Dig Greater Manchester – Wigan Borough Update on the Results of the Excavation

The first Dig Greater Manchester fieldwork was carried out between 1st and 17th March 2012 with the first two taken up with opening the site and ensuring safety for volunteers and the last two for reinstating the site and removing the fencing and site cabins etc. This left 12 days of excavations by local volunteers and educational visits.

Initial stripping of the site, saw the removal of top soil and overburden was removed using a mechanical excavator under the directions of Centre for Applied Archaeology staff. Three large trenches with another three smaller trenches were opened across areas that were thought to contain archaeological remains of the farmhouse and outbuilding and the ‘imposing new house’ built by Thomas Jones in 1826. This initial stripping of the trenches, although revealing an amount of archaeological remains in the form of brick walls and floor surfaces, was felt to be a little disappointing in quantity and quality.

The main archaeological focus of the excavations were to locate, assess and record the remains of the post 1825 development of the site and to attempt to determine the relationship of those building with the late 18th and early 19th century structures. A further aim of the evaluation was to locate and assess the possibility of early possible medieval habitation of the site. This was suggested by the shape of the enclosed area shown on several maps and from a small amount of late medieval pottery discovered in a ditch-like feature during an earlier evaluation trench in 2006. Unfortunately no further evidence of the medieval stage was discovered apart from a few pieces of mid- late 17th century pottery

However, following excellent work by the volunteers, who spent many hours delicately trowelling the soils away to reveal a pattern of brick walls that formed several rooms, of at least three different buildings, that at first impressions were the 19th century farmhouse and its adjoining outbuildings surrounding a courtyard. These remains contained several phases of construction with the bricks indicating dates of early 19th to early 20th century.

Floor surfaces were also uncovered and took the form of quarry tiles in the western range to large stone flags in the eastern range. Although on these types of site many artefacts in the form of pottery are a feature, the volume of such artefacts at Etherstone Hall was unusual. They took the form of mostly pottery sherds, with a date range between the late 18th century and early 20th century, many pieces of badly rusted iron work and some glass bottles. Significant finds were an almost complete horse saddle girth with its buckle, a large amount of clay pipe stems and bowls and a particularly interesting plate. The saddle girth was found at the northern end of the western range within a possible brick stall suggesting that this end may have been stabling. Although clay pipes are a usual find from Victorian sites there were only a few pieces coming out of the large trenches over the building remains. However, a small hand dug trench to the south west of the site that contained no physical archaeological remains yielded a large amount of stems and bowls and this became known as the ‘smokers corner’.

The most fascinating pieces of pottery came from the large trenches over the southern and eastern ranges, and intrinsically of little value, were eventually fitted together and formed at least two separate plates. What was their true value was only revealed on completing the reconstruction when it revealed that these plates had the nursery rhyme ‘Hey Diddle Diddle the Cat and the Fiddle’. An early 20th century photograph of the farmhouse had been found during the archive research of the site that depicted three young girls stood outside the farmhouse and it would be nice to think that these plates were these girls’ dinner plates.

The true story of the success of the first DGM excavation lies in the numbers of volunteers and school children who attended the site. There were 225 day placements taken by the adult volunteers which were taken up by 91 different people. Of these 91 people, mainly from the local area or within 5 miles of the site, 59 were people who had never been on an archaeological project.

Educationally we had in excess of 280 school children spending half a day on the site taking part in structured exercises that included excavation, geophysics and finds analysis. These children were mainly of primary school age but one group was from a secondary school and one from the local sixth form college. Also we had 14 students from Priestly Sixth Form College who came for a full day on site. These students were studying for their ‘A’ Level in archaeology. Four of these students also spent several days of their ‘down time’ from college to come and increase and improve their fieldwork skills independently.

Other educationally connected volunteers included three undergraduates and three graduates of archaeology taking the opportunity to improve their skills. Finally, we had a group of ten people from the University of the Third Age whose enthusiasm was difficult to beat.

The first excavation of Dig Greater Manchester at Etherstone Hall in Leigh was a success in many ways. The number of adult volunteers given the chance to be involved in investigating their heritage reached our hoped for targets, as did the number of schools places. We had an extra school attend who had missed out on booking an arranged site visit and they were very grateful. Other education successes were the involvement of a 6th Form College whose students were studying for the fieldwork module for their ‘A’ Level in Archaeology and last but not least, the group of University of the Third Age (U3A) had a wonderful time and have asked to be involved in further excavations and community projects.

Ian West, one of the volunteers from the local area said to a reporter from the Manchester Evening News “I’ve always been fascinated by local history. I had always thought that you need to be a professional to be allowed access a historic site so getting the chance has been incredible” (M.E.N. 17th March 2012)

The archaeology was not bad either.

Brian Grimsditch

Schools get Digging

Now that Dig Greater Manchester is really underway we’ve just finished the first phase of the schools programme in Wigan. This involved a week travelling around Wigan giving class visits to all 10 schools that have signed up to take part in the Etherstone Hall evaluation. It was a great week and a fabulous opportunity for the pupils to get to know Sarah (educational archaeologist) and find out about what would be happening on site.

Each school had an hour-long visit which introduced archaeology and the history of the site itself. The age and knowledge range of the students varied wildly but they all had a fairly good idea of what archaeology is. The sessions were great fun and included a mixture of activities and discussion. Each one started with the question ‘who knows what an archaeologist does?’ which brought up all sorts of answers! After discussing what archaeologists do and where they dig we got stuck into some rubbish sorting games. These were designed to get the students thinking about what sort of things may be found on a dig and what these things can tell us about the people who dropped them. As you can imagine the reaction to bags of (clean!) rubbish with things like old shoes and banana skins in was quite interesting!

The sessions also included some map reading to illustrate how archaeologists find the sites they are going to dig (we’re not psychic as some of the younger pupils thought!). We concentrated on maps of Etherstone Hall and the children were asked to look for familiar symbols and taught about those that they didn’t recognise. The final activity of the sessions was ‘What’s that for’ a chance to try out the tools that will be used on site and work out what they’re used for. This was an important activity to help the students feel a little more confident about what they’ll be doing on site rather than like fish out of water.

The class visits really highlighted just how much interest there is amongst both teachers and students for archaeology. Every class was asked ‘who is excited about going digging?’ and without exception the answer from everyone was always ‘I am!!’. This overwhelming enthusiasm seems to stem not only from the archaeology itself but also from the opportunity to try something new and different and get out of the classroom. We’re hoping that the skills the students will learn can be applied to all sorts of areas both as part of their school work (interpretation, analysis) and in life in general (confidence, communication), and of course inspire a new generation of budding archaeologists!

DGM Gets Digging

The Dig Greater Manchester (DGM) project is now up and running and our first archaeological evaluation will be at the site of Etherstone Hall, Leigh, Wigan. It will start on Monday 5th March and run until Saturday 17th March. We will be on site Saturdays but not Sundays and the final Saturday (17th March) will be a public open day.


Dig Greater Manchester is a project intended to create an opportunity for the local communities in the Greater Manchester region to get involved in a variety of ways in their own history and heritage. We will be providing the chance for thousands of Greater Manchester residents to actually get ‘hands on’ experience of an archaeological excavation in a safe and healthy environment. We will also provide a learning opportunity with a series of lectures and workshops in archaeological techniques during the excavations but also as separate one day courses when techniques such as archaeological building surveys, geophysical surveys, artefact analysis etc. will be taught. All of these things will be free of charge; you just have to get yourselves to the venues.

There will be four excavations this year:

Leigh in Wigan – 5th to 17th March

Radcliffe in Bury – 18th to 30th June

Chadderton in Oldham – 10th to 22nd September

Reddish in Stockport (venue to be confirmed) 8th to 20th October

Dates for the seven other excavations will be announced later this year.

The workshops and lectures will be spread throughout the year and the dates for these will be posted when the venues have been arranged so please keep up to date with this blog and other social media. You can also contact the DGM team if you would like further information.

We are taking bookings for this year’s excavations so anyone interested and wanting to take part please contact Brian Grimsditch (tel. Ph. 0161 295 3821, b.grimsditch@salford.ac.uk) or Debbie Atkin (tel. Ph. 0161 295 6286, d.atkin@salford.ac.uk).

During one of the weeks of the excavations we will be running a programme for schools and colleges when a class from up to ten different schools will spend half a day on site taking part in a number of archaeological activities (one of which will be actual excavation) and we have a dedicated educational archaeologist who will be dealing with the schools. She will also deal with any other educational matters and we are hoping that a number of groups who would not usually get involved in projects such as DGM will be able to come along and gain benefit from the project. We have been approached by a number of groups including a group for long term unemployed and a group for those with learning difficulties. We are hoping for groups with disabilities to be included as well. Any such groups or schools and colleges can contact Sarah Cattell (tel. Ph. 0161 295 2545, s.j.cattell@salford.ac.uk) for details.

We intend to run a weekly blog to update the progress of the project but this will increase in frequency when we are on site or there is a need to update more often. If time and results allow we will post a daily update whilst on site so that those who cannot attend a particular excavation but are still interested can get information as it happens.