On a November day in 1943, a Dutchman by the name of Egbert Krikken set out to his work as a peat digger on Red Moss. The mossland would have been a familiar landscape to him, one he had laboured on since the 1920s. He was working somewhere towards the moss’s boundary on the Blackrod side, when he uncovered a human skull, complete with red hair, from beneath the peat.
The find was reported to the police, and once it became clear that the skull was ancient, the question would have arisen as to why the head had been deposited there. In the intervening years, it has become clear that this was a ‘bog body’, a sacrificial victim of religious beliefs from the Bronze and Iron Age. Fifty years after its discovery, the skull would become a rallying point in the effort to save the whole of Red Moss from destruction.
The Formation of Red Moss
Red Moss first formed as a lake after the ice retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. Over time, the lake became a raised mire and peat began to form due to the ongoing wet weather conditions. By the time of the Bronze and Iron Ages, such places were seen as marginal zones, neither fully land nor water, but somewhere in between. The prehistoric people of the region would have been familiar with the unusual conditions that exist within boglands, where bodies interred would not rapidly decay. This they had probably observed by coming across animal carcasses that had been preserved in the peat. At times of crisis, a victim would be selected and a ritual killing carried out, with the whole body or just the head laid to rest deep within the bog. This act was a widespread tradition within Northern Europe, stretching from Sweden in the north to Germany in the south, from Poland in the east to Ireland in the west.
In his book, Prehistoric Lancashire, Dr Barrowclough suggests that the Red Moss body was one of a number that marked the territory of the Setantii tribe from the Cornovii tribe that resided south of the River Mersey. Other bodies have been found at Pilling (see our page here), Birkdale and Briarfield in Poulton-le-Fylde. The bog bodies of Lancashire are more accurately termed ‘bog heads’, as it is usually just the skull that was buried. Even the word skull here is a misnomer, as the conditions under the peat would often mean that soft tissue of skin and muscle was preserved as well, in a mummified form.
Early Farming and Industry on the Mossland in the 1880s
Peat cutting had been carried out on Red Moss for hundreds of years, quite possibly stretching back to the 1600s. Peat was cut into bricks that were dried out to provide a ready source of fuel. This had always been a small-scale affair, but by 1810 it was becoming a larger, more commercialised one. The moss was also used as farmland, with Barker’s Farm growing flax in the 1840s, part of the wider linen trade centred around the Bolton region. During the Victorian period, industry began to impinge upon the mossland.
In 1837, representatives of the Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland assembled on Red Moss to watch the demonstration of a steam plough. The inventor John Heathcoat employed a Mr Parkes to demonstrate the working of this enormous contraption, the size of which can be seen in the picture below.
There were six small-scale collieries on the moss, as well as an iron foundry named John Crowley & Co. This later became Red Moss Iron Co. and used peat to fuel its furnaces during the mid 1860s and 1870s. Peat was also converted into charcoal during the 1870s and this was used for gardening and sewage filtration.
By the late 1880s, parts of Red Moss were being used as a rubbish dump, including by Horwich Locoworks, the site of which still bounds the northeast side. Horwich Council developed a tramway system over a wide area of landscape, depositing human sewage, euphemistically referred to as night soil.
Industry in the 1900s
Large scale peat exploitation began at the start of the 1900s. Richardson’s Moss Litter Co. Ltd laid down large amounts of rail track over the moss, to aid with extraction of the peat, along with a mill and packing plant. The peat was used for animal bedding and for growing fragile crops. In 1935, Lancashire Moss Litter Co. Ltd had their headquarters at Gibb Farm. They employed both Dutch and Irish labourers, people familiar with the work from their own native peatlands. The moss was split up into a grid pattern with electrical machinery moving over it using crawler tracks, meaning that the rail tracks were now no longer needed. During the Second World War, Red Moss was used by the military for testing out heavy artillery. When the war ended, the Dutch firm of Beuken Brothers Ltd set up, again employing both Dutch and Irish workers.
The 1960s saw the end of these companies and, by 1975, most of the redundant rail tracks and machinery had been taken away from the mossland. A significant part of it was used as a landfill site, and it was the plans to expand this tip that would lead to the re-ignition of interest in the Red Moss skull.
Plans to turn Red Moss into a ‘Super Tip’
In 1990, Bolton Council wanted to significantly expand a pre-existing waste tip that lay on the moss, further encroaching into its environs. Many locals were not at all happy with the proposal and organised to block the plans. They formed the Red Moss Action Committee. When they found out about the existence of the Red Moss skull, they argued that the site deserved protection for its rare archaeology. They then set about trying to locate the head.
After it was initially discovered in 1943, the head seems to have first gone to a police laboratory in Chorley. It was then examined at both Bolton Museum and Manchester Museum. From there it was transferred to the Midlands for research purposes. Its location there has been variously described as a ‘Midlands Forensic Science Laboratory’, or ‘Aston University Medical School’.
Charles Williams, a founder member of Chorley Archaeology Society and veteran of the Winter Hill Bronze Age Burial Cairn excavation, spent a considerable amount of time trying to locate the Red Moss skull. After eleven years of detective work, he tracked down a head that was believed to be the Red Moss skull.
In March 1996, with opposition to the super-tip hotting up, The Bolton News reported that the skull was currently at Manchester University. The newspaper stated it was to go to Denmark, to be part of an exhibition, and then would return to a new permanent home in Bolton Museum.
The exhibition was held at Silkeborg Museum and was entitled ‘Face to Face with Your Past‘. The museum is home to one of the best preserved and complete bog bodies in the world, that of Tollund Man. As part of the event, the poet Seamus Heaney who had written a number of poems about bog bodies including Tollund Man, gave a speech. He had received the Nobel Prize for literature the year before. However, the Red Moss skull never made it to the exhibition, despite there being plans to send it. It was initially listed as a ‘new’ find (i.e. newly rediscovered) and was to be exhibited in a room with the more well-known Worsley Man skull. Silkeborg Museum’s records show that Worsley Man was loaned by Manchester Museum to the exhibition, but for some reason the Red Moss head was never sent.
The Bolton News further reported that the Red Moss Action Commitee claimed that the Red Moss skull had been rejected by Bolton Museum and would not be put on display. The same article contained a rebuttal to this, with a council spokesman quoted as saying “Of course we want it. It is a part of Bolton’s local history and a very important find. We will be delighted to have it on display here in the town.” At this point it looked like the Red Moss skull was finally to be back in its home region, but as will be seen, the saga was far from over.
The following year, another prehistoric skull was found on Red Moss, again from the depths of the peat. This time it was not human, but belonged to a red deer, probably from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period. Bolton Museum’s keeper of Natural History Kathryn Berry stated that the deer skull was very large in comparison to those of today’s red deer. The Senior Keeper of Natural History, Steve Garland, was quoted as saying that its antlers would be at least five feet long.
That same year saw a triumph for the Red Moss Action Group. Bolton Council ruled against the plan to create the ‘super-tip’. The firm involved in proposing the dump decided not to appeal the ruling. Campaigners then began what would become a successful bid to convert the site into a local nature reserve.
In 1999, Bolton Council asked The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside to manage the mossland by restoring water levels to encourage the growth of the original moss species of the landscape. Accordingly, the wildlife trust blocked drainage ditches to retain water on the site. They also constructed strips of higher land around its boundaries to isolate the mossland from its surroundings, protecting it from any polluted water bodies that may have fed into it in the past. The work has been successful and now eleven different sphagnum moss species can be found there, along with common cotton grass and hare’s tail grass. Willow also thrives, being a tree that tolerates very wet conditions. This rare habitat, which is classed as a ‘raised mire’ or ‘lowland bog’ is now a refuge for endangered birds and mammals such as snipe, lapwing, cuckoo, reed bunting, grasshopper warbler, lizard and water vole. The fact that public paths only skirt around its edges, and it is a treacherous place for humans to now venture on to, further protects the wildlife. It is remarkable to think that it is being restored to resemble the landscape that would have been familiar to the owner of the skull all those years ago.
What is Known About the Red Moss Skull
It is difficult to piece together much in the way of hard facts about the Red Moss skull. The most detailed description comes from local author M.D. Smith in his history book About Horwich. He claims that the skull was from a thirty-year-old red headed female. However, staining from the peat is the most likely reason the hair appeared red. Researchers C.S. Briggs and R.C. Turner in a gazetteer of bog body sites in Britain (in a book about Lindow Man) state the following about the Red Moss head: “the skull of a female with a plait of thick, reddish hair adhering to it. Nearby was a pick made from antler tine”. They also note that the description of the Red Moss skull is similar to the Pilling bog body head. M.D. Smith goes on to state that the skull was dated to 1058 BC, and this rather precise figure leads Dr Melanie Giles in her book Bog Bodies to suggest that this date was reached when it went to the Midlands for analysis.
A further twist comes with the return of the Red Moss skull to Lancashire in the 1990s. The head was examined by both Bolton Museum and Manchester Museum, but they reached a shocking conclusion. This was not the skull of a British bog body but was the head of a mummy of South American origin. Independent archaeologist and lecturer Maggy Simms goes into some detail on this second head on her website (which can be found in the references below). Perhaps, as the museums’ experts began to reach this conclusion, this explains why it was not sent to the Silkeborg Museum exhibition of bog bodies in Denmark.
Clearly, somewhere along the line there has been a mix up. The original head of the Red Moss woman has never returned to Lancashire, and a South American one has wrongly been sent in its place. Like the original, it has red hair, but very closely cropped and with no sign of a plait which was seen on the original. Dr Melanie Giles in her comprehensive Bog Bodies book published in 2020 rather depressingly states that the Red Moss skull is now ‘lost’.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to Ian Trumble the curator of archaeology at Bolton Museum for filling in gaps in the timeline of this story. Thanks also to Ole Nielson, director of Silkeborg Museum, for undertaking a search in the archives to see if the Red Moss skull was ever included in his museum’s exhibition back in 1996. Maggy Simms also gave of her time to respond to my enquiries.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2022
There is no direct public access onto Red Moss, but there are public and concessionary footpaths around the edge of it.
Warning: Do not try to walk onto Red Moss. There are very deep ditches full of standing water on the site. Even when walking on the permitted footpaths around the edge, take care as there are deep drainage ditches close to these as well.
Park at Middlebrook Retail Park. Head for Futura Park road, just off Aspinall Way. From here you can follow a circular path around the wooded area, with glimpses out on to Red Moss through the trees. The wooded area was once a tip, as described above, but nature is reclaiming the site well.
Alternatively, there is a public footpath that heads up in a northerly direction and skirts the eastern side of Red Moss. Conversely, by following this path in the opposite direction towards Aspinall Way you can get a sense of mossland vegetation, consisting of tall reeds and grasses, and very boggy conditions.
Bog Bodies: Face to face with the past, Melanie Giles (2020) Manchester University Press. This award-winning book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in bog bodies. There is a strong Lancashire emphasis in the book, but its sweep takes in significant finds across Europe. It is available as a paperback, or for free online from Manchester University Press on their manchesteropenhive website.
About Horwich, M.D. Smith (1988) NB Colourprint Ltd
Prehistoric Lancashire, David Barrowclough (2008) History Press
The Bog Burials of Britain and Ireland, R.C Turner and C.S. Briggs, in Lindown Man: The body in the bog, I.M. Stead, J.R. Bourke, Don Brothwell (1986) British Museum
A Gazetteer of Bog Burials from Britain and Ireland, C.S Briggs and R.C. Turner, in Lindown Man: The body in the bog, I.M. Stead, J.R. Bourke, Don Brothwell (1986) British Museum
Lancashire Magic and Mystery: Secrets of the Red Rose County, Kenneth Fields (1998) Sigma Books
archaeocourses.weebly.com/the-red-moss-skull.html (This is the page that details Maggy Simms’ Peruvian mummy explanation)