My childhood summer holidays were often spent at my grandparents where I’d watch TV programs like All Our Yesterdays. Using black and white film taken before the Second World War the series often featured idyllic scenes of life in the countryside. That relatively recent past seemed as remote to me as the Stone Age. As I got older I came to appreciate that even the recent past can be a fascinating subject for archaeologists.
All Our Yesterdays came to mind when the Manchester Young Archaeologists Club took part in fieldwork at Whitworth Park last Saturday. A community history and archaeology project involving staff from the University of Manchester Archaeology Department, the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery has been set up to explore the public park. Making use of a wide range of local history evidence including postcards, Ordnance Survey maps and oral history interviews with local residents, the archaeologists are finding out about long-lost facilities such as the Victorian and Edwardian bandstand, an observatory, boating lake and drinking fountains.
The Young Archaeologists did some resistivity survey, which involved passing an electric current through the ground in order to measure resistance and show the location of buried features such as ditches and stone footings. It works on the principle that the electric current passes quickly through damp features like ditches and more slowly where there is stone or brick. Plotting the differences in the resistance to the current allows you to see underground and decide where best to dig. Looking at the O.S. map we were on the edge of the boating lake or paddling pool where there was once an overflow. One of the members, Thomas, realised that ‘Fn’ on the O.S. map was the place in the lake where the fountain had been.
Accompanied by Melanie Giles and Hannah Cobb from the Archaeology Department we also looked for evidence of people using the park. A ring of mature trees may show where the bandstand once stood. Fragments of pottery may have been brought to the site from neighbouring housing estates when features like the boating lake were filled–in. Even graffiti and the scorch marks left by DIY barbecues tell you about how the park is used today.
I am now putting together a list of handling objects of 18th and 19th century date from the Manchester Museum collection to show visitors the sort of thing archaeologists might expect to find when excavation starts next year.
I write about the Whitworth Park project because community archaeology will be part of the new displays, if we are successful with our lottery application and the archaeology and Egyptology galleries are redeveloped. The second stage of our Heritage Lottery Fund bid will be submitted later this summer.
Thanks to Melanie, Hannah, Kate and the archaeology students for giving up their Saturday and involving the Young Archaeologists in the project.