We started May by exploring Angel Meadow's in Manchester and its links to the struggle for workers' rights. We then marked Local and Community History Month by looking at the different ways in which we share the local heritage and our discoveries with local communities. We have done this by remembering some of our best community archaeology projects: Jigsaw in Cambridgeshire, the Westgate public engagement in Oxford, and the spectacular community dig at Sizergh Castle in Cumbria.
Greater Manchester's industrial past
To mark the May Day bank holiday, we look at its origins in demonstrations championing workers’ rights aby heading to Angel Meadows, where Oxford Archaeology discovered evidence of Greater Manchester’s industrial past.
Oxford Archaeology have worked on multiple investigations in this area over the years, primarily as part of the NOMA Project on behalf of the Co-op, and more recently during development of plots adjacent to the current landscaped park on behalf of Orion Heritage Ltd and their clients.
The excavations revealed evidence of the area’s rapid growth from rural outskirt to densely populated industrial hub during the 1800s. This was partly initiated by the foundation of Richard Arkwright’s Shudehill Mill, built in 1780-3, considered one of the ‘first’ modern textile factories in Manchester and to have paved the way for the use of steam power in the cotton industry.
But exponential growth comes with challenges. Later excavations focused on the remains of terraced workers’ housing, revealing cramped yard spaces and dank basement dwellings linked to historic accounts of crippling poverty in the area. Evidence of appalling conditions that at the time provoked Victorian social reformer Friedrich Engles to describe the area as ‘hell on earth’. In stark contrast to its name, Angel Meadows became the hunting grounds for the infamous local scuttler gangs – territorial street gangs similar to those popularised in the TV series Peaky Blinders.
Our team were able to map structures like Holden Street to historic maps, sources and family records, allowing the local community to trace ancestors, often to specific streets and buildings in the excavation. We also found old advertising signs alongside more personal items like medicine vials, shoes and what may be part of a pram frame. Tangible connections to the individuals who lived and worked in industrial Manchester.
Thankfully, reformers like Engles fought to improve the sanitation and infrastructure of the area, and to champion the social wellbeing and rights of its inhabitants, making this an apt site to reflect on during International Worker’s Day.
Anglo-Saxon origins and the medieval jewish quarter
This week's #OAat50 highlight takes us to the heart of historic Oxford, where excavations at St Aldates in 2016 shed light on the history of the city, from its Anglo-Saxon origins to the modern era, passing through the discovery of the Medieval Jewish quarter.
The earliest archaeological layers contained the remains of structures radiocarbon dated to the middle or late Saxon period. These were simple wooden or wattle-and-daub buildings, with sunken floors that formed cellars. Though the remains were limited, they are among the earliest evidence for settlement in Oxford, pre-dating the establishment of the late Saxon burh or defended town.
During the late 11th and 12th centuries, the site was a yard in which a stone latrine was built. This was full of domestic waste, including animal bones and shells discarded from countless meals from an adjoining house. The food waste from this yard gave us the opportunity to piece together the diet of the inhabitants of the adjacent house. Unlike other contemporary sites, goose bones were more common than cattle bones, fish bones included herring, but no eel, oyster and other marine shells were very rare and pig bones were completely absent.
From historical evidence, it was known that the latrine was within the boundary of Jacob’s Hall, a property in Jewish ownership. And amazingly, the food waste was consistent with Jewish dietary law. This is a significant discovery: before the investigation, no traces of Jewish diet had been identified in British animal bone assemblages. What is more, the results were corroborated by residue analysis on the traces of fats, oils and waxes preserved in the cooking pots recovered from the site. Fats from cattle and sheep were detected, but pork fats were absent.
Later in the medieval period, the site was home to wealthy merchants, but in the late medieval period (15th to mid-16th century), new structures associated with an inn were constructed. The pottery from those structures almost exclusively comprised cups, mugs and jugs, probably coming from Battes Inn, an establishment known from historical records.
Another stone-lined latrine, dating to the mid-17th to early 18th century, was inserted against what had been the southern wall of Battes Inn. The latrine was filled with waste characteristic of a drinking establishment or accommodation favoured by wealthy individuals from a mercantile or collegiate background: figs, grapes, strawberries and other exotic fruit, a large quantity of clay tobacco pipes, and glass bottles from a variety of local drinking places. One bottle had the well-preserved seal of the Mermaid Inn (which looks a lot like the inspiration for the logo of a well-known and ubiquituous coffee shop chain...).
The remarkable results of the investigation, carried out on behalf of Reef Estates and with consultation by Orion Heritage Ltd., have been published in The Archaeology of Oxford in the 21st Century, available from https://oahs.org.uk/index.php
Jigsaw – Piecing Together Cambridgeshire’s Past
To mark Local and Community History Month, our #OAat50 highlights will celebrate some of OA's community archaeology projects. First up, the Jigsaw project in Cambridgeshire. ‘Jigsaw – Piecing Together Cambridgeshire’s Past’ project was born out of a long established tradition of public archaeology in Cambridgeshire, where the professional and voluntary archaeological communities have worked closely together to investigate and promote local archaeology.
Formerly the county’s in-house archaeological field unit, Oxford Archaeology East (OA East) had maintained a prominent educational and outreach programme in partnership with Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC) and had jointly delivered a range of National Lottery Heritage Funded projects. Whilst these ‘top-down’ projects had provided excellent opportunities for local community participation, OA East were often aware of our inability to respond to requests beyond the project focus or where established community groups exist. This led to the idea of a project to provide a ‘community-led’ approach to local archaeology which would provide the tools and training for both individuals and groups to carry out their own research.
With support from Huntingdonshire District Council and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), OA East and CCC successfully applied for a grant from the then Heritage Lottery Fund for a five-year project designed to support and develop community archaeology in Cambridgeshire which started in 2011. OA East appointed two Community Archaeologists who provided access to information, training and equipment, and produced a series of best practice guides. Sixteen existing archaeology and history societies affiliated to the Jigsaw community and eight new community groups were established.
Over 500 people in total volunteered on the project and received dedicated support and training to research, understand and protect their local archaeological heritage. Some of the most successful and memorable elements of the project hinged on close collaboration between the groups (as at the 2015 training excavation in Covington) and with other external organisations (as with the excavation of the Great Fen Spitfire in 2015 in partnership with the Great Fen and the Wildlife Trust).
The first county wide project of its kind, Jigsaw resulted in a huge number of people learning about and feeling empowered to participate in their own local heritage. Although the Lottery Funded term of the project came to an end in June 2016, the project’s legacy has continued. The success of the Jigsaw project has been the creation of a network of like-minded people who share their skills and knowledge, exchange news on their projects and ideas for further work, and support one another.
Shopping with a touch of archaeology
This week's #OAat50 highlight is a landmark project we undertook in Oxford.
Westgate Oxford is a large shopping complex in the centre of Oxford, which underwent redevelopment with clients Westgate Oxford Alliance and Principal Contractors Laing O'Rourke. The excavations carried out by Oxford Archaeology and managed by Ben Ford, Senior Project Manager, between 2014 and 2016, were the largest ever undertaken in the city and principally focused on a large medieval suburban friary. The project won Best Archaeological Project 2016 at the prestigious British Archaeological Awards and the outreach programme, which included an evolving Pop Up Museum, was a significant contributing factor.
The programme outlined the use of a Pop Up Museum as a focal point for disseminating the story of the Westgate to the public. It was one element of a series of activities including a schools programme, a talk series and two site Open Days. The budget was for 6 weeks over the first summer period of the redevelopment. An Advisory Panel was set up with the City Archaeologist, the client, archaeological consultant Tom Hassal, who directed previous excavations at the site, George Lambrick, who also carried out extensive excavations in the area, and members of other interested parties such as the Oxford Preservation Trust and the Continuing Education Department of the University of Oxford. They all provided input and direction to the excavations and for the outreach programme.
The Pop Up Museum was set up in four locations. Two of the locations displayed the same material, the shop unit in the Westgate shopping centre and the Central library prior to their refurbishment. There were 2,000+ visitors to the Pop Up Museum over summer 2015. During the Spring 2016 opening, there were 5,500 visitors to the Pop Up Museum as the Gallery space in the Museum of Oxford was larger so more material could be displayed and the exhibition told a much more complete story.
The outreach programme went beyond its original scope. The Pop Up Museum provided a hub for a multigenerational reminiscences project which was incorporated into an art project, UrbanSuburban, by Rachel Barbaresi. The reminiscences from people who saw the Westgate site change over the decades were recorded and made available in the Pop Up Museum, as well as a soundscape from the excavations. It was a reminder to many Oxford residents of the change within the city and the St Ebbes area that had changed so dramatically.
The Westgate Pop Up Museum has been presented as an example of best practice for public outreach in papers at the European Association of Archaeologists, Society of Museum Archaeologists and at professional development courses at the University of Oxford's Department for Continuing Education.
Sizergh Castle: it all started with a comunity dig for our colleague Emma
As we celebrate #OAat50, our staff are celebrating milestones too. Emma Fishwick joined us 10 years ago as an intern, and for Local and Community History month, she reflects on her experiences starting work with us.
“In summer 2013 I was invited to intern on a community dig at Sizergh Castle NT, Cumbria. The project was joint venture with Levens Local History Group and the National Trust, with three areas marked for investigation: the Great Barn, a prehistoric burnt mound, and an earthwork, suspected to be medieval or post-medieval in date. Of course, I said yes!
That July, we found ourselves in the middle of a heatwave. Mattocks clanged as they hit the ground and I think we bought out all the bottled water in a ten-mile radius of site every day. De-turfing the excavation sites in such heat was hard work. But it did make the end of day ice-creams at the visitor centre all the sweeter!
Volunteers were given training in surveying, recording and environmental processing whilst on site and later in the dig, we were joined by the local Young Archaeologist’s Club. They were able to get hands on with the excavation and we also set up an activity centre where they could hold the finds and have a go at making their own pottery.
A highlight for all was the discovery of a wooden, Bronze Age trough at the base of the burnt mound. With heat as the theme of the dig, it is not surprising the trough would probably have been used to heat water.
Whilst I didn’t always appreciate the muggy heat and scorching sun, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Sizergh and was looking forward to the start of my summer holidays the next day…
…and then the phone rang, as OA’s Lancaster office called to offer me a job!
I am now rapidly approaching my 10-year anniversary. Since July 2013, I’ve been on numerous excavations. However, archaeology isn’t just about having a trowel in your hand, washing finds or processing soil samples. I’ve helped prepare archives for deposition, been taught how to use computer systems to plot site survey data, recorded graveyard monuments and delved into the past using historical documents to bring people’s lives back to light.
Here's to the next ten years!”
Other posts in this collection
Read the latest posts celebrating our 50th year in archaeology.