Saturday saw the 9th Manchester Archaeology Day – and this was an excellent chance to catch up with some of the work that has been happening in and around the city over the last year. The venue was generously provided by the University of Salford and it was no surprise to see the theatre full again.
The day began with a welcome by our host Prof. Judith Smith of the School of Environment & Life Sciences, who was warm and generous in her praise for the range of work undertaken by the Centre for Applied Archaeology (CfAA), and their support of community projects in the area. This was reflected by the Centre’s director Dr Mike Nevell who gave us a potted history of the event and its growth over the years, whilst others had seemingly fallen by the wayside.
The first of the presentations was the inaugural Brian Grimsditch Memorial Lecture, by Tom Dawson of the University of St Andrew’s. Brian Grimsditch was a stalwart of many a community archaeology project and a driving force to be reckoned with and whilst the subject matter of this first lecture – Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk – might have seemed a little incongruous, it underlying theme, that communities and individuals with an interest in archaeology and heritage can do a tremendous amount of work to support professional archaeologists and organisations would have struck a chord, particularly in these difficult economic times. This was something we’d return to later in the day.
Tom Dawson’s presentation was an interesting look at some of the sites under threat from erosion in Scotland and how volunteers have played a significant role in their identification, recording, stabilization and in some cases reconstruction. What was really exciting for me, was the discovery of both Neolithic and Bronze Age wells on Sanday in the Orkneys!
We returned to Manchester, the centre of Manchester to be exact, with St Peter’s Square and Cross Street being the focus of the next presentation by Martin Lightfoot of CFA Archaeology. Both sites were graveyards of religious buildings – a church and a chapel – which had long-been demolished, but construction and redevelopment in the city centre meant that they were now under threat. The nature of the excavations meant that almost all the work took place behind closed doors, but it was interesting to see how the team had overcome the challenges of such demanding sites. It was also interesting to learn of some of the burial practices of the 19th century, especially the use of breast-plates in coffins. One of the graves was that of William Henry, a renowned chemist and son of Manchester. There was also a great example of how a photographic record of a site, in this case a photo of St Peter’s church, was used to marry up the archaeology in the ground and a find (a penny lick glass used for ice-cream in the late 19th and early 20th century) to determine the exact location and date of the vendor – 1907. Detective work at its best!
We then moved to the site of something more recent – Woodford Aerodrome, home to the Avro company, responsible for among other things the Lancaster bomber. I had no idea about Woodford Aerodrome and its history and was intrigued to hear about it. I was even more surprised to hear of a link between the Avro company and The Smiths. It seems that an early investor in the company was Groves & Whitnall whose building in Salford later became the Lad’s Club, frequented by Morrissey & Co! The reason why the aerodrome was included here is that since the demise of the company the land and buildings have been sold for redevelopment and of course this meant demolition for many of the buildings. There was good news though. Sections of the runways will be preserved as roads in the new housing estate and there is a new Avro Heritage Centre where much of the history and achievements of the company can be explored.
Next up was home player Sarah Cattell of the Centre of Applied Archaeology with some of the discoveries made during the community project at Halton Castle, Runcorn. The project was exploring the history of the castle, about which not too much was know – unusual for a castle you might think. The castle has a chequered history and there were few reliable written sources on both its construction. There had been earlier excavations on the site, conducted by the late Robina McNeil who was Greater Manchester County Archaeologist until her untimely death in 2007. This new project focussed on a different area of the castle and produced a dramatic find – two skeletons which showed distinct signs of meeting a grisly end! Quite how these people met their end has yet to be determined exactly, as is why they were found where they were. It seems at one point in the past, the castle was used as a goal, but that executions were not normally carried out there. So it seems that the team have more of a mystery on their hands now!
Just before lunch was taken, there was a quick look at some of the work which will likely feature in next year’s event, including the excavation of the former BBC site on Oxford Rd and Dantzic Street which featured in a story in the Manchester Evening News. Ginger beer bottles feature in this story we were told! The Daisy Mill project in Longsight is sure to be interesting too, with handmade bricks found to be in-situ. I’ll also be looking forward to hear more on the search for Manchester Castle and Chethams which so far has revealed some evidence of 14-15th century activity!
The first session after lunch had three presentations which had a strong community project. The first detailed the conclusion of the search for Sir Richard Arkwright’s Shudehill Mill which was a site of real significance. The site had been covered by Time Team in 2005 and the final pieces of the jigsaw have now been revealed by Ian Miller and his team. A real surprise was uncovered by the Holcombe Moor Heritage Group who in their project to understand what was thought to be a post-medieval industrial site and later houses, in fact produced evidence of some of the earliest water-powered iron production sites dating to the 12th century! Mellor Mill was the third story, with another season of hard work producing some great finds and increasing our knowledge of an area rich in archaeology. The mill is just the latest element in a complex story and Bob Humphrey-Taylor gave us an expert guide to the operation of the mill.
The last two presentations featured the Dig Greater Manchester which is a project that has been running for some time now. Vicky Nash of CfAA showed us some of the work the project had undertaken at Radcliffe Tower Bury and Buile Hill Park in Salford. Both of these projects showed that engagement between professional archaeologists and community group produce a record of our shared heritage which benefits both.
It was left to Norman Redhead, Heritage Management Director of the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service to show us some of the highlights of the year which just could not be squeezed in, including something medieval in Salford. But more of that later.
In summarising the day, Dr Nevell, here seen signing a copy of his latest book, made an impassioned plea that in the face of cuts being faced by many services, particularly in Lancashire, that the situation resembled that of Palmyra in that protection of archaeology and heritage was being stripped away and that once the archaeology had gone, it had gone for good. He encouraged us all to join in the fight to save services wherever we are.
I left with much to ponder, and as it the way with many conferences, a pile of new books. Can’t wait for next year!
Ian Parker Heath