The Archaeology of Manchester in 20 Digs – Book No. 48

This year, 2020, marks forty years since the first professional archaeological unit was founded in Manchester. It seemed appropriate, then, to write a book reviewing the emerging understanding of the city’s archaeology and history through some of the most significant excavations undertaken. Fortunately, the wonderful commissioning editors at Amberley Publishing thought it was a good idea as well, and were kind enough to offer a suitable vehicle for publication.

This was just as well, since all the celebration events that the Chief Planning Archaeologist for Greater Manchester, Norman Redhead, and myself had planned for 2020 have been cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the launch of my 48th book, and third on Manchester, was put back by three months due to the pandemic, though fortunately Amberley Publishing have been able to continue to issue new titles.

I have spent much of my professional archaeology career and student years (nearly 40 years, gulp!) in and around Manchester. Though I have undertaken fieldwork elsewhere in the UK, and in Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, I think it’s fair to say that Manchester is my professional and spiritual home. The temptation was, of course, to focus on the city’s role as one of the early centres of the first wave of global industrialisation. And since the creation of the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit in September 1980 there have been hundreds of individuals excavations and archaeological building surveys across the city. What to choose, therefore, was important if I was going to tell a balanced story.

The format of the book was twenty digs that would chart the discovery of the archaeology of the city of Manchester. I’ve resisted going beyond the borders of the modern city, to focus on the story of Manchester through its surviving below-ground physical remains. This is, of course, a personal choice but I have endeavoured to select those sites that represent the full chronological development of the city as we understand it in the early twenty-first century. I have also chosen sites which marked significant shifts in either our understanding of the city’s development or in the way its archaeology and history was managed.

As my archaeology career is almost as old as professional archaeology within the city, I have been fortunate enough to taken part in 12 of these digs and to have visited a further five during the excavations. I was not old enough to participate in Prof Barri Jones’ community digs in Castlefield during the 1970s, the first modern community archaeology projects within the city, although my elder brother was. My parents took us to the open days at both the Deansgate Dig in 1972 and at Byrom Street in 1977-78, although I barely remember the details of either.

However, these visits left a lasting impression and it was to the Archaeology and Ancient History course at the University of Manchester that I applied and was accepted in 1981. In the first week there us fresh-faced undergraduate archaeology students were taken for a tour of the Castlefield dig at the northern gateway of the Roman Manchester fort. This was being dug by the newly formed GMAU, whose offices were based on the same floor as the archaeology department at the University. Ever since, professional archaeology in Manchester has had a link with a university, the successors to GMAU being based at the University of Salford since 2009.

To find out which digs I chose, and why, you can order a copy of the book from here:

And in reply to the usual question from my eldest daughter – no it’s not a sticker book this time, though I am open to offers.


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