In 1824, a remarkable discovery occurred when labourers were digging peat on part of Pilling Moss. Six feet below the surface, they discovered a piece of woollen cloth. When they unwrapped the cloth, they found the remains of a female human skull which had “a great abundance of hair, a most beautiful auburn, and two strings of large black beads together with a part of the first vertebrae of the neck”.
They had discovered a ‘bog body’. These are the remains of a prehistoric person that has been killed, then placed in the ground, probably as a ritual sacrifice. The most famous of recent times is Lindow Man, found near Wilmslow, and whose remains are on display in the British Museum.
Lancashire has had a number of bog bodies discovered over the last two hundred years. Theories differ as to why the people were sacrificed, but the tradition seems to have started in the Bronze Age and reached its peak in the late Iron Age. One idea is that the bodies were placed to mark out the extent of a territory of a tribe. The bog bodies at Pilling, Briarfield (Poulton-le-Fylde) and Birkdale may mark the coastal limit of the Setantii territory. Further bodies have been found further south at Red Moss, near Horwich, and Chat Moss, near Worsley.
The peat layers of Pilling Moss developed in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1400 BC. In parts of the moss, the peat reached a depth of 15 feet deep. It was always marginal land, not suitable for growing crops due to the waterlogged conditions. In Medieval times, Pilling Moss was owned by Cockersand Abbey. At its dissolution, the area was described as “a foul morass”. Drainage began in the mid 1700s and the land began to be brought into more formal agriculture use. This was not always a straightforward process and management of the moss was no easy matter. In 1745, part of the moss near Rawcliffe burst after exceptionally heavy rain. Large areas of farmland were damaged, and in places the peat was piled up five metres on top of the existing surface. By the 1830s, the moss was well managed and no further eruptions were reported. Cutting peat to use as fuel was staple agricultural activity in the area.
A great deal of what is known about the discovery of the bog body comes from two letters written to the Preston Chronicle. These were penned by William Birch, a surgeon from nearby Stalmine. He examined the skull and the spot where it was discovered, very soon after it was first uncovered.
Dr Birch wrote “The hair was plaited and of great length, in many parts about 3 inches from the extremities of the braids, it was cut off by some heavy cutting instruments, as the ends were exactly level, not a hair projecting, which could not have been the case had it been cut by scissors”. Many bog burials have plaited or knotted hair, and the hair is frequently red, but this could well be due to staining from lying in the peat for so long.
The doctor did not know it was a prehistoric skull, but instead thought it was connected to some covert activity that had occurred at a residence nearby. He wrote “A short distance from the spot stands a house, which, not many years ago, was a receptacle where females from various parts were secretly conveyed, for the purpose of concealment, under circumstances which may easily be surmised.” It is not clear what he means here, but perhaps this was a place where unmarried pregnant women came, both to hide their pregnancy and to give birth. He then goes on “And is it possible for this to be part of one of the unfortunate wretches seduced hither and sacrificed for the purposes of effectual concealment? In all probability; upwards of twenty years have elapsed since the circumstances has taken place, and there can be little doubt of a murder having been perpetrated, and that the head and the body have been separately disposed of, in order the more effectually to escape detection.”
Dating the Body
The practice of bog burial sacrifice reached its height in the Iron Age. However, there is some indication that this burial may have occurred in the preceding Bronze Age. The beads that would have been part of a necklace are possible dating evidence. In his second letter, Dr Birch gives a description of them. He states “They are in two links; those of one are solely made of jet, in cylinders about half an inch in length and with the thickness of a goose quill; the other is composed of jet also, with the exception of one, which is a large round one of amber; the beads in this link are also cylindrical, but of irregular lengths, some being nearly an inch, and others not one third that length”.
Jet beads in a necklace are usually associated with the Bronze Age. Interestingly, not far away at Bonds Farm, at Scronkey on Pilling Moss, there is a Bronze Age settlement site. Here amber was being worked and pierced, to turn it into beads. These facts may point to an earlier burial than the Iron Age, although there are not many comparable cases to be found elsewhere, as bog body burials with beads are rare.
Finding the site today
Two locations, within a mile or so of each other, have been given as the site of the body. Below, we examine each in turn.
Possible Location 1: Kentucky
Dr. Melanie Giles, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at The University of Manchester, states in her 2020 book Bog Bodies: Face to Face with the Past, that the remains were discovered “at Kentucky, Pilling Moss”. This was presumably on land owned by Kentucky Farm. Today Kentucky Farm still exists, at the end of Bone Hill Lane. Dr Birch in his 1824 letter states that the remains were discovered “on part of Pilling Moss contiguous to the road leading to Garstang”. (Contiguous means adjacent or adjoining). This would lead to the conclusion that it was discovered in the area bounded by Black Lane to the north and Kentucky Farm to the south. There is a public footpath from Black Lane to Kentucky Farm through this part of the landscape (see the maps and Access section below).
Possible Location 2: Peahall Wood
Local writer, Brian Hughes, in his 2009 publication The History of the Wyre, states that the remains were found at “Pea Hall Wood”. The 1912 map shows a Peahall Wood about a mile to the north west of the Kentucky site. Peahall Wood does not exist today, it has long been ploughed out and is now part of a field. By comparing the 1912 map with a modern satellite image, it’s location can be seen.
Comparing the Two Locations
The satellite picture below shows the above sites in relation to each other, with Peahall Wood in the top left and Kentucky Farm on the bottom right. In his first letter to the Preston Chronicle, Dr Birch states that the house where the covert activity involving women had occurred was “a short distance from the spot” where the body was found. Local author Brian Hughes states on the Fylde and Wyre Antiquarian website that the house was a ‘baby farm’ and was Bone Hill Farm. Looking at the map below shows that Bone Hill Farm is the neighbouring farm to Kentucky Farm, which would give extra support to the body being found at Kentucky (Location 1), rather than a mile away at Peahall Wood (Location 2).
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Below is a short description of how to find the two locations described above, plus Bonds Farm which was an important Bronze Age settlement site. This can be driven or cycled as a loop, starting and ending in the area of Nateby.
The two locations that are contenders for the burial site are a short drive from the A6, as it bypasses Garstang. Turn onto Long Moor Lane. Do a right hand turn onto Kilcrash Lane before you reach Nateby. (If you are wanting to park and walk, there is a small layby on Kilcrash Lane. It is about a mile from the Kentucky area of Location 1). Turn right onto Cartmel Lane. This becomes Black Lane which has the public footpath to Kentucky Farm. The footpath sign is by a metal farm gate on the left hand side of the road, and follows the hedge line through the fields. There are good views on the left hand side out onto the Kentucky area as you drive along Black Lane.
Continue along Black Lane. It becomes Garstang Road as it approaches the settlement of Stake Pool. The Peahall Wood site (Location 2 – now just a field) is on the right hand side, before you reach Horse Park Lane. (Peahall Lane is just off the junction of Horse Park Lane).
Staying on the Garstang Road, drive to the T-junction at Stake Pool onto the A588 Dyke Road and then the next left onto Bradshaw Lane. Turn right onto Lancaster Lane to reach Scronkey, where the Bronze Age settlement was discovered at Bonds Farm. The farm is set back amongst the fields to the right. There is a public footpath from Scronkey to Bonds Farm.
There are good views out onto Pilling Moss along Lancaster Lane. To do the round trip, carry on down Lancaster Lane and take a left onto Skitham Lane. This leads to Nateby and Moor Lane Road, the road which you originally drove in on from the A6 bypass of Garstang.
Nearby, just a short drive away
The Archaeology of Lancashire: Present State and Future Priorities, Richard Newman (editor) (1996),
Prehistoric Lancashire, David Barrowclough (2008), History Press
Bog Bodies: Face to Face with the Past, Melanie Giles (2020) Manchester University Press. This excellent book is also available online for free under a Creative Commons licence from Manchester University Press Open Access Content here
Lancashire Archaeological Notes, Prehistoric and Roman, B.J.N. Edwards (1969) Transactions of Historical Society of of Lancashire and Cheshire Volume 25 (pdf available online)
The Archaeology of Pilling Moss, Hugh Sherdley (undated pdf available online)
The Pilling Bog Burst of 1745, William D Shannon (2018), Contrebis 2018 v36 (pdf available online)
The Fylde and Wyre Antiquarian website: Murder and skulduggery in the Fylde & Wyre