40 Years of Archaeology in Greater Manchester: the Founding of GMAU

The 21st November 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the publication by the UK Government of a dry-sounding document called ‘Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology & Planning’. The policy covered all development that required planning permission – either as below-ground works or changes to historical, architectural, or industrially important buildings – in England and Wales. It required developers to pay for this archaeological work. In return, developers were free to choose who they would employ.

Excavations (blue line) on the site of the northern gateway at Roman Manchester (dashed outline) in 1980 – the year that GMAU was founded.

The guidance was thus for use by archaeologists, developers, amenity groups, and planning authorities. It detailed how archaeological remains would be preserved or recorded in both urban and rural areas. It also gave advice for the handling of archaeological discoveries and remains within a development plan. The importance of this document cannot be overstated. It formalised the role of professional archaeology within the development and planning process, and along with its successor documents (PPS5, the NPPF, and heritage planning documents in Northern Ireland, Scotland, & Wales), laid the foundation for the more than 80 professional archaeology units and 5,500 plus full time archaeologists now working in the UK.

This planning guidance (not legislation) was the culmination of a process of professionalisation that began after the Second World War and in the case of Greater Manchester saw the establishment of its first professional field unit on the 1st September 1980, the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit (GMAU). That means that 2020 also marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of professional archaeology within the city region, laying the foundations for the modern archaeological profession as practiced within Greater Manchester.

There is a long tradition of archaeological study and investigation in the Manchester area. From the 1880s the University of Manchester was at the forefront of this research, through the work of a succession of lecturers in history and curators based within the Manchester Museum, and from 1969 through the Archaeology Department. The Deansgate Dig of 1972, which explored the Roman settlement to the north of the fort, was an important moment in the development of modern archaeological research within the city. Not only did it demonstrate the survival of Roman and nineteenth century archaeology deposits within the city centre, just a few centimetres below the current ground level, but it was also the first community excavation in Manchester, involving hundreds of individuals, and led to the creation of Britain’s first urban heritage park. It also trained a generation of archaeologists, under Professor Barri Jones, who would go one to work at GMAU.

As excavation work on Roman Manchester continued during 1980, negotiations with the Greater Manchester Council were proceeding about funding archaeology in the county on a more permanent basis. The conclusion of these negotiations was the establishment of the Greater Manchester Archaeology Unit, to be based at Manchester University but with core funding from the Greater Manchester Council (GMC), in September 1980. Additional project funding was raised from the Manpower Services Commission and the newly established Unit immediately took over the Northgate excavations in Roman Manchester along with the core professional team of dig supervisors previously employed by Professor Jones. This was a pivotal moment: the establishment of the city’s first professional archaeology unit with a link to the local university, a formula that remains the basis for overseeing professional archaeological work within Greater Manchester in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

In the 1980s professional archaeological research within the city region was undertaken by the newly established Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit. The abolition of the GMC in 1986 saw a new relationship emerge, with GMAU now established as one of the joint planning units funded by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), and the University of Manchester in additional support. That funding underpinned a core of four full-time posts with project monies raised for all other work.

Whilst excavations continued within the city centre at Castlefield (1980-89), Chetham’s College (1982), and Peel Hall in Wythenshawe (1981-2, where I took part in my first ever building survey – recording the stone bridge across the moat), the newly established GMAU also undertook the first professional excavations in the other nine boroughs of Greater Manchester. Early projects included the survey and excavation of a prehistoric cairn at Hades Hall above Rochdale in 1981. This was run as a training excavation for archaeology students from Manchester University, and I well remember bouncing along in the back of a very battered long-wheel-based land rover up the rutted trackway to the site of the dig in October 1981 with my fellow first-year archaeology students. Also in 1981, test pitting was undertaken at High Bank in Medieval Altrincham. This site lay immediately west of the old marketplace and, working alongside the South Trafford Archaeological Group, late medieval ploughsoils and pottery were recovered from the allotments in this area. Three seasons of excavations in the centre of Wigan, in an area known as The Wiend, from 1981 to 1983, located for the first time intact Roman deposits including the foundations of a rectangular timber building. This proved to be a barracks building for a Roman auxiliary fort of the late 1st and 2nd centuries. In Tameside, the complete plan of the late medieval and 16th and 17th century Dukinfield Hall was stripped and excavated in 1982 ahead of redevelopment. Further medieval sites were located in the centre of Stockport. Here excavation was undertaken in several places around the Old Market Place in 1983, uncovering late medieval deposits. The Roman auxiliary fort and later fortlet at Saddleworth in Oldham saw a major programme of excavation and conservation. This lasted from 1984 to 1989 and included the restoration of the early 2nd century fortlet’s banks and ditches as a prominent landmark. The first site to be excavated in Salford was the Bulls Head on Greengate, in the heart of the late medieval market town. In 1986 the excavations, in a car park, uncovered two rock-cut cellars at the eastern end of the timber-framed building and a 17th century stone-lined well. In Bury, the wheelpit of the late 18th and 19th century Burrs Mill was excavated in 1987-8. This was part of landscape and reclamation work for the creation of the Burrs Country Park along the River Irwell north of Bury town centre. Finally, in Bolton, during 1989 to 1990, the site of the late medieval Lostock Hall was excavated, along with a medieval moat which surrounded the 16th century stone gatehouse, the only part of the complex to survive above ground.

Many other sites were excavated across the city region during the 1980s by GMAU, and in addition the professional unit also undertook landscape surveys and building surveys. These included county-wide surveys covering medieval moats and country houses, and the Greater Manchester Textile Mill Survey, the latter in conjunction with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England (later merged with English Heritage). These surveys formed the basis of the Sites and Monuments Record for Greater Manchester, now the Historic Environment Record database: the foundation document that underpins all the archaeological planning advice in the region. Importantly, GMAU also worked with the first iteration of the Greater Manchester Archaeology Federation for most of the 1980s, running training digs and workshops for the many local archaeology societies in the city region, and staged the first Greater Manchester Archaeology Days.

In 1994 the field section of the unit was separated to form the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit; a reflection of the rise of commercially funded archaeology in the Britain during the 1990s, boosted by the implementation of PPG16 and the need to separate planning advice from contract work. By the end of the 1990s the city centre of Manchester had become one of the four most active archaeological areas within north-west England, at least in terms of commercially funded archaeology (the others being Carlisle, Chester, and Ribchester).

March 2011 saw the closure of GMAU, but it was reborn in April of that year as the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service, the three staff of Norman Redhead, Dr Andy Myers, and Lesley Dunkley now being based at the University Salford and still supported by AGMA, and later on by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. In 2019 the GM HER database had 19,052 individual entries comprising monuments, find spots, listed buildings, local historic interest buildings, historic places, and ancient landscapes. There were also 54,000 records for the Historic Landscape Characterisation dataset. These records were supported by 94,658 images and a substantial paper archive and library including more than 2000 archaeological reports dating back to 1980. In the period April 2018 to March 2019 GMAAS were consulted on 337 schemes through the planning process, advising that 157 needed further archaeological work. It was consulted on 66 Written Schemes of Investigation (WSI) supplied in accordance with archaeology planning conditions and undertook 42 monitoring visits to archaeological investigations being undertaken on development sites. In the same period GMAAS received 191 archaeology reports to place in the GM HER. This archaeological work was undertaken by 48 separate organisations, conducted by hundreds of professional archaeologists, as a response to the largest concentration of urban redevelopment in the UK outside Greater London. That’s a far cry from the five professional excavations undertaken in 1981 and the initial 1550 archaeological sites entered onto the GM Sites and Monuments Record when established in that year.

It is worth remembering that excavation is a destructive process and a last resort in a development context. Yet, without the establishment of a professional archaeological planning system, and the growth of the professional archaeology sector to undertake this work in the last 40 years, our understanding, sense of place, and connection with the historic landscape would be greatly diminished. The legacy of those GMAU pioneers in September 1980, the core team of Phil Holdsworth, John Walker, Adrian Tindall, and Jasmin Vacarri, and the 10-person field team led by Mike Morris  and including Stewart Bryant, Claire Hartwell, and Paul Reynolds, lies not just in the images, publications, and reports in the GMAAS archive. It can also be found in the changed places, improved landscapes, and a better sense of historical depth and of place, from the Castlefield Canal Basin and Burrs Country Park, to the restored Castleshaw Roman forts and the ruins of Broad Mills in Broadbottom. This work has enabled many local communities to better understand their surroundings through a deeper understanding of their past.

Some of the early volumes of the Greater Manchester Past Revealed series of archaeology booklets – overseen and promoted by GMAAS

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