Around 3500 years ago, a group of Bronze Age people gathered on Winter Hill to honour one of their dead. They constructed a burial cairn, into which they laid the deceased’s cremated remains. The mound they constructed was sizeable, some 19 metres across, bounded by a low boulder wall running around its perimeter.
The cleared ground inside the boulder wall had a number of layers placed on top of it in a precise and ritual manner. Heather, whinberry, cotton grass, ferns, mosses and birch twigs formed the bottom layer. On top of this was put freshly cut turves of grass, but these were laid upside down, with the roots facing skywards. Finally, soil was placed on top of all of this.
The central part of the mound was the most important. Here was laid a burial urn which contained the cremated bones of the recently deceased. It was covered up with stones. The newly dead person now had a new home. The cairn was like a sentinel, looking down from a commanding viewpoint, keeping watch over the tribe and acting as a territorial marker.
The centuries passed and peat gradually formed over the landscape, partly covering the burial mound. Its significance was forgotten, serving only as a way marker for those crossing over the moorlands.
Discovery and Excavation
In March 1957, local naturalist Tom Creear was out walking on Rivington Moor with his friend John Rawlinson. They came across what looked like an arc of stones, emerging from the peat. The stones appeared to be part of a low curved wall, just over half a metre high, that bounded an inner low dome made of earth. At the centre of the structure was a small mound.
Chorley Archaeology group were alerted and did an initial survey of what they recognised to be a prehistoric barrow. In turn, they passed the information on to Manchester University.
The following year, a team from the university, headed by Dr John Bu’lock, arrived to begin an excavation. Unfortunately, it became very quickly apparent that they were not the first to have dug the cairn. It had been excavated inexpertly in the Georgian or Victorian era when there was a craze by antiquarians for digging into the central part of such structures to see what could be found. Their results were seldom recorded, and the twentieth century archaeologists soon realised that the central burial and any possible grave goods in this barrow had been removed.
However, Dr Bu’lock’s team could still learn a lot from their dig. They recorded the sequence in which the different layers of the cairn had been laid down, showing it to be a complex structure of vegetation, stones and soil. The excavated central part of the cairn, composed of stones, was a sizeable structure, measuring 2.5 metres in diameter and 1.5 metres high. They were able to radio-carbon date pollen from within the cairn, which gave a date of 1600-1400 BC. While many monuments of this type have a ditch dug around them during their construction, this one did not.
In recent years, some archaeologists have tried to interpret the ritual beliefs of our Bronze Age ancestors. Such work is difficult but, by comparing similar sites, trends can be seen. The first clue is in the layering of the different parts of the Winter Hill Cairn. It appears that Bronze Age people believed that their dead lived in an ‘upside down’ or inverted world, just below the modern land surface. There are two reasons to believe that they thought this. The first is that in some burial mounds they seem to make a miniature upside down landscape for the deceased person to reside in. The second is that many funeral pots are buried the wrong way round, with their open lids facing down into the earth.
In the Winter Hill Cairn we can see evidence for the upside down landscape. The normal land surface would consist of soil at the base, with grass on top of this, and then shrubs and trees forming a layer above. In the cairn, these have been deliberately inverted. The vegetation layer of heather, whinberry and birch were laid down first. On top of this were placed turves of grass (themselves placed upside down). Finally, a layer of soil was heaped over this. This was a mirror image of our living world. The deceased lived on in a mirror world, just below the surface of our own.
With the cremation pot long since robbed away, it is not possible to know if it was placed upside down on Winter Hill. However, there is some recent strong supporting evidence to suggest it would have been. When the nearby Noon Hill cairn was dug the same year, it contained an inverted urn. More recently, the discovery of a Bronze Age cairn at Bolton-le-Sands near Morecambe has been dated to exactly the same era as the Winter Hill burial, and its pot was inverted. For a photograph of the pot when it was newly discovered in the ground, and the work done on it to date, see the excellent DigVentures website here.
Visiting the Winter Hill Cairn Today
The passing years have not been kind to the site. It can now be difficult to find, but directions are given to it in the access section below. Unfortunately, when the author visited the site in 2019, a rotovator that had been used by the local fire service appeared to have been driven right over and through the cairn. When a moorland fire had been raging, the fire brigade had been using such machinery to create fire breaks in the vegetation, to stop the spread of the fire. Despite the Winter Hill Cairn being a scheduled ancient monument, they were probably oblivious to its existence. Here at Lancashire Past, we are not generally advocates of fencing monuments off, but in this case it would have prevented this mechanical damage and it would preserve what is left below the ground for future generations.
Despite this terrible damage, the site is still worth visiting. The original stones associated with the monument are the grey ones, which seem to have a large amount of quartz crystal on them. More recent stones have been added by hikers from a nearby collapsed dry stone wall, and these are more orange in colour. The vegetation that was disturbed during rotavation is now growing back, as of 2022.
The views from the cairn remain stunning. There are notable direct lines of sight to three other sites: the Bronze Age site of Noon Hill, and the probable burial sites at Two Lads and Rivington Pike. Bronze Age cairns were meant to be seen in the surrounding landscape. Standing at Winter Hill Cairn today, you survey a landscape that our Bronze Age ancestors would have gazed upon themselves. It would have had more trees than we now see, but they had already started clearing large areas for the grasses to grow, on which their herds grazed upon.
The cairn is 400 metres west-north-west of the summit of Winter Hill, near the trig point. Grid Reference 655 149. It is marked on Ordnance Survey maps.
Park in the free car park just outside of Belmont. This is on Rivington Road near Ward’s Reservoir (the Blue Lagoon). Head up the path from the car park towards the largest of the masts. When reaching the brow of the hill, turn right and follow the wooden fence line, walking towards the furthest out of the large aerials. You will pass the trig point on the way. When you reach the furthest aerial, head westward looking for a pile of stones that marks the central point of the cairn.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2022
Journeys Through Brigantia: Volume Eleven: Circular Walks in The East Lancashire Pennines, John Dixon and Jaana Jarvinen (2003), Aussteiger Publications
The inverted dead of Britain’s Bronze Age barrows: a perspective from Conceptual Metaphor Theory (2021) Rob Wiseman, Michael J. Allen, Catriona Gibson, Antiquity Volume 95 (381): 720-324. Published by Cambridge University Press and available as a free pdf here
Barrowed Time: Archaeological Evaluation Interim Assessment Report for a Community Based Archaeological Investigation at Bolton-le-Sands, Brendon Wilkins et al (2016) Dig Ventures, Heritage Lottery Fund. This fascinating report is available as a free pdf here
Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, Linda Sever (Editor) (2010), The History Press
Winter Hill Scrapbook, Dave Lane (2009), lulu.com. Available online or from the visitors centre at Rivington.
heritagegateway.org.uk Monument Number 43440