On Friday 5 May 2017 more than 80 archaeology professionals, historic environment practitioners, and archaeology and history volunteers gathered to hear the results of Stage 1 of the North West Regional Research Frameworks update project. The venue, The Storey (formerly The Storey Institute) in Lancaster, was very appropriate as this was one of the sites used for the workshops for the original North West Regional Research Framework project undertaken in the early 2000s.
We were able to welcome back many of the participants from over a decade ago, once more giving freely of their own personal time and knowledge, although inevitably some key researchers from then were missing (such as the late Ben Edwards and the late Robina McNeil, to name but two). The archaeological community in North West England is not huge and like the first project this is very much a communal effort, with, so far, many individuals and organisations contributing period and thematic data to the project.
Our period speakers had the unenviable and extremely difficult task of summarizing 11 years of archaeological and historic environment research activity covering the 2006 to 2017. The aim was to highlight from each period what is new and where there are concentrations of research in the region, as well as noting gaps. It’s worth emphasizing that the update builds upon the existing regional research framework, and its period resource assessment chapters, which remain key foundation documents for the project. The intention is not to replace these documents but to build upon them when we move in to Stage 2, revising the research agenda for the region.
The volume of data generated since 2006 in almost overwhelming, with over 409 separate published items on North West archaeology and historic environment topics in the last 11 years, and several thousand grey literature, developer-funded, reports. We are still tracking down the published material so this figure can only increase.
Certain archaeological sites and finds standout as highlights from the last decade: the prehistoric footprints along the beaches at Formby; the Mesolithic site at Stainton West near Carlisle; the amber necklace from Shaw Cairn; the Iron Age sites at Poulton in Cheshire and Mellor in Greater Manchester; Roman hoards from Cheshire (Knutsford and Malpas) and Cumbria (the Crosby Garret helmet); the LIDAR revolution’s impact on locating Roman roads; new findings from late Roman Maryport and Ribchester; new dating techniques that are allowing the identification of early Medieval sites; early medieval activity from the Chester amphitheatre; the Cumwhitton Viking-age cemetery; Viking-era hoards such as Furness and Silverdale; early medieval settlement at Stainton; medieval longhouses in the Duddon valley; excavations at Buckton, Halton and Wolsty castles; the crozier from Furness Abbey; building surveys of late medieval cruck structures; surveys of the post-medieval landscapes of Dunham and Warburton; the recording of graffiti on buildings such as Little Moreton and Ordsall halls; fish traps on the River Ribble near Hutton; building surveys of post-medieval halls such as Bramhall, Holme, Ordsall and Tongue; post-medieval urban studies of Cockermouth, Penrith and Salford; new excavations of iron working sites at Cunsey Forge and the Stanley Bank and Lymm slitting mills; mining landscape surveys in the lake District and on Alston Moor; and industrial period sites including barn surveys in Lancashire; excavations on the Booth, Moston and Timperley hall sites; the excavation of Manchester’s first cotton spinning mill built by Richard Arkwright in 1781-83; workers’ housing excavations in Ancoats in Manchester and in Salford; graveyard excavations at Burnley and at Cross Street Chapel in Manchester; and the excavation of the early 19th century Hulme Barracks(associated with the Peterloo massacre) and the recording of World War 1 practice trenches on Walney island in Furness and at Watson Road in Blackpool.
Of equal significance has been the identification of development hotspots impacting on archaeological and standing building sites across the region. The redevelopment of city centre sites such as Carlisle, Chester, Liverpool and Manchester is no surprise. Yet smaller towns such as Bury, Lancaster, Middlewich and Stockport have also seen large amounts of redevelopment, as have particular rural building types such as the dis-used barns of Lancashire and the textile mills of Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester and Lancashire. Most parts of the North West have seen archaeological excavation and survey work over the last decade, and the impact of research in the national parks, funding by the HLF and by local societies is particularly noticeable in rural areas and small towns.
Yet we must not forget the strains that the historic environment sector is under, from cuts in local government funding to changes in university student recruitment. The numbers of planning archaeologists and museum archaeology specialists have all fallen in the region since 2006. Any sense that the voluntary sector could fill the gaps in conjunction with local professionals has been dispelled by the closure of several local museums including Haig Colliery in Cumbria and the Setantii museum in Tameside. The ups and downs of the professional archaeology sector, tied to the development cycle, has seen several field units close in the region (such as UMAU) and now university archaeology departments are facing uncertain times due to changing priorities and funding cuts.
After a decade of changing priorities, funding, and emphasis for archaeology and heritage in the North West, it is right that we should be re-assessing the value and role of the historic environment in the region. So far the communal effort has shown what a wealth of new data and techniques we have in the region. Now we have to decide between us, as a broad research community, what we think should be our priorities for research, engagement and dissemination in the next decade.