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Digging Greater Manchester

Digging Greater Manchester

Dig Greater Manchester is a major community archaeology programme led by Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology and is the largest project of its kind in England

The project, which began in 2011 and is funded by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) and the borough of Blackburn with Darwen, is being led by staff from the Centre for Applied Archaeology (CfAA) and managed by members of all project partners. The overall aim is to involve thousands of people from local communities in the investigation of their local history under the theme of: 'Accessing, Exploring and Celebrating your Heritage.'

Community dig participants - University of SalfordOver the course of the project to date more than 6,000 people across Greater Manchester, ranging from absolute beginners and schoolchildren to experienced archaeology volunteers, have become involved in their own history and heritage through taking part in an archaeological excavation.

All of this contributes to the project’s three overarching research aims, which are to examine the significance of community archaeology, the practice of community archaeology and the archaeology of industrialisation in the Manchester city region.

“We finalised the detailed project design for Dig Greater Manchester in March 2011,” explains Dr Michael Nevell, Head of Archaeology at CfAA, the only university-based archaeology organisation which is also located within a School of the Built Environment. “This contained all of the detailed project activities, delivery outputs, milestones and added value for the whole five-year project. Based on the initial pilot study list of suitable archaeological sites we decided that each local authority should have one evaluation of three weeks’ duration during the first three years and then two flagship large-scale, five-week archaeological excavations would be chosen for the final two years.

“This choice would be based on the most successful evaluation results in terms of archaeological findings, schools participation and volunteer numbers.”

Adding value through community cohesion

From the outset, Dig Greater Manchester had to be about far more than simply increasing numbers involved in archaeological work; it had to have real, tangible community benefits.

In October 2009 the Department of Communities and Local Government published its Building Cohesive Communities: what frontline activities need to know report, which called on volunteer, charity and local government bodies to ‘develop a shared story of place that takes into account the history of the locality and its communities’.

It was with this inspiration to view the exploration of the past as an endless and significant quest which empowers people that the project was founded, and a number of themes and key target groups were adopted.

At its heart the project aims to improve community cohesion, increase youth participation, reduce worklessness, promote healthy living and increase learning outside of the classroom. This is achieved through targeting volunteer archaeologists, local groups and associations, local communities, schools, people not in employment and those with disabilities to become involved. Volunteers receive in-depth training in various non-intrusive archaeological techniques such as historical research, geophysical surveys, archaeological building surveys, graveyard surveys and finds processing.

The project aims to improve community cohesion, increase youth participation, reduce worklessness, promote healthy living and increase learning outside of the classroom. This is achieved through targeting volunteer archaeologists, local groups and associations, local communities, schools, people not in employment and those with disabilities to become involved.

While these in themselves are worthy aims, it is also vital that the involvement of these groups adds quantifiable value. It is expected, for instance, that the number of volunteer days by the time the project is complete will number over 5,000, which in itself is estimated to be worth over £375,000 at Heritage Lottery Fund estimates of £75 per volunteer day.

To complement this, it is anticipated that the increased participation and publicity created by the project will also lead to a number of new local history and archaeology societies being created, which will be supported through the loaning of equipment and provision of training.

By the numbers

  • Over 6,000 local people involved to date with over 10,000 expected in total


  • 6,500 schoolchildren
  • 4,000 local volunteers putting in 5,000 days

Indeed, proof of this aim has already been provided with the creation of the Bury Local History Group, set up by one of the volunteers whose interest in the subject was fuelled while helping out at the Bury excavation in Radcliffe’s Close Park.

The enthusiasm of youth, meanwhile, is being tapped through extensive work with local schools. “This is a key aspect of the programme, as archaeology is an excellent subject for both formal and informal learning,” explains Brian Grimsditch, Senior Archaeologist at CfAA.

Bury Council recently made a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to undertake further work at the site of Radcliffe Tower within Close Park. The Dig Greater Manchester work already undertaken at the site has uncovered a great deal of evidence, resulting in much local public interest, and so it is hoped that, if successful, the funds will be used to develop this, involve more community volunteers and conserve the remains. This approach will be based on the Dig Greater Manchester methodology and should result in the provision of greater public access to the tower, a listed building and Ancient Scheduled Monument.

Evaluations to date

  • March 2012 – Etherstone Hall, Leigh – Wigan
  • July 2012 – Close Park, Radcliffe – Bury
  • September 2012 – Chadderton Park – Oldham
  • October 2012 – Reddish Vale Country Park, Reddish – Stockport
  • March 2013 – Moss Bank Park, Halliwell – Bolton
  • June 2013 – Balderstone Park, Rochdale
  • July 2013 – (Exact location to be confirmed) – Manchester
  • October 2013 – Buile Hill Park, Salford
  • 2014 – Tameside Borough
  • 2014 – Trafford Borough
  • 2014 – Blackburn with Darwen Borough

Great excavations

At the time of writing, five excavation evaluations have taken place, the first of which was at Etherstone Hall, Wigan in March 2012. The same year saw excavations completed near Radcliffe Tower in Bury, Chadderton Hall in Oldham and Wood Hall in Stockport.

Volunteer at Dig Manchester - University of SalfordThe Wigan evaluation explored the archaeology of a medieval house, which was rebuilt by a local cotton merchant during the early 19th Century. After the house was demolished the site became overgrown with woodland and was blighted by fly-tipping, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. As a direct result of the archaeological evaluation and community interest generated, the local council cleared the area and made it safe, creating footpaths and a performance space for long-term community use in the process.

The second evaluation in Bury’s Close Park explored the area around the medieval Ratcliffe Tower and the later workers’ housing, which was built as part of a bleach works that occupied the site in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This successful excavation uncovered much evidence and generated a great deal of public interest, resulting in the creation of the Bury Local History Group and the Heritage Lottery Fund bid due to be decided this summer. Meanwhile, the close relationship that developed with the local council as part of the Oldham project has resulted in the team being asked to design a project for further work on the site, and the Stockport evaluations saw park rangers working closely with school groups which has led to further joint initiatives between these two departments.

“We are extremely pleased with the response we’ve had to the evaluations so far,” says Grimsditch. "Seeing the community so enthusiastic at the first excavation in Wigan set the tone for the rest of the year, and directly resulted in the council taking an active interest in the site and making it fit again for public use.

These are tangible outcomes on top of the targets we have set internally for the project, and it is so pleasing to know that the work we are doing is making a real difference.

“On site at Moss Bank Park in Bolton, which was the first dig of 2013, we identified the remains of an 18th century mansion house belonging to the owner of the bleach works, and Higher Bank, a row of workers’ cottages.

"Once again, we’ve had an excellent response from the community and it was so pleasing to see that all of the volunteer places were fully booked more than four weeks prior to the start of the dig. While we are extremely sorry to have to turn anyone away due to lack of places, but we believe that this shows what interest there is out there in local heritage, and so hopefully that interest can be harnessed into the future.”

With further excavations planned for 2013 in Rochdale, Salford and Manchester, it certainly seems that this sense of community enthusiasm for local heritage is set to continue.

Past and future come face-to-face

Since the very first excavation in Wigan, the project has seen several undergraduate and postgraduate students from local universities volunteering on site, keen to improve their fieldwork skills and boost their portfolios. Students from the nearby universities of Manchester and Bolton, Leicester and

Sheffield have also taken part, while from further afield students have travelled from Scotland and even Australia and New Zealand to gain some on-site experience.

“As an archaeology student from another country who has not yet had the chance to participate in an archaeological excavation, my experience with the Dig Greater Manchester project has been fantastic,” said Ryna from Australia during the time she took part in the Etherstone and Newton Hall excavations. “I received a tremendous amount of help, guidance, support and care from everyone on board. I was also allowed to participate in various tasks and learned quite a lot about excavation methods and techniques, the methods of conducting an archaeology research project and what is required in terms of surveying, gathering information and working as a team.

“Dig Greater Manchester also gave me many opportunities to meet other like-minded people and establish some useful contacts for my future endeavours in archaeology. I would highly recommend this volunteering opportunity to students of archaeology who are building up their fieldwork experience, archaeology enthusiasts and all who have an interest in local heritage. I found it highly rewarding and enjoyable to be part of this project."

One of the schools that visited the Wigan excavation in 2012 was St Joseph’s Primary School in Leigh, and headteacher Anne McNally, who organised the activity, says that the children found it extremely worthwhile. “Our children have been inspired by the dig and the work they have been doing. During the warm weather just before we finished for Easter the children were allowed on the school field. A number of them came to me with handfuls of pottery that they had dug up from just below the surface of our land and were talking about what they thought they were and who had used them. The school is built on land where terraced houses and a mill used to be, and these treasures are now on display in class!”

By accessing, exploring and celebrating the city region’s unique heritage, we are helping communities to understand and enjoy their local history in a very hands-on way, leading to it being cherished more and, therefore, protected by those communities.

Opening access to all

To complement this capturing of youthful enthusiasm and to make the project accessible to as many people as possible, opportunities to participate have also been made available to people with learning disabilities and other special needs.

One example of how this has been enthusiastically received is provided by the way the Manchester Learning Difficulties Partnership has attended all five digs so far. “The partnership deal with people with learning difficulties and it has been wonderful to welcome them to all of our sites up to now,” says Brian. “There are two groups within the partnership: one that uses art work to improve and create learning opportunities, and another that does more physical work on the sites, including some excavation. During their time with us the therapists and supervisors said that they’ve observed improvements in their clients as a result of the work they’ve been doing, which is another extremely worthwhile result that, while difficult to quantify in a report, is what Dig Greater Manchester is all about.

“Related to this, and also less tangible in terms of quantifiable outputs, we have also had several people work on site with us who have difficulties mixing with others, including a keen archaeology student who was going to leave her course due to these issues. We were contacted by her tutor and mentor and provided a placement for her on the digs, which included further practical training, and we’re told that this has really contributed to her catching up with her coursework and refocusing on her studies.

"We’ve also welcomed a local resident with dyslexia who has been unable to find permanent employment, and who was noticeably reticent to talk or mix with other volunteers on the first Wigan dig. As a result of the satisfaction he gains from being part of the project he has since been to every dig, and the vast improvement in his confidence is noticeable to the point where we’re now able to place inexperienced volunteers with him for training,” he adds.

Exploring, understanding, inspiring into the future

With further excavations in 2013 still to come in Rochdale, Salford and Manchester, it also seems certain that this good work will continue, and the benefits will continue to be shared.

“By accessing, exploring and celebrating the city region’s unique heritage, we are helping communities to understand and enjoy their local history in a very hands-on way, leading to it being cherished more and, therefore, protected. This definitely cultivates a sense of place and distinctiveness,” explains Dr Nevell.

“What Dig Greater Manchester is doing is creating an opportunity for local communities to become involved in their own history and heritage in a number of ways. We are already seeing the project act as a catalyst to inspire further analysis, presentation and, most importantly, enjoyment, of local heritage.”