On the edge of the summit of Noon Hill stands a Bronze Age burial cairn. Measuring some twenty-one metres in diameter, it is bounded by a stone kerb which encircles a mound. A cremated burial sat at the heart of the structure, and wooden posts were driven into the monument, encircling its stony core.
Earth was heaped up into the space between the central stony heart and the surrounding kerb. The soil placed in there had once been the ground where people had sat, chipping flint tools. Further cremations and grave goods were dug into the cairn during the Bronze Age and perhaps people processed up to it on special days, to honour their dead ancestors. After the Bronze Age passed, the remains of those that lay there were lost from memory, and it rested undisturbed for three and a half thousand years.
Background to the dig
John Winstanley was the curator of Hall in th’Wood Museum during the 1950s. A keen walker on the Rivington and Anglezarke moors, he would spend hours searching for prehistoric flints. Winstanley was instrumental in the set up of both the Bolton and Chorley archaeological societies. He had encouraged Dr Bu’Lock of the University of Manchester to excavate the nearby Bronze Age cairn on Winter Hill and he was keen to be in charge of an excavation of Noon Hill. Winstanley sought permission from Liverpool Corporation who owned the land as a water catchment area. Once this was granted, he mobilised the recently set up Bolton Archaeological Society to commence a proper dig during the month of August 1958.
We know the details of how the dig was carried out and what was found because Winstanley meticulously wrote up what was discovered each day in his notebooks, which are preserved at Bolton Museum. The Bolton Archaeological Society subsequently published a paper on the dig in their own journal, disseminating their important findings.
A Diary of the Excavation
Noon Hill is not a particularly easy place to reach, with the paths immediately around it being little more than boggy sheep trails. Equipment for the excavation was taken up on Friday 8th August and two of the younger members camped out overnight with it, perhaps wary of it being interfered with. The work started the next day, with the burial mound being marked out into four quarters or quadrants, only two of which would be excavated. Winstanley turned up at 7pm and, with a number of other society members, camped out overnight. In his notebook he recorded “Intruders crossed the campsite between 1 am and 2 am”. This intriguing statement was not elaborated upon, but he also recorded that a Mr. Grimes had his bicycle stolen.
Sunday 10th saw the first full day of the dig, with twenty-four excavators turning up. They were rewarded with finds of flint cores, a flint blade and some squarish stones with shallow saucer shaped indentations in the middle. The diggers were at a loss to work out what these were, guessing that they might be querns for grinding flour, or even prehistoric ‘plates’. They suspected that the flints had come from a chipping floor which had been thrown into the barrow during its construction. By the end of the first day, they had also located a portion of the stone kerb at the very edge of the barrow.
At 4.30pm, work had to stop as a thunderstorm began. At midnight, a second storm hit and Winstanley wrote that a river ran through the middle of his tent. He set up a table over the water, and slept on top of it. The terrible weather continued until dawn and on into Monday. If the diggers hoped that they had seen the worst of the weather, they were to be sadly disappointed.
When work did finally begin on the Monday, more flints were found in the form of chippings, a blade, a scraper, and the two tiny microliths that would have been stuck to wooden shafts to make arrow blades. In his notebook, Winstanley complained about a lack of decent wheelbarrows and that the planks that the barrows were pushed along were too narrow for the job.
It rained persistently during the night and continued until noon on the Tuesday. Ironically, in spite of the vast amount of rain, the diggers were finding it hard to get drinking water. They took it in turns to walk down the Black Bull Inn at Belmont to collect bottles of water. Trenches had to be dug around the excavation to let water out. On the Wednesday, Winstanley wrote that they were “washed out”. He had dug a trench around his tent in a vain attempt to prevent water coming into it for a second time. Once again, he resorted to sleeping on his table top as a ‘river’ again flowed through.
On the Thursday, the diggers concentrated on the central stone core. They found large stones beneath it laid out in concentric rings. It rained once again in the night and, on the Friday dawn, there was a thick mist, meaning work could not begin until the afternoon.
The Saturday saw Mr Jenkinson, the dig’s official recorder, in charge of operations as Winstanley was absent. The excavators were rewarded for their effort with the finds of a flattened stone ball (similar to one they had already discovered), a barbed and tanged arrow head and a burial of cremated bone which had been placed in a small stone recess. In his notebook the next day, Winstanley wrote “Remark by digger: ‘Mr Jenkinson took out as much soil as bone, as though he was shovelling chips’. He then commented: “bones should be taken out most carefully, with tweezers”.
On the Sunday, Winstanley returned and a more dramatic discovery occurred. A second burial, this time in an upside down urn, was uncovered, up against the central stone core of the mound. It had been protected by a box made from slabs of stone, known as a cist. Winstanley worked carefully with his trowel, brush, bodkin needle and tweezers to remove each piece one by one. It took him over seven hours to extricate the pot and bone, resorting to working by the light of two dim oil lamps before finishing just after 10pm. “Very good day” he recorded in his trench note book.
Monday saw further finds: another cremation (without a pot), a flint knife, a barbed and tanged arrowhead. The chairman of the society, Reverend Mitchell of St Philip’s Church in Bolton, brought a camera to take colour photographs. The news of the burial pot had reached the press and, on Tuesday, the Blackburn Telegraph sent a reporter and photographer to the site. The Bolton Evening News had been very supportive of the new archaeological society, so Winstanley informed them too, to prevent them being scooped.
Wednesday saw twenty-three diggers on site and Chorley Archaeological Society also visited. Work continued on excavating a fourth cremation burial, which again had been dug into the barrow without an urn. Winstanley wrote in his notebook “During the evening we had a visit from an “expert” Mr Hallam and his wife”. He also ruefully added that Mr Jenkinson, the official recorder of the dig, had made no notes on the day when he was left in charge.
On the Thursday, Winstanley recorded in his notebook that Dr Bu’Lock was trying to get the site scheduled as an ancient monument. While he must have welcomed this, he was less happy that Reverend Mitchell, as chairman of the society, was now pushing for the excavation to stop. The Reverend wanted an ‘expert’ to take charge of the dig the following year, replacing Winstanley.
Winstanley’s fears were confirmed the next day when an impromptu meeting of the committee turned up on site and decided to halt all further excavating. Winstanley wrote angrily in his notebook “People who have not done any digging, neither been near the site…have not the right to demand that the dig be closed”. He was clearly unhappy at being left out of the decision-making loop, adding “I think that the meeting had been well planned in advance”. As if to add insult to injury, during the afternoon a huge thunderstorm came, soaking everyone and everything. Winstanley recorded “Lightning struck the tv pylon eight times!” referring to the Winter Hill transmitter.
It took over a week to restore the monument to its former appearance, by putting back the soil that they had dug out from it. The finds were taken to Bolton Museum and the assistant curator, Mr Cheetham, restored the burial urn. The analysis of the bones found within the urn revealed that they belonged to an adult female, an adult male and a child. The finds remain with the museum to this day.
A second dig did not occur the next year and, in fact, it was five years after the original one had finished before Bolton Archaeology Society returned to the Noon Hill Burial Cairn. They found three more groups of cremated bones, but little else is on public record as they did not seem to record their findings in the meticulous way that Winstanley had done. Furthermore, a piece of stone bearing a rock art cup ring was stolen from the site and never recovered. Since the 1960s, the monument has never been re-examined, and it is very likely that more cremations and grave goods are located within the mound.
Visiting the site today
A pile of stones marks the centre of the burial mound. The mound is perched on the edge of Noon Hill, and gives impressive views over to Rivington Pike and Winter Hill. Unlike the Winter Hill Cairn, the shape of Noon Hill Cairn can be more readily made out, but most of it lies beneath the soil.
There are photographs of the dig on the archive page of the Bolton and Archaeology and Egyptology Society website. See here.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2022
Grid Reference (647 150).
The site is open access under Right to Roam legislation. The ground leading to the cairn can be very boggy, so take care.
There is a rough path from Winter Hill to Noon Hill. To approach from this direction, park at Ward Reservoir Car Park (the Blue Lagoon). Head up Winter Hill, turn right at the summit and follow the path to Noon Hill. There is a very boggy area half way between the hills.
Winter Hill Bronze Age Burial Cairn
John Winstanley’s trench book and note book, along with an article on the Noon Hill cairn published by the Bolton & District Archaeological Society are all available as a free pdf to download from the BAES website on their archive page here
Noon Hill Trench Book, J. Winstanley (1958).
Noon Hill Notes, J. Winstanley (1958)
Preliminary excavation of the barrow on Noon Hill, Belmont Lancs, August 1958. J. Booth (1963) Journal of the Bolton & District Archaeological Society ,Number 1
Comments are closed.