a significant migrationary population, too.

To make things more interesting, the one pot they have managed to piece together (and that was an amazing feat, in itself!) is sufficiently unique to the area to make Mellor a Named Site. In other words, this is not just an outgrowth of a known group.

Indeed, there (so far) has been no evidence of any comparable large settlement anywhere in this part of the country.

There are legends (unsubstantiated) of a huge battle between local Brigantes and the Romans, somewhere around the Ludworth Intakes (a short distance away).

What is known is that the Romans occupied the hillfort, though it's not clear what they did there. Roman activity in Manchester and even Stockport is better known. The Romans also built a settlement in Buxton - a remote place in the Peak District that would likely have been linked to Manchester via Mellor. The springs in Buxton a geothermal, and the Romans seem to have made use of this free hot water for their Baths.

After the Romans left, the same site was used by the Saxons, and there still remains a Saxon alter and Saxon baptismal font in the church that now occupies part of the hillfort's site.

The Normans, when they arrived, seem to have burned much of the area to the ground. Exactly why is unclear. Local lore has it that the current-day Mellor Hall is built on the grounds of a Norman fortification. If so, this would have been either inside - or only just outside - the hillfort's outer ditch.

Geographically, things also get fun. Mellor is in a key position for traders coming into and out of the Mersey plains. Indeed, even today, if you're heading from Manchester to the east coast, you may very well take the road leading through Mellor.

Linguistically, there are a few curiosities to ponder. The root of the name "Mellor" is still vague. The best guess so far is a Saxon word for "brown hill" - not very inspiring, given the significant Saxon interest in the area. They obviously saw something beyond it being a hill. It's not even in the peat areas, making "brown" an odd adjective. The Brethonic language likely to have been spoken in the area would have been Cwmbran, which likely lent its name to the Cumbrian area. (Or maybe vice versa.) Either way, there are names in extinct languages within a plausable distance, which means that Mellor may also ultimately derive from an extinct language. Which means that if any writings of any kind (provided they're not Roman or later), they would have incalculable value to linguistic researchers.

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Mellor Heritage Project




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