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Greater Manchester Archaeology Day 2016.

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Discussions start on some of the results of excavations by local societies.

Last Saturday saw me in Salford, in the Grade II listed Peel Building of the University to be exact, for this year’s Greater Manchester Archaeology Day. The day’s programme looked to have something of interest for everyone, and so it proved.

First up was Barney Devine of Battles Bricks and Bridges an award winning project from Co Fermanagh in Ulster. Not very Manchester I hear you say! Perhaps not, but Barney was delivering the second Brian Grimsditch Memorial lecture on Community Archaeology. Battles Bricks and Bridges won the 2016 British Archaeology Award for Best Community Engagement Archaeology Project and Barney gave us a really warm recounting of the project from its first steps to national award winning celebrity. The project help to rewrite the history books with the finds, including the site of the fabulously named Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits which took place in 1594. May not be X-Factor, but a lot of hard work went into the project and hopefully some of the audience took inspiration from the presentation and will be taking their first steps on their own project as a result. Do have a look at the Battles Bricks and Bridges website, and spread the word!

The rest of the day belonged to Greater Manchester, and with its history of industry there was quite bit of industrial archaeology through the day. Rachel Reader of the Centre of Applied Archaeology (CAA) at Salford University, reported on a Historic England sponsored project which is assessing the current state of historic textile mills in the area. In the 1920s there were an estimated 3,000 such mills in the area, and just 60 years later half of these had disappeared. These mills were used for a number of roles in the manufacture of cotton and other textiles from the 18th century. There were weaving mills, bleaching works, finishing or dyeing mills and associated buildings. The current survey is an effort to update our knowledge and understanding of what have been called ‘powerhouses of prosperity’.

One reason for the new survey is that there is increasing pressure on land/space as the city redevelops, as was emphasised by two other presentations on the day which told the story of mills on Owen Street and Adelphi Street, both within walking distance of the venue. You may be aware of Owen Street as it is the site of Manchester’s newest and tallest skyscraper the Owen Street Tower.

The picture is a gloomy one if you like these old buildings. In a 1980’s survey there were some 963 mill buildings in Greater Manchester, today that number is 540. This means there has been a 43% loss of these mills in the last 30 years. The highest loss has been in Rochdale where 50% of mills has been recorded. There is some hope as some of the mills are protected as ‘listed buildings’, but the average across Greater Manchester is only some 20%. In Salford only 6% of these mills are listed, while in Manchester this figure rises to 44%. The hope is that once the survey is completed – there is more to do with regard to the state of preservation etc – Historic England, local councils and other interested parties will be able to develop a plan to safeguard at least some of the mills still forming part of the cityscape. And not once was ‘satanic’ mentioned!

Back to Owen Street, and Ian Miller from CAA gave us details of some of the work taking place there that had recovered more of the Roman vicus or civilian settlement associated with the fort at Castlefield. A number of earlier finds from the vicinity, particularly inscribed altars had suggested that there could be something significant happening along the route of the road leading to the fort, possibly in the form a network of dedicatory shrines. As is typical on such urban sites, other periods also produced material, including medieval pottery, something of a rarity in Manchester! However, the medieval layers sealed the Roman ones, giving them a secure dating. The Roman finds included ceramics from the 1-3 century AD, pits, boundary ditches and even a small hearth. There were over 500 pieces of pottery recovered from the site, all of which suggested a domestic, not military site, so very likely yet more of the vicus associated with the fort. No shrines discovered . . . yet! All the images in the slideshow are shown courtesy of Ian Miller & Salford University.

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One of the more interesting presentations was about a newish project – the Greater Manchester Graffiti Survey. It isn’t about modern graffiti, ‘tags’ and territory, rather is is about marks made and evidence left by a largely illiterate and unrepresented population in the past. The majority of people do not feature in many of the ‘official’ historic records and making marks on buildings was one way in which they could quite literally leave their mark as having lived. The survey is mainly surveying buildings erected before 1700 and is looking for a range of marks which could be scratched, etched, pecked into wood, stone or metal work, or burns into wooden features such as doors/frames etc. it is thought that many of the marks are what are called apotropaic or ‘magic’ marks, associated with religious or superstitious ideas and often act as protection against harm or evil befalling the person who made it.

The survey has been exploring churches in the southern area of Greater Manchester including St Wilfred’s in Northenden. We saw examples of the range of marks to be found, and the surprising location of some – including the roof! Here there were several ‘drawings’ of ‘feet’ – it seems people drew around their shoe – and then added symbols within the limit of the shoe. The examples at St Wilfred’s can be dated to around 1650, when the lead roof was installed.

There is some sense of urgency as the older lead roofs, such as St Wilfred’s, are nearing the end of the useful life and many are being replaced before being surveyed for such evidence. Elsewhere there are what are called ‘flame marks’ – small areas of burning on wood which are shaped like a flame. Experiments show that these are deliberately made by holding a candle to the wood and they take around 15 mins to create. These marks are usually found in liminal places such as window sills/frames, doorways or chimney work. There are even examples that have been found to have been made before the wood was placed in its current position.

The project doesn’t yet have a website (coming soon they tell us!) but you can email them here:

Another element of Manchester’s industrial heritage the Bleach works on Adelphi Street, just around the corner from the Peel Building, was the focus of the presentation by Robin Holgate of Archaeological Research Services. The bleach works was just part of a number of sites where textiles were processed, and this site had a long history, with it being recorded on a 1794 map of Salford. The site developed over the years, but it always relied on the River Irwell as a source for both power and as an essential part of cleaning and finishing the product. Eventually, the works were housed in a 7 storey building, one of the largest in Salford. In 1841, when the works were at their peak, there appeared an account of the site and processes in a local journal. Interestingly, this is the first sentence:

“The accompanying Engraving exhibits a portion of one of the most picturesque landscapes in the suburbs of Manchester.” (Bradshaws Manchester Journal)

Just scroll up to the previous page to see the engraving. There follows a clear description of the bleach works which are shown in the image.

Some of the finds from a dig, looking awfully like those from Under Whitle!

The day was rounded off with an update on some of the archaeology that has been found during the work being carried out on the Manchester Airport Relief Road (MARR). So far there have been 32 sites recorded as a result of the work ranging from prehistoric to post-medieval, and reflect the rural character of the area – between Hazel Grove and the airport in case you didn’t know!

All in all, a really interesting day with something for everyone. Looking forward to next year’s event already!


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