A Shot in the Dark


The Musket ball from Pot Street, Altrincham.

Sometimes the smallest objects can lead you down some unexpected research paths, where the provenance (archaeology-speak for location and context) is as important, if not more so, than the object itself. This is often very true of ancient hoards rich in precious metals. It’s the information they contain and their location that are the most important piece of evidence not their monitary value. This was the case with the Early Medieval Silverdale hoard, north of Lancashire, which I described several years ago on this blog. Amongst the 141 fragments of chopped-up arm rings and ingots, 27 coins, fourteen ingots, ten complete arm rings, six bossed brooch fragments, two finger rings, and a fine wire braid, was a single coin that bore the name of a previously-unknown Viking ruler of northern England – Airedconut.

Likewise, in a very limited way, the small round metal object that my predecessor as chair of the South Trafford Archaeological Group, Derek Pierce, handed to me before Christmas, has taken me on an intriguing byway into Altrincham’s history.


The 1879-80 Market House, Altrincham.

This object was found wedged between two stone sets (that’s shaped square and rectangular-sectioned stones) on Pot Street, a short road between the bigger Market Street and Greenwood Street, to the north of the Altrincham covered market during some recent building work. This object is a musket ball weighing 24gms, with a diameter 16mm or 0.62 inches. It appears to be made from a lead alloy (either tin or pewter) and was dark grey in colour, having been cast. On one side a flattened area suggested that it had been fired and had hit something. The dimensions, fabric and form of the ball suggested a late 18th to mid-19th century date and that is was fired from a musket; that is a muzzle-loaded smoothbore gun.


1875 Ordnance Survey 60 inch map of Altrincham showing the Drill Hall and Ground on the site of the later Market House, Altrincham.

The stone-setts appeared to be contemporary with the market hall or house, a ’pretty building with giant pilasters and lunette windows’ (according to the most recent Pevsner architectural guide for Cheshire), built in 1879-80. Before that date this area was a green-field site, on the southern edge of the late medieval market and by the early 19th century a patch of unbuilt land with buildings to the north and east. Sometime in the mid-19th century a Volunteer Drill Hall was built for the Cheshire Yeomanry on the eastern side of what is now Greenwood Street. The Drill Ground ran to the south-west and north-west of the drill hall, the very area that in 1879-80 became the Market House and an open-air market area.

It thus seems highly probable that the musket ball was lost in the mid-19th century story, demonstrating once more archaeology’s ability to throw a window on the past through the smallest of items.

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