Manchester’s Hidden Past – Saving the City Region’s Archaeology

1 Deansgate Dig

2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of the founding the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, the creation of the County Archaeologist post, and the establishment of the Sites and Monuments Record (now known as the Historic Environment Record) for Greater Manchester. The city region was one of the last counties in Britain to see the emergence of these modern planning tools. They occurred at the end of a decade that saw the beginnings of the professionalization of archaeology, led by the universities and funded through the Department of the Environment. It was a time of great optimism with the passing of the Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas the year before in 1979, although hopes of a state-funded archaeological service into which Greater Manchester might fit were about to be dashed.

Dukinfield Old Hall excs ap 1982

Aerial view of the Dukinfield Old Hall excavations

To mark this landmark in the development of modern archaeology within the Manchester city region I’m embarking on a series of blogs over the next two years looking at some of the key ancient monuments within Greater Manchester. These will culminate in a variety of celebrations in 2020, but more of those in due course.

It’s trite to say that many things have changed since 1980 but it’s no less true. In 1980 around 1500 people lived within the centre of Manchester, bounded by the Mancunian Way. Estimates suggest that by 2020 this figure will be over 20,000. The first SMR had just a few hundred sites, taken from the old Ordnance Survey record cards, and although a year later that number had risen to 1449 that is less than a tenth of the modern (2018) figure. In 1980 just one professional archaeological unit was digging in the county, GMAU itself, at Dukinfield Old Hall in Tameside, Peel Hall in Wythenshawe, and on the Roman fort in Manchester. In 2017 several dozen archaeological practices and units worked within the county on more 100 projects in all ten boroughs of the city region.


The late medieval bridge across the moat at Peel Hall in Wythenshawe

GMAU grew out of the campaigning efforts of Professor Barri Jones at the University of Manchester and the work of the voluntary body the Greater Manchester Archaeology Group.1 Its first director and County Archaeologist, Philip Houldsworth, had a core staff of just four (the others being Deputy Director John Walker, Field Officer Adrian Tindall and secretary Mrs J Vaccari), funded through the Greater Manchester County Council. The field team of eleven was funded through the Manpower Services Commission and led by Senior Supervisor Mike Morris.

Their first task was to finish the excavations of the northern gateway of the Roman fort in Manchester, begun a few years earlier and the immediate catalyst for the formation of the Unit. Ultimately this would lead not just to a publication on Roman Manchester (in 1986) but also to the reconstruction of the northern gateway of the fort (completed in 1987) and the landscaping of the area in front to create the Roman Gardens, still an important focus for the new community now living in Castlefield. As we shall see, this wider community impact and long-term benefit has been a central theme of the work of the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, it successor bodies, and the dedicated group of professional archaeologists who have followed in the footsteps of the pioneering field team from 1980.

1) The early years of ‘Rescue’ archaeology is retold in Barri Jones’s 1984 account – Past Imperfect. The Story of Rescue Archaeology.


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