Excavating the CA archive: North-West England

12 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column belowcan be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 3 September. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI367, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

For my next county-focused exploration of the CA archive, I decided to visit North-West England in a two-part column spread across this and the next issue. I will begin by examining the places and peoples of Merseyside, Liverpool, and Greater Manchester, where some extraordinary urban heritage can be found only a few miles from the wildly contrasting coastal landscapes of the Wirral, with its legacy of Viking occupation. Then, in the next edition, I will spread out into the surrounding countryside of modern-day Cheshire to examine the story of communities there, in the past and present alike.


Article in CA 154 titled 'Tomorrow never knows - The Archaeology of The Beatles', with a photo of 20 Forthlin Road above some text
CA’s reports on the archaeology of Liverpool have included more-recent sites, such as 20 Forthlin Road, the home of Paul McCartney, explored in issue 154.

CA 154 (September 1997) reported from one of the most ‘current’ sites ever featured in Current Archaeology – 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, home of Paul McCartney between 1955 and 1963, which at this time had just been acquired by the National Trust in a purposeful diversification of its portfolio that challenged preconceptions of an organisation best known for ‘a view, a brew, and a loo’. As Robert Woodside of the NT explained, the purchase was not just due to the association with the Beatles: the property also represents an important example of the works of Lancelot Keaton, Liverpool City Architect and Director of Housing between 1925 and 1948, who was responsible for so much of the housing development of the city in the inter-war years. CA 154 pointed out, too – and this is well-worth considering for those of you making a visit – that this is a neighbourhood with more than 4,000 years of history, including some fine prehistoric standing stones, re-erected in the 1880s (see also CA‘s report on the Calder stones in issue 347, February 2019).

CA returned to ‘Beatle-ology’ in issue 252 (March 2011), when English Heritage (now Historic England)/DCMS added one of the most-unusual sites to the National Heritage List – the zebra crossing on Abbey Road in London adjacent to the (Grade II-listed) studios and made famous by the Beatles in the cover art of the eponymous album. (If you’re curious, the crossing is List Entry 1396390.) And, as CA 328 (July 2017) explained, in 2002 the National Trust also acquired 251 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, the childhood home of John Lennon. Both of the Liverpool Beatles sites are available to visit on pre-booked tours with the National Trust, and the London zebra crossing – the only one protected by listing in the country – remains in daily use with free public access (the nearest tube station is St John’s Wood).


CA 233 (August 2009) explored a very different piece of Liverpudlian history with a renewed contemporary edge: the origin and development of Liverpool’s Docks, from the acquisition of municipal status in 1207 through its exponential growth in the 18th and 19th centuries literally through the lives of others, due to its central role in the transatlantic slave trade. Writing this in mid-2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement has rightly refocused attention on Britain’s colonial past, I am struck on rereading this article from 2009 both by how much we already know in the heritage community about such narratives of exploitation and also how much more we ought to know and, crucially, share about this. The work led by Oxford Archaeology North in the early 2000s ought to be widely known (arguably it is locally, but not nationally): we all ought to do more to ensure such a terrible part of our national history is better understood. This is not about political correctness: it is about historical accuracy – we have to be honest about our past and we have not always been so. I, for one, learned virtually nothing about the transatlantic slave trade when at school in the 1980s, and it is simply immoral in the 21st century not to recognise and address such legacies in our work and through our collective consciousness.

Liverpool and Manchester are two cities inexorably linked through ties of trade and culture, and yet proudly, defiantly distinctive. The industrial heritage of the latter has also appeared in the pages of CA over the years, first in issue 242 (May 2010), again in issue 282 (September 2013), and most recently in issue 357 (December 2019). CA 242 explored the industrial growth of the city in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially its cotton-milling heritage. The magazine returned in CA 282 to visit a fascinating site then under redevelopment, a surviving 19th-century streetscape at Birley Fields in Hulme that was about to be lost as part of a larger redevelopment. Here, a mixed team of commercial, academic, and voluntary archaeologists challenged perceptions of archaeology in both the team’s make-up and the sites under examination through fieldwork at locations dating from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, a type of historical archaeology common in urban locations in countries like the USA but surprisingly rare in the UK.

Most recently, CA 357 further challenged expectations when reporting on fieldwork examining the political landscape of early 19th-century Manchester in sites associated with the 1819 Peterloo massacre. This work highlighted the shocking home and working conditions inflicted on millions of working-class residents of such industrial cities in the pursuit of profit, as well as the draconian steps taken by landowners and government alike to keep these communities in check. Such studies of the slave-trade links of cities like Liverpool, and of the slave-like working conditions of many early residents of cities like Manchester, are an important reminder of the brutal realities of life in the past, and of the moral duty of archaeology to explore and share such narratives.

A double page spread in CA 357 titled 'Digging Peterloo and the Manchester 'Spring' - An archaeology of power and protest'
Manchester’s early 19th-century political landscape was examined most recently in CA 357, which visited sites associated with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.


The cover of CA 245, with a picture of a Viking ship
CA examined Viking history and archaeology on the Wirral in several issues in the mid-2010s, including CA 245.

A different and often no-less traumatic picture of life in the more-distant past has been repeatedly explored in the pages of CA during its visits to the Wirral, where a series of projects have examined the Viking history of this distinctive coastal landscape. What appears to be a bucolic rural escape from the urban intensities of Liverpool and Manchester is shown through archaeology to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan, and at times dangerous place to have been, a nexus of communication in the Viking world. CA 213 (December 2007), for example, reported on a possible Viking ship discovered under a pub car park at Meols on the Wirral, and across the mid-2010s CA returned repeatedly to work examining the Viking communities of this part of the country, including DNA studies of modern communities in CA 217 (April 2008), finds and place-names in CA 245 (August 2010), and hoards and what they tell us of people’s movements in this area at the time in CA 264 (March 2012). CA 298 provides an excellent overview of all this evidence, not just for the Viking North-West but more broadly, as CA’s now-editor Carly Hilts reviewed an exhibition (and associated book) from the British Museum at this time: ‘The Vikings in Britain and Ireland’. While the exhibition is long past, copies of the book are well-worth seeking out, as this is a review of the Viking impact on our places and peoples that that has stood the test of time.

In the next issue of CA, I venture beyond the immediate environs of Merseyside to explore modern-day Cheshire, a county rich in prehistoric, Roman, and Viking remains in particular. The tour will include lowland wetlands and windswept uplands, castles, priories – and even a pier.

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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