Best Career Ever? – Sports Archaeology

2 mins read
Archaeology and football are not mutually exclusive: Archaeologist Jason Wood visits Liverpool’s Anfield stadium to show how sport, history and heritage interests work together.  

In my first year at secondary school I won an essay competition. The question read: ‘Imagine you are an archaeologist in the year 3000. Describe and interpret your discoveries resulting from the excavation of Anfield Football Ground in Liverpool’.

It is at times like this when you wish your parents had lovingly kept all your schoolwork. I do, however, dimly recall the excavation revealed an enclosure of concrete terraces and some turnstiles. The conclusion reached was that the building was an open-air prison (the turnstiles only permitting entry one way) and to judge from various graffiti the inmates had taken to worshipping a God named Shankly.

Fast forward 40 years to June 2010. I am sitting in 5-star luxury in one of the executive boxes in the Centenary Stand at Anfield, staring incredulously at a wall poster on which some corporate sponsor has contrived to misspell the name Shankly. A quote from another famous manager, Brian Clough, springs to mind: ‘… a lot of people are coming to games who wouldn’t know Stanley Matthews from Bernard Matthews. The stands are full of people who can’t tell you anything about the game unless it happened after 1990.’

This opinion holds true for the majority of clubs. They simply don’t do ‘old’ and rarely do they engage with the past. But Liverpool is different. The club, established in 1892, takes its history and heritage seriously. I am here to explore the implications of the decision to redevelop the site of Anfield, when Liverpool’s new stadium across the road in Stanley Park is completed. The club’s Regeneration Director and Museum Curator talk of the passion and pride of fans; of Anfield as a powerful repository of history; the depth of the club’s involvement with the local community; and the need to recapture the spirit and heritage of the place as part of the relocation project.

But why bring in an archaeologist? Simple. It takes an archaeological mind and an archaeological training to untangle the story of a site; to understand the value and significance of a place – whether sporting, military or ecclesiastic — to see beyond the bricks and mortar, and to see how to preserve its heritage.

‘This is Anfield’ is the working title for the redeveloped site that will form a grand entrance to the new stadium, with hotels, restaurants and shops grouped around an open plaza. The key is to ensure the scheme is of high quality, reflects the club’s history and heritage and allows the spirit of Anfield to live on.

Arsenal, in redeveloping its historic former ground, went for a unique solution when Highbury became ‘the world’s first sports stadium to be transformed into apartments’ — more than 700, in fact. The shells of the Art Deco east and west stands survive and have been sympathetically converted, with the famous marble halls and grand staircase in the listed east stand being retained as the entrance to the most exclusive apartments; and the pitch has become a communal garden. The scheme, in preserving the stadium’s historic fabric, footprint and sense of enclosure, successfully captures the aura and memories of the place, respecting its class and heritage.

As an archaeologist now specialising in the public history and heritage of sport and leisure, and football grounds in particular, it is a pleasure to encounter such reassuring dedication to the commemoration of historic stadiums like Anfield and Highbury. If only other clubs had had the foresight to do the same before their former grounds disappeared below housing estates, retail parks and supermarkets, without a nod of recognition, to await rediscovery by archaeologists in the year 3000.

Jason Wood
Heritage Consultancy Services

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