smithills archaeology

Dean Ditch long barrow
The weather was different at the end of the stone age. It was warmer, perhaps as the south of France is now, and almost perfect for farming. The ancient landscape was different too, with great wild woods in the lowlands, and only the hilltops open. The farming families cut trees down as fast as they could to make small fields for their crops and animals. At the same time as the trees came down the farmers set up stones and installed them with purpose and meaning. There's plenty of these old stones left in Smithills but they are now officially lost and forgotten.
Thurstones row
The old Boltonians had an odd religion, three and a half thousand years ago, mostly based on nature worship. Perhaps they believed in the duality of an earth mother and a solar father. It is certain that their capacity to appreciate landscape was almost identical to ours and they built elaborate monuments in places of great natural beauty and which appear to enhance it. There was a special appreciation of hills and rounded forms and many prehistoric sites are beside, or overlooked by, a great hill. Little hills, or barrows, were often built up over the remains of a deceased person. There are many examples of ancient engineered hills, such as Silbury and Marlborough, in Wiltshire, and there are also plenty of little barrows left in the Pennines.
The Smithills local 'sacred hill' is natural and was shaped by a retreating glacier. It's called Sugarloaf Hill by local people and is shown on the Ordnance Survey as Brown Lowe. It's a drumlin and is shaped similar to half a pear. From some angles it is very dramatic and from others it is quite dull. It's the focus of the ancient stone sites in Smithills and local folklore suggests that it was made by our ancestors. There's no evidence for that though it does have a little barrow on a high terrace to the west. A spring at its base flows year round and should be taken as the source of Barrow Bridge Brook. Sugarloaf Hill is almost certainly the 'smooth hill' that was the source of the Smithills placename. Mr Billington suggested that the Old English name would have been smethe hyll.

Toothills round barrow

Robbed cairn at Barrow Bridge

Everyone knows stone circles but those builders were also making straight lines of standing stones, called rows, and these are less familiar. There are about the same number of stone rows as circles, over a similar geographic distribution, perhaps between a thousand and twelve hundred of each. The best known stone rows are at Callanish in Brittany, and important examples survive in south west England, on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

There are four certain stone rows remaining in north Bolton and there could be others hiding under rough grass. The smallest row is just six metres long and the largest is certainly two hundred metres long (but has never been measured nor surveyed). There's the remains of what might have been a terminal stone arrangement at the end of a row in Harwood - it's arranged as a stile for a pathway - and this is associated with a known and threatened standing stone and an unknown barrow inside the school playing field nearby.
There were Roman soldiers in Manchester but their road only skims past Bolton. Local historians suppose that the history of Bolton began around the time of the Civil War (1642-51) and only started to flourish in the industrial age. The late Derek Billington, a diligent local historian, used old deeds and placename analysis to show that north Bolton was a centre of learning throughout the 12C. by the grace of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who established a hospice near the holy well that is remembered as Halliwell.

The boom of the cotton industry created several local magnates and they accumulated treasures from Egypt, which was then open to exploitation. This trade booty was often bequeathed to the town museum and it eventually grew into a significant collection. The effort taken to conserve it has led to Bolton's own prehistory becoming entirely neglected and efforts should be made to sell, repatriate and consolidate the treasure. A comical tale emerged when the Bolton Museum went bonkers buying a priceless Egyptian sculpture, the Amarna Princess, 'for the town', particularly when it turned out to be a worthless forgery knocked up in a
nearby garden shed. Selling whole or part of the town's Egyptian treasure has the potential to fund conservation or restoration of part of the town's native prehistory, of course, but the potential scale for possible mishap is very large.
Smithills wildlife
None of these forgotten prehistoric sites have yet been visited by a competent archaeologist. The professionals incline to assume the prehistoric monuments in Smithills are imaginary. Perhaps the statutory archaeologists are disinclined to undertake the enormous amount of work their acknowledgement would require. A pair of archaeologists, one specialising in Industrial Archaeology, the other in Egyptology, spent a cold and rainy afternoon in January 2003 supposedly investigating these notified sites. They never actually left the road and dismiss one lovely row as 'waystones' and a fine round barrow as 'Bell Pit spoil'. Their piteous report is here. After many years of poor management Bolton Metro took the decision to sell the Smithills Country Park in 2015 to the Woodland Trust. The trust are doing very well in promoting the woodlands and open areas but continue the long standing tradition of ignoring the ancient monuments.

 Standing stone at Harwood, Bolton

Rivington Pike Fair 2004

The ancient sites were places of worship and wonder and gathering. At certain times of the year there would be great fairs and people would gather from miles around to trade and talk. Perhaps stone circles and rows were used as churches were until recently, as places to witness births, marriage and death. The rows seem to point to certain special days in the year and it is most likely that the fairs were held then. More observation needs to take place on the ground but so far four alignments point to the summer solstice, another to May Day/Lammas Day, and a little one to the Winter Solstice. The May Day celebration might have an echo in the present day Pike Fair in Rivington, which is always held on Easter Monday.

Two nearby stone rows have indications of the summer solstice sunset but timed about twenty minutes apart. Would it be possible still to rush between the two sites in time to witness the sun setting twice? A first step might be to time both sunsets individually, to determine the precise time difference.
The Shepherd's Cross, Montserrat, Bolton
As years pass the archaeological remains become damaged and further lost. Vandalism and theft is common. The disjunction between Bolton's actual prehistory and its imagined prehistory grows. The museum allegedly has four full time staff working on the Egyptian collection but not a single specialist for its British history. This is completely crackers.

There is a recently updated article on the Bolton monuments here. All of the old stones are beside a public footpath or have open access. Most are easily found. There is no map of them yet but a rough list, with map reference points, is available by request.

< This ancient standing stone has a long and venerable history. The cup and ring art on this side dates back to the Bronze Age. Channels may be identified as well as simple cups. The Maltese cross was carved at the top in the 12C by the Knights Hospitaller, from whence it became known as the Shepherd's Cross. The smooth worn depression on the other side is Victorian footfall, from when it was a bridge over a little stream, for early millworkers. It's well protected now in St James' churchyard at Doffcocker and is the sole remaining artefact of the Knights Hospitallers of St John.


David Aspinall, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 6NQ, U.K.
All rights reserved. Page updated: 28th July 2021