My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
The folk that lived in Liverpool
This is a remarkable decade for Liverpool. The city is expected soon to be confirmed as European Capital of Culture for 2008, and its maritime and commercial legacy as a World Heritage Site. Its modernity hides a long history which, as five of Liverpool’s archaeologists report, is only beginning to be told
Liverpool is experiencing a vibrant renewal of neglected historic areas and industrial buildings. Will Alsop’s ‘Cloud’, the £228 m ‘Fourth Grace’, has been selected by competition to complement the existing ‘Three Graces’—the Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building – in what is claimed to be a waterfront development to rival the Sydney Opera House.
Yet in a city known for its strength in performing arts and sports (dedicated year 2006), many will be surprised to know that in 2007, the Year of Heritage, Liverpool celebrates its 800th birthday. National Museums Liverpool (NML), owner of land on the riverside site, is a key player in the Cloud. They are expected to announce their approval in May, confident they will have the quality exhibition space they want. The Cloud will feature hieroglyphs depicting this long history.
Liverpool still contained significant Medieval buildings until the mid 19th century, when environmental improvements accompanying its development as a world port transformed its character. Three years ago, the only major archaeological investigations were those of the late 1970s at the site of Liverpool Castle and the tidal inlet known as the Pool, both of which dominated the Medieval topography.
In 1715 Liverpool opened the world’s first commercial enclosed wet dock, recorded as being 195 yards long by 85-95 yards wide (180 by 80-85 m). Prompted by new waterfront developments, test trenches in 2001 showed this dock still survives below ground. It will be preserved and presented after further excavations, and proposals for the Fourth Grace and a Leeds Liverpool Canal extension will lead to investigation of other docks.
Beside such construction-driven excavation, the city is home to the Historic Environment of Liverpool Project (HELP), a pioneer venture led by English Heritage and the City Council. Liverpool is changing fast. HELP represents the historic environment, addressing the problems of rejuvenating buildings at risk, seeking World Heritage Site status (for the outstanding commercial maritime heritage), conducting architectural survey and promoting public access.
In a wider context, an integral part of HELP is the innovative Merseyside Historic Characterisation Project (MHCP), piloted in Liverpool by the Merseyside Archaeological Service. MHCP is a two year survey of the entire urban and rural landscape of the five authorities that constitute the former Merseyside County. The survey is mapping the change in character of the historic environment from around the mid 19th century, giving context to sites, buildings and settlements.
Modern archaeological provision in Liverpool began in 1977 with a rescue excavation unit and Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) at the university. These soon moved to the museum, which after the abolition of the metropolitan county in 1986, became part of the existing NML. The Liverpool Museum Field Archaeology Unit has conducted most of the fieldwork in the county since then. The Merseyside Archaeological Service, founded in 1990 and housed with the SMR, gives local authorities planning advice.
Over the years the unit’s research excavations have often provided the first detailed archaeological evidence for whole periods of human history in the area, from Mesolithic to Medieval. A number of these have been university teaching excavations, most notably at a multi-period site at Irby on the Wirral and at an Iron Age/Romano-British farmstead at Lathom, West Lancashire. Lathom also provides public access each summer through university and volunteer-run courses, and Local Heritage Initiative schemes.
The unit was responsible for the Merseyside part of the survey of the North West Wetlands, sponsored by English Heritage, which produced significant data relating to early prehistoric and Bronze Age sites, several partially waterlogged. It has worked with Liverpool John Moores University on survey, excavations and palaeoenvironmental reconstructions on the coast of Liverpool Bay. The most notable sites explored are a Neolithic wooden trackway and, with local enthusiast Gordon Roberts, to whom most of the credit goes, the extraordinary Mesolithic and Neolithic human and animal footprints on the beach at Formby, north of Liverpool.
Since 1987 the unit has also undertaken aerial reconnaissance in an area notorious for the insensitivity of soils to cropmark development. The project, run jointly with Cheshire County Council, has led to the discovery of the first henges in the region and an important series of Roman camps around Chester, and a major advance in populating the Iron Age and Romano-British countryside of the lowland north west.
Archaeologically significant commercial projects have included work on a 4 km stretch of the corridor for the A5300 Knowsley Expressway, 10 km west of Liverpool, which found Mesolithic, Iron Age, Romano-British and Medieval sites, and a large area excavation of a Romano-British farmstead or village at Court Farm, Halewood, on the south-eastern edge of Liverpool.
The unit is publishing the finds from perhaps the most important site of its type in western Britain at Meols, on the north Wirral coast. This is now lost to the sea, but at the turn of the 19th century quantities of metal artefacts were dispersed to several museums during a period of coastal erosion. These include Iron Age coins from the Mediterranean, an important group of Roman artefacts indicating early military activity, Viking metalwork and a group of Medieval metalwork second only to London’s in size for many categories of personal items. The project brings together Liverpool Museum and others including the Museum of London, Oxford University and Liverpool John Moores University.
There are plans to fund an archaeologist at the unit to aid community involvement, and staff are increasingly involved in displays within NML. Exhibitions for the redesigned Liverpool Museum for 2005 will tell the story of the prehistoric archaeology and landscape of Ice Age Europe, with British and local material. The Weston Discovery centre will contain interactive displays with objects of various periods, and the Treasure House Theatre will represent local archaeology in a multi-media display cutting across curatorial disciplines.
The new Museum of Liverpool proposed for the Fourth Grace, adjacent to the Maritime Museum, will house an archaeological resource centre to give improved access to local archives and collections, as well as interactive archaeological displays.
While a strong local archaeological service has emerged over the last 30 years, the university has been exploring archaeology around the world for much longer: this year archaeology at Liverpool celebrates its centenary, arguably making the university department the oldest in the UK.
Some universities, notably Oxford, Cambridge and London, had antiquarian chairs, but these were isolated posts. In 1902 the university elected John Garstang honorary reader in Egyptology; he was an Oxford mathematics scholar known as an excavator of Roman sites in Britain and recently returned from working for Flinders Petrie in Egypt. Garstang spent two years raising funds from Liverpool’s great and good. With over £10,000 in place, the Institute of Archaeology was established, complete with Royal Patron (HRH Princess Henry of Battenberg).
From the outset the quasi-independent institute focussed on research, and enriching its own museum: in 1933 it was said its archaeological library was the best in Europe, outside Oxford’s (by a retired Oxford archaeology professor). By 1911 there were five chairs, from Egyptology to Medieval Archaeology and Methods and Practice of Archaeology, and four lecturers covering Assyria to central America. For a number of years there was even a research fellow in the archaeology of music.
This wealth of talent established many links with other departments within Liverpool, and universities elsewhere. Liverpool’s archaeologists could be found digging in the Welsh Marches, in Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia Sudan, Anatolia, northern Syria and Palestine, and even British Honduras.
The institute continued to function, but was badly hit by the two wars and their economic impact. At one moment of despair it contemplated selling its museum collection to an American department store. In World War II, what survived of the collection after a damaging air raid was dispersed around the city, some of it never to return.
In 1948 the institute was absorbed by the university, where it has since remained, now as the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology (SACE). All this time, Liverpool has been an acknowledged centre of Egyptology, with today probably the largest Egyptology programme in Europe, and since the 1950s particularly strong in ancient history and classics.
The School is also recognised as a centre for early hominid studies, recently receiving a British Academy Centennial Award for the From Lucy to Language project, and it remains the largest coherent research grouping in the archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East.
The Institute of Prehistoric Sciences and Archaeology was created in 1987, since when the department has grown to 22 staff, 125 postgraduates and over 350 undergraduates in seven different degree programmes. Archaeology received a 5 rating in the latest Research Assessment Exercise.
Join SACE for a celebratory weekend of receptions, lectures, tours and a dinner on 3-4 July. Details from the Secretary, SACE, University of Liverpool, 14 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 3WZ, or at www.liv.ac.uk/sacos/events/centenary.htm. Authors: Ron Cowell (curator of prehistoric archaeology), Rob Philpott (curator of Roman and later archaeology), Mark Adams (Field Archaeology Unit), and Sarah-Jane Farr (Merseyside Archaeological Service), National Museums Liverpool; and Phil Freeman, SACE, University of Liverpool
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005