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.