Stand on the mound on Castle Hill, look northwest, and you will see a very different scene to 150 years ago. The flats and retail outlets visible through the gaps in the trees were built after the closure of Riversway Dockland in 1981. The dock closed after only 100 years of use, having been constructed during the 1880s. During its construction the Ribble was moved several hundred yards south.
Beforehand you would have been looking out across the fields of Marsh Farm and Marsh Grange toward Penwortham Marsh, the distant Ribble, and across it Preston Marsh and the settlement at Marsh End. This landscape, in turn, would have been different to 400 years ago before the marsh was drained.
Since the melting of the glaciers after the Ice Age the tidal stretches beside the Ribble would always have been marsh. Archaeological evidence suggests people have inhabited this area since, at least, 3800BC.
The excavations for Riversway Dockland uncovered evidence of a wooden lake dwelling. A ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’, a bronze spear head, two dug-out canoes, 23 human skulls, 21 aurochs skulls with horns, 25 red deer skulls with antlers, and bones of wild horse which showed evidence of ‘chop marks’ and gnawing ‘by a large, dog-sized predator’.
John Lamb lists the Preston Docks Findspot as SD12296, meaning it would have been in the northwest of the present dock area, adjacent to the roundabout. Turner et al note that ‘remains were found at various points in the total area excavated’ including ‘two human crania found close to Castle Hill on the south side of the river’.
For many years it was the consensus that the human skulls provided evidence of human sacrifice – perhaps a mass murder. In 2002 eight skulls were selected for radio-carbon dating. It turned out that five were Stone Age, one Bronze Age, one from the Romano-British period and one from Anglo-Saxon times.
The latest theory, put forward by Dr Michael Wysocki, is that these people were not sacrificed on Penwortham Marsh. Instead they entered the river system miles away. Their heads settled at a slow-flowing point in the Ribble, a tidal lake, and their bodies floated out to sea. Likewise with the animals. Yet the large number of Stone Age skulls suggests that Neolithic people used the river to dispose of their dead. Even accepting this theory I believe it possible some of the human and animal skulls may have belonged to the lake-dwellers and been deposited in the Ribble in ritual acts.
The carbon dated skulls provide a sample of people who dwelled by the Ribble from between 4000BC – 800AD. The oldest skull, of a ‘mature woman’, is dated to 3820 – 3640 BC. ‘Pitting in the orbit of her left eye’ suggests she ‘suffered from anaemia’. Another, dated to around 3,500 BC, belonged to a man of around 40.
Two of the Stone Age skulls show evidence of violent deaths. An ‘older man’ was killed with a stone axe. The skull of a young woman, dated 3710 – 3510 BC, shows ‘clear evidence of trauma to the right and back of her skull’. This surprised me as I’d thought of Stone Age hunter-gatherers as peaceful people.
Yet it would accord with Roman depictions of the people of Briton and Gaul as savage head-hunters and with poems recording the internecine warfare and raiding that took place in post-Roman Britain. (Notably the northern British bard, Taliesin, describes warriors playing football with the heads of their enemies!). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the root of Setantii set- derives from met- ‘reaping’. In medieval Welsh literature we find a tradition of warriors favouring lethal blows to the head*.
The Romano-British skull is small with ‘distinctive male eyebrow ridges’. It is unclear whether its owner was male or female, Roman or British. However, he or she was killed by ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’ I wonder if she was killed in the Roman invasion. A Roman ballista ball was found on Castle Hill, suggesting there was a battle there.
The owner of the skull from the Anglo-Saxon period, a female aged between 16 and 25, also died violently. There is evidence of a cut across her face, damaging her right eye, and a lethal blow to the head. Again it seems possible this woman was killed during the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.
The dock finds show our local lake-dwellers were fearsome warriors and hunters who travelled the Ribble in dug-out canoes and preyed on aurochs, red deer, and and wild horse. After eating them they probably skinned them and used their skins for clothing. Oddly ‘the carbon 13 readings show that their diet consisted of meat and vegetables – but no fish, despite being found near a river’. This fits with the 3rd century Roman writer Dion Cassius’ report: ‘They never cultivate the land, but live on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees; for they never touch fish, of which they have such prodigious plenty’.
It seems very strange that these people did not eat fish when they were plentiful in the Ribble. I wonder whether this is because it was used to dispose of the dead and to eat from it was seen as taboo. We know from the Roman geographer Ptolemy’s writings in the 2nd century that the Ribble was known as Belisama ‘Most Mighty One’ or ‘Most Shining One’ and was seen as a powerful goddess. Maybe fish were held as sacred to her and ‘totemic’ to the lake-dwellers and were not to be eaten.
Setanta, an Irish hero who may have been of Setantii origins, was later renamed Cu Chulainn (meaning Chullain’s hound). The dog was sacred to him and he was banned from eating dog meat. Breaking this geis led to his death. Perhaps the the lake-dwellers saw fish in a similar manner.
Upriver, between the docks and Castle Hill, on the former site of the Ribble Generating Station stands a ring of wooden carvings – a common darter dragonfly, a brown trout, an otter, a smooth newt (which has been stolen!), and a tawny owl. These creatures have likely inhabited the area since the Stone Age and would have been held as special beings to the lake-dwellers too. I wonder if they recall their stories?
*‘he (Geraint)… raised his sword and struck the knight on the top of the head his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls to his knees.’ (Geraint son of Erbin)
‘Peredur drew his sword and struck the witch on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two.’ (Peredur son of Efrog)
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
Alan Turner, Silvia Gonzalez and James C. Ohman, Journal of Archaeological Science, ‘Prehistoric Human and Ungulate Remains from Preston Docks, Lancashire, UK: Problems of River Finds’ (2002)
John Lamb, ‘Lancashire’s Prehistoric Past’, Linda Sever (ed), Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, (2010, History Press)
Meirion Pennar, Taliesin Poems, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1988)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum, Preston (with thanks to the Harris for the information and permission to use the photographs of the Riversaway Dockfinds in this blog posts).