Tag Archaeology

50 Finds From Manchester and Merseyside: Objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Modern administrative areas have little meaning when we go back even a short time. But they can make all the difference when it comes to modern heritage work. So that’s why we have this book on finds from Manchester and Merseyside, which span the ages, and covers objects discovered through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The PAS was begun in 1997 to deal with the thorny issue of random finds discovered by metal detectorists, ramblers and anyone else stumbling across historic artefacts outside of a formal archaeological investigation.

Until then, the law surrounding what happened to buried artefacts depended on what they were made of. Things deemed ‘treasure’ were generally those which were judged to have been buried with the intention of the owner coming back for them, and this was generally taken to mean coins and precious metal.

So, for example, the famous Sutton Hoo ship was not treasure, because no one intended to recover it, and it was largely wood and iron. However, there’s no doubt that any chance finds from that feature would have been immensely important to archaeologists!

So today, if you find something of historical interest, you can report it to your local PAS officer who will record it and add it to the database. Merseyside’s officer (as well as being the officer for Cheshire and Greater Manchester) is Vanessa Oakden, who’s based at the Museum of Liverpool, and it’s a new book of her’s I’m looking at here.

50 finds from Manchester and Merseyside

This book is just one in a series covering all the counties where the PAS operates, all published by Amberley Press. It takes some of the best finds from the two counties to display the good work of the Scheme.

The book’s not only here to show off the best finds, however, but also to remind readers of the importance of reporting chance finds, and of making a note of where exactly something was found. This is of particular importance if the find is a piece of flint, as often the exact distribution of a scatter of flint debris is what gives archaeologists the important clues.

And what better way to have another round of rivalry with our Manchester neighbours than to compare impressive finds? 😉 (Turns out there are more prehistoric finds, and better ones, from Merseyside!)

The book is a heavily illustrated volume containing colour photos of all the finds mentioned, from different angles, including similar finds from elsewhere which give a bit of context. The impressive thing is that Vanessa shows a wide ranging knowledge, which must be a requirement for the job, at least to some extent. That must be the best thing about the role – coming into contact with different eras of human history each day!

Where does the landscape interest come in? Well, with a county-wide remit, the distribution maps in this book show that it’s not just the individual finds which bring through the knowledge, but how they’re ranged across the land. A national map of terrets (a type of harness fitting) show that they’re particularly common in the north east of England, and therefore all the more interesting when they turn up in south Lancashire.

The challenge for Liverpool and Manchester, however, is that the built-up areas will have destroyed a lot of early archaeology in the digging of cellars and foundations. The most fruitful areas for finds are rural (that’s where the metal detectors go, as well) but it should be remembered that the absence of a certain find type from the urban part of Liverpool doesn’t mean it wasn’t there once. It’s complicated, this stuff!

I don’t have many problems with the book. It’s a good overview of highlights from the PAS in this region, and is a fantastic advert for the scheme (along with the other books in the series). Hopefully it will encourage someone to bring in finds they might otherwise have kept to themselves.

If I had to say anything against it, it might be that the maps could have been a little more consistent. They came from different sources, but could easily have been standardised to help comparisons. There were also a couple of terms I didn’t understand, such as ‘rowells’, mentioned in an entry on a find of broken spurs from Bebington (they’re the spiky wheels on the heel of the spur).

Still, that doesn’t take away much from what is a handy archaeological overview of the counties covered, and finds-centred books are rare on the popular bookshelf.

You can buy 50 Finds from Manchester and Merseyside from Amazon UK

Related book: 50 Objects from Lancashire

If you’ve got a book that you’d like me to review, please get in touch via the Contact page.

Liverpool Heroes 3: Vikings in Liverpool

OK, so perhaps the Norse are as far from the ‘Liverpool Radicals’ we have in mind in 2011 as it’s possible to get.

They’re distant in time, left little visible trace in our city, and went about changing society through the delicate application of pointy-horned helmets.

But of course none of that is strictly true. There are traces of the Norse presence on our doorstep, and may have paved the way for Liverpool itself to be settled half a millennium after they first arrived. Read more

Liverpool Castle, and Leverhulme’s reconstruction

The council pulled down Liverpool Castle itself in 1715 and St George’s Church built in its place. However in 1895 E.W. Cox drew a reconstruction for the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. In the first decade of the 20th Century the first Viscount Leverhulme built a reconstruction of the ruins of the castle in the village of Rivington near Chorley. Today it stands in Lever Park, a large area of woodland on the east bank of Rivington Reservoir.

Liverpool Castle reconstruction

The replica Liverpool Castle stands on high ground overlooking the reservoir. Though of course it can never quite match the shape of the landscape in medieval Liverpool, the lake acts as a stand-in for the Pool. (Compare this plan on Wikipedia with the satellite view on Google Maps). The position of the River Mersey itself would have been in a west to east direction, on the north side of the two most complete towers at Rivington.

The castle was incomplete by the time of Lord Leverhulme’s death in 1925. Work stopped, though the majority of the intended layout was in place. Today the castle has its fair share of graffiti, and evidence of fires and drinking are all around. However, it’s a great place to go to get a feel for one of Liverpool’s lost gems.

Local History on the Ground and The English Semi-detached House

I’d like to review two books recently added to the NMR’s Library, which both have use for the local historian, and yet which are very different approaches to explaining their field. The first is Local History on the Ground by Tom Welsh (The History Press, 2009). I picked up this book hoping to recommend a good starting point for learning how to approach local history research. Instead, it’s a much more informative lesson on how not to approach the study of your local area.

Local History on the Ground, by Tom Welsh

Local History on the Ground, by Tom Welsh

Tom Welsh is a senior lecturer in Geography at the University of Nottingham. This shows in his clear writing style, good structure and approachable tone. He also has a number of good tips to help the amateur landscape historian gain access to places often difficult to see. However, the man has a bee in his bonnet, and over the course of the book this bee gets in the way of his point, and it becomes increasingly obvious over time just what the problem is.

The clues come early on with Welsh’s keenness to separate ‘archaeology’ from ‘local history’. To Welsh, archaeology is sytematic, scientific and prescriptive to the point of boredom. Local history is emotional, following-your-nose and instinctive, to the point of passion. Archaeologists get bogged down in the minutiae of sites and objects, and ignore the wider landscape, and are obsessed with the “scare story” that is stratigraphy. Another issue is their insistence of walking in straight lines over the ground (“systematic survey”) which is done to remove any biases and ensure objectivity when identifying features (“Why does ecology not get bogged down with this?”). He’s clearly unaware that the specific technique of field walking has the aim of identifying finds on recently-ploughed land, and has little concern with features. Systematic survey is something different altogether.

“There is a lot of mumbo-jumbo in archaeology” – Welsh, 2009.

After distancing himself from archaeology (the study of the past through interpretation of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes (Wikipedia)) he soon begins to reveal just how much vitriol he has for the profession. Archaeologists are defensive of their data, and of the historic environment in general (“a lot of heritage goes unnoticed as a result”). Amateurs are a nuisance to them, and they never (ever) let an amateur contribute to, say, the Historic Environment Record. By Page 91 it has been revealed that archaeologists seem to have snubbed Welsh’s own attempted contributions over the last 30 years. In one example of his work, he suggests that a hilltop site at Auchingoul is not a quarry, as the archaeologists suggest, but a Roman camp (an interpretation dismissed by OGS Crawford 60 years ago). He has done the fieldwork to prove it, and his neat little sketch shows a series of ponds, more ponds, a double pond, and an ‘access to pond’ track. Not sure where the Romans where meant to actually live, or why the famously standardised Roman camp template was abandoned. Perhaps because this site was 150 miles from the edge of the Roman empire.

So having never heard of landscape archaeology, or possessing any understanding of archaeological stratigraphy (he should realise it’s not just between sites, but within sites, and within features!) or fieldwalking, or geoarchaeology (archaeologists ignore geology, apparently), what has Welsh brought to the table in terms of technique? He clearly realises that landscape is the key to interpreting sites, but it seems that houses, tarmac and recent buildings get in the way of this. Despite his great contributions to the field of landscape history, W.G. Hoskins also made the mistake of seeing modern development as a muddying of the archaeological record, rather than an intrinsic part of it. And perhaps some archaeology is too concerned with classification (it certainly was when the majority of Welsh’s sources were written, in the 60s and 70s). But when you are working at a national scale, such similarities between far-flung settlements are actually informative, and help take the researcher further.

Tom Welsh has clearly had a lot of trouble over the years trying to convince archaeologists that his interpretations of sites are superior to the ‘official’ one. However, that is no reason to let your problems get in the way of your book, and in this case it really does. Another author, Margaret Gelling, writes in a similar way when looking at place-name research. While her books are excellent, invaluable texts, her insistence on constantly reminding us that we should keep such research in the hands of the professionals is almost the equal and opposite of Welsh’s idea. It spoils the readability of her work, and should be left out.

History on the Ground is a useful book. It has many great ideas on how to overcome barriers to research in your local area (get on the top deck of a bus for a better look), and goes systematically through the various elements of the landscape which you should examine in local history fieldwork. However, don’t let it put you off doing your own research. What we know today has benefited from the input of amateur researchers, and will continue to do so for as long as the past is of wider interest. But it will continue to be subject to peer-review, from other amateurs as well as professionals , as how else can quality be maintained? And contrary to what Welsh implies, do join your local archaeology society, and learn from people who have been doing it for years, rather than making it up as you go along and moaning when others suggest you might be in error. And certainly don’t criticise techniques of a practice that you clearly know little about, and have no intention of learning from.

The English Semi-detached House, by Finn Jensen

The English Semi-detached House, by Finn Jensen

In complete contrast to this style is The English semi-detached house: how and why the semi became Britain’s most popular house type by Finn Jensen (Ovolo Publishing Ltd, 2007). Jensen has written a survey of the developments of the semi-detached house in England over the last 500 years, starting from the large urban villas of the elite, and the country cottages of the working class, and brings the history right up to date with the housing developments in large estates during the 20th Century. Thankfully he neglects to criticise others in his field, and concentrates on producing a systematic yet readable history of these much-loved buildings through the years.

As this blog post has become too long already, and is really more concerned with technique than book content, suffice to say that The English Semi-detached House is an excellent resource, particularly for those readers who are researching Liverpool, and perhaps their own house, themselves. Jensen is a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, and along with areas of London and Chester, Liverpool suburbs feature heavily throughout the book in many of the 150 illustrations which fill its pages. Fig 1.1 is itself a pair of aerial photographs of West Derby, marking its 20th Century expansion, and the sheer number of semis in the area. Many more West Derby photographs appear, in addition to photos of Runcorn, Birkenhead and south Liverpool suburbs, so the Scouse reader is left with an extensive survey of his or her home turf!

Jensen was born in Denmark, yet grew up in an English semi, and his knowledge of the house form is detailed and wide-ranging. However, there is never the impression of his opinions getting in the way of the description, and the book is well referenced with a separate bibliography for each chapter.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone researching the modern suburban landscape, in addition to those looking at the older, and often larger semis more often seen in wealthy London suburbs built in (for example) the Georgian period. Welsh’s book, on the other hand, should be approached with caution, lest you be distracted by his attacks on the profession which has clearly offended him. Read Local History on the Ground for it’s investigative technique, but not for its interpretative advice!

If you’ve any more books you’d recommend (or avoid!), then do let me know in the comments.

Manchester Dock: the ‘lost’ dock under the Museum of Liverpool

Liverpool is famous for its docks, and to a great extent its part in the development of railways. The ‘lost’ Manchester Dock is one of the places these two came together.

Revealed by excavation in 2007, the Manchester Dock (now under the Museum of Liverpool) was one of the earliest docks on the river front. It was originally no more than a tidal basin connected to the river Mersey. The dock was used to hold the barges of the Shropshire Union Canal Company, and later the Great Western Railway. It allowed goods to be moved between Liverpool and the rail terminal at Morpeth Dock in Birkenhead.

In this way Manchester Dock played a role as a go-between, from the national rail network (connecting Liverpool – via Lime Street – to the industrial centres of Britain) and further ports of call on the other side of the river. The warehouses standing next to Canning graving docks were, until about 1p years ago, the home of the Liverpool Museum field Archaeology Unit. They still bear the name Great Western Railway on the canopies at the front.

Manchester Dock excavations

Time Team showed a ‘Special’ episode on the Manchester Dock on the 21st April 2008:

Although the trailers would have you believe Phil uncovered this crucial piece of Liverpool’s (and indeed the world’s) maritime history, excavations have been taking place for a while. Read Liverpool Museum’s blog posts from the excavations in 2007. The museum also has a ‘spotlight’ page about the Manchester Dock, and a Flickr photostream of the excavations.

Mapping the History of Liverpool

Interactive old maps of Liverpool's suburbs, old maps of Merseyside, and details of our protected, listed heritage.

And don't forget the book, Liverpool: a Landscape History

Recommended Reading

These are some of my favourite books on Liverpool history. They're what I'd recommend to someone who wants great coverage of the whole history of the port and city.

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Old maps from Cassini

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