Excavating the CA archive: Black Country

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 below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 4 February. 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 DIGI372, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


In the autumn of 2020, the archaeologist Mike Hodder suggested that I focus a column on CA’s coverage of the Black Country over the years. Mike has spent a wonderful career working across the West Midlands, and he knows its history better than anyone I can think of. The difficulty is, though, where to start and where to end? Before examining CA’s archive, I thought it best to confirm my mental map of the area, only to discover the following comment: ‘the Black Country has no single set of defined boundaries…[and] it is said that “no two Black Country men or women will agree on where it starts or ends”.’ So, for the purposes of this column, I will focus on the metropolitan county of the West Midlands as defined from 1974 onwards: the cites of Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton, and the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, and Walsall.

WHERE ARE THE BODIES BURIED?
CA 113 travelled to Sandwell Priory, a Benedictine House founded in the mid-12th century that was, unusually, dissolved in 1525 – a decade before the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

It is impossible to consider the archaeology of this area without highlighting its industrial legacy, and CA 112 (December 1988) provides an excellent example of this, exploring Stourbridge’s glass-making heritage, especially its development between 1550 and 1750. But alas, as regards what many would consider the ‘core’ of the Black Country – the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, and Walsall – there is surprisingly, perhaps shockingly, little reported in Current Archaeology, and the term itself is barely used, with no focused articles, even within a thematic survey of industrial archaeology which featured in CA 216 (March 2008). Dudley does not feature in Current Archaeology; nor Solihull; nor Walsall. Only Sandwell succeeds where the other boroughs fail, thanks in large part to Mike Hodder himself.

CA 113 (February 1989) visited Mike’s then recently concluded work at Sandwell Priory, a Benedictine House founded in the mid-12th century and unusually dissolved in 1525 – a good decade before the wholesale Dissolution of the Monasteries. The site was excavated between 1982 and 1988 by an MSC (Manpower Services Commission) team led by Mike and his colleague, Chris Jones – a type of project and organisational/funding structure that might be due for a comeback as part of the COVID-19 recovery plan, albeit with a more 2021 title: People Power Services Commission anyone?

In 2013, excavations in West Bromwich uncovered the burial ground of the Providence Baptist Chapel. CA 276 reported on a ‘mortsafe’ that was discovered during the project.

It then took CA more than 20 years to return to the area, when issue 276 (March 2013) went to nearby West Bromwich to examine some unusual 19th-century graves uncovered by Headland Archaeology during works along the A1. Here the team excavated the site of the Providence Baptist Chapel and its burial ground. Among the graves was that of a young woman whose coffin was surrounded by an iron frame called a ‘mortsafe’, a device used to protect graves from robbery prior to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, before which the recovery of cadavers for anatomical dissection was a common occurrence.

BIG BEAUTIFUL BRUM

You might politely term Current Archaeology’s coverage of Birmingham as ‘patchy’, with the magazine’s first visit to the city only occurring in January 2008 (issue 214). Again, this was thanks to Mike Hodder, who gave CA a tour around many city-centre sites in a fantastic review of its industrial growth and development, as revealed through excavations, especially those undertaken between 1999 and 2001 in and around the Bull Ring – at the time, the biggest digs in the city’s history. This fieldwork revealed Birmingham’s much earlier industrial heritage, long before the previously established chronologies of its development. A quote in the magazine from Mike resonates through the ages and sums up all that is best about Birmingham’s sense of entrepreneurial endeavour, now as much as then: ‘We see a lot of small-scale, short-lived industries. Workshops come and go, new lines open up and others shut down, people change trades. The economic climate shifts, and people have the freedom to seize opportunities’.

We explored the industrial archaeology of Birmingham in CA 214, including excavations at the Bull Ring, which were at the time the biggest in the city’s history.

CA returned to Birmingham, and again to Mike, in November 2009 (issue 236), when works in the city by University of Leicester Archaeological Services on behalf of Arup and Birmingham City University revealed its prehistoric origins, including evidence of extensive burning (radiocarbon dated to 8541-8256 cal BC). Mike suggested that this burning was a deliberate act of clearance by early prehistoric communities to create open areas in the woods – a prehistoric industrial revolution of the area, so to speak.

Then, leaping right forward in time, CA 362 (May 2020) provided a wonderful insight into the latest industrial developments in a city that never seems to stand still, when works in advance of HS2’s Curzon Street terminus uncovered its 19th-century railway heritage, including a stunningly well-preserved railway turntable roundhouse – the oldest survival of such a facility anywhere in the world.

THE CAVALRY ARE IN COVENTRY

In terms of the history of CA’s visits to the West Midlands, it is Coventry that claims the prize of both the earliest and most sustained attention – albeit perhaps not of a site many readers would expect, nor be familiar with. To explain, CA 4 (September 1967) first visited ‘the Lunt’ near Baginton, on the southern edge of the city near what is now its southern bypass. Here, a suspected Roman fort had been examined in the early 1960s by local amateur archaeologist Brian Stanley, before larger excavations led by Brian Hobley (who went on to archaeological fame leading work across the City of London) confirmed the hypothesis. So successful was the project that it featured regularly in the early years of Current Archaeology, as more fieldwork and also experimental archaeology were undertaken.

The cover of CA 24 featured an illustration of the Lunt, a Roman fort near Baginton.

CA 24 (January 1971) provided the next major update. By this point, the Herbert Museum and the City Corporation had been persuaded to make the Lunt the site of a long-term excavation to uncover the complete plan of the fort and to develop it as an open-air museum – an undertaking that, I am pleased to say, continues to this day (see www.luntromanfort.org). In particular, in 1970 they decided to build a reconstruction of the fort’s eastern gateway, excavated between 1966-1967 – thus turning the Lunt into one of the most-impressive Roman sites to visit in Britain.

Continuing to cover the Lunt, CA 28 (September 1971) then reported on the discovery of an unusual circular feature, thought to be a gyrus or Roman riding school. Further work confirmed this theory (see CA 44, August 1974), and CA 63 (September 1978) reported on its experimental reconstruction, built in 1977 with the help of the Royal Engineers 31 Base Workshop Squadron, a pleasing connection between military endeavours on the site across the centuries.

The story of Current Archaeology’s forays into the Black Country is thus a rich but perhaps not conventional one. In particular, the industrial heritage that makes this part of England so famous is under-represented in CA’s coverage. So my challenge back to Mike – or to any other archaeologists who know and love this area – is to right that historical wrong and submit to the editor a synthesis of such work over the years. I look forward to reading it in a future edition of the magazine.


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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