The coldest March in more than 50 years might seem a strange time to be going back into the field, but our flagship community archaeology project, Dig Greater Manchester, has just finished its first excavation of the year. Moss Bank Park, Bolton, sits on the site of the Halliwell Bleachworks, founded by Peter Ainsworth in 1739. The family expanded the site in subsequent generations and this was one of the first places to use chemical bleaching around 1800. The family were able to purchase the nearby medieval Smithills Hall in 1801 and later opened a number of small coal mines on the Smithills estate and built a tramway system to the bleachworks. Taken over by the Bleachers’ Association in 1900, Halliwell survived until the mid-20th century, although the most prominent remains are now a tall chimney and a reservoir.
For the final two weeks of March this was the scene of the first of four community excavations that Dig Greater Manchester will undertake this year. Despite the dig coinciding with the coldest March in 50 years and the heaviest snow, locally, of the winter (up to six inches in two days), more than 60 volunteers and the local history society helped out on the dig and around 70 people attended the Open Day on the final Saturday. There was plenty of exciting finds, including the somewhat surreal image of professional and volunteer archaeologists shovelling snow rather than dirt.
The aim of this year’s first dig was to locate the house built by the owners, the Ainsworths, and some of the housing occupied by the bleach and dye workers, also built by the Ainsworths. Within Trench 1 we uncovered the partial remains of the family wing of Moss Bank House. The remains showed three different building phases within the structure and during the last few days of the dig we uncovered a blocked mullioned window dating to the 18th century. Trench 2 revealed the remains of a 19th century wash house, and Trenches 3 and 4 revealed the partial remains of some 19th century workers housing.
These remains fall within one of the key research aims of the project: charting the creation of new cultural identities in the Industrial Revolution. By looking at the different types of finds from each site we are hoping to see if we can spot social differences between the occupants in the pottery, glass, and other material remains. So far, our DGM digs have looked at sites where the buildings have risen and fall in status during the Industrial Revolution; a feature reflected in the changing types of artefacts and building types recovered. The dwellings at Moss Bank Park suggest that the identification of differences in the finds assemblages at this latest site might not be straight-forward, due to the imbalance in the quantity of material recovered from each set of dwellings. There are some similarities in some of the pottery types, but it is not clear how far differences in depositional practices have affected these remains. However, there are status and display elements within the house of the Ainsworth family similar to some of the other sites we investigated in 2012. Once all 11 DGM site have been investigated a larger database, though, will provide clearer patterns of deposition and further lines of research which at the moment are only just beginning to emerge.