Shedding New Light on the Past

Our Heritage Weekend at Mottram Church went very well indeed. The three days were  well-attended and we were able look for more graffiti as well as record examples already discovered.

While setting up on Thursday, a trip up the tower revealed some new pieces, but most of the finds have been on the pews. Some have been drawn, some carved, or compass-drawn, and many have been created using a sharp pointed instrument. The range of means by which the graffiti have been created has led to an interesting discussion on the nature of things carried by the congregation in their pockets!

Attempts at taking graffiti rubbings were less than successful (we have not given up!), but the acquisition of a super-duper new light meant that we were able to take good photographs  in some of the dimmest corners. Hopefully we now have a fairly full record of the graffiti in the church which we can contribute to the wider survey.

Taking in the view from the top of the tower.

Three of the new pieces found this weekend.

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Heritage Open Day

The Heritage Open Day weekend is nearly upon us once more and again Mottram Church, St Michael and All Angels, will be opening its doors to visitors on Friday 7th – Sunday 9th September from 10.00 a.m. until 4.00 p.m. each day.

TAS members will be on site to show visitors some of the historical graffiti finds we have made in the church, as well as to give general information on the work of the society.

Our graffiti work is part of a regional and indeed nationwide survey, aiming to catalogue and make sense of the wide range of marks that are to be found in old buildings, from burn marks to merchants’ symbols, revealing some of the hidden history of how such buildings were used by ordinary people.

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TAS Secures Funding for Stone Evaluation

News has just come through that TAS has received some new funding from the Mick Aston Fund.

Mick Aston, who passed away in 2013, is regarded as a key figure in the popularization of archaeology through the development of the long-running Channel 4 programme “Time Team”. A fund set up in his name is particularly focused on encouraging greater community involvement and makes grants of up to £1,000, which are very useful to  local societies like ours.

Our recent application secured the maximum award and will be used to gain an evaluation of some of the 2000+  stones we collected from our investigation of a local mesolithic site.

All we have to do now is work out how to get them to the expert. Anyone got a very large envelope?

Members engaged in our own initial assessment of the stones.

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Mad Dogs, Englishmen (and Women) and the Occasional Smooth Newt

Never let it be said that TAS members would let a little thing like a heatwave stop them digging where no spade has dug before.

Well that’s how it felt on Sunday last when machetes might have helped us reach a site where we wanted to dig  two in a series of test pits. The normally boggy field had dried out a lot, but the vegetation was chest high in places. Removing the turf wasn’t easy either – most teeth are extracted with less pain – but fortunately one of the team had brought along her new, shiny and really quite sharp spade, so we let her do most of the work on our pit while we stood back and admired.

Both pits seemed to show quite good evidence of a trackway, but not at great depth and as yet we’re unsure of how much archaeology we’ve actually uncovered. Nevertheless it was some reward for our morning spent in the increasingly hot sun. Another highlight was our little visitor, a newt who literally dropped in to see us. The lucky little chap just avoided being troweled and seemed to enjoy basking in the attention if not in that heat.

World Cup fever hits, as TAS members form wall to defend section photograph from glaring sun

TAS member tries out shiny new spade on test pit.

Smooth newt checks out TAS site.

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Greater Manchester Archaeological Festival

TAS put on two displays for the weekend 23rd and 24th June. The first was at the Together Centre in Dukinfield. A steady stream of people appreciated the display, while the talk given by our Chairman was well-attended and received.

On the Sunday, we moved the show down to Portland Basin Museum where we were ideally situated for anyone visiting the industrial history section to come and enjoy our display and slideshow as well.

As ever it was good to meet new people and to discuss the work we have been engaged in.

Part of our set up at Portland Basin.

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Summer’s Here and it’s Time to Dig

The gorgeous weather over the Bank Holiday weekend welcomed some of us back into the field. (some brave souls had already been out and about).

We’ve been investigating a stone-age site that’s looking very interesting indeed and we wanted to continue our work with some further test pits. On the original dig we had found evidence of a “modern” ditch and were keen to find out more about its course. Everything we can find will help us to build a fuller picture of how this site has been used.

The work involved taking levels to help define location, carefully stripping back the turf, so that we could restore the site with as little damage as possible, and then sifting the top soil to see if there were any finds that would give clues to more recent use.

Careful trowel work then took us to the next level and some evidence of the ditch with  changes of colour and consistency. There was also some stone that could have been part of a boundary of some sort. There was nothing conclusive, but a couple more pieces of the jigsaw and maybe some pointers towards further work.

A lovely, fascinating way to spend a sunny morning


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Leaving No Stone Unturned

Post-excavation work is long, varied, demanding, but ultimately rewarding. This is because the hours spent in the field are given shape and meaning by the identification and classificatation of finds  and organization of data.

One of our recent digs has presented us with a new challenge in the form of 2000+ stones collected on site. These need to be classified and recorded so that a sample of them can then be assessed by an expert.

This is a steep learning curve for some of us. Identifying material type can be difficult enough in itself, because we cannot carry out any of the normal tests that would damage the find and compromise the information we might glean from it. We then have to determine, shape, size (they’re the easy bits), and whether there are features such as facets, incisions or polishing that suggest human use.

Thankfully, it gets easier as we go on and learn what to look for. There is also a steadily growing sense of satisfaction in handling and recognizing objects that were used by people thousands of years ago; fitting a stone between your fingers in just the way it would have been held. In this way we are illuminating the work of the dig and making a tangible link with pre-history at the same time.

Probably not a stone-age sculpture, but it does look like a smiley face, doesn’t it? Or have we just been doing this for too long?

Each stone need to be identified for material type, so we have a sample table to help us.

Then there’s measuring and looking for features. We’re using someone’s garage for the purpose, hence the coats.

Maybe Chris has been overdoing it  today. Eat the cookie, Chris! It really did taste much nicer.

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TAS Outing to Clayton Hall


As the snow swirled around us on a cold Saturday in March, a group of us popped over to Clayton to take advantage of one of their open days.

The hall as we find it now is part Georgian/part Tudor and probably represents one side of a three or four sided structure built in the C15th on the site of an earlier building dating from the C12th. It stands on a moated mound that is Grade II Listed.

For over four hundred years it was in the possession of Lord Byron’s ancestors before they moved to Newstead Abbey, at which point it was bought by George and Humphrey Chetham – the latter the man who founded the school and library.

The volunteers who run the hall have done a magnificent job of renovating and dressing it so that the Georgian section is now a convincing reconstruction of a Victorian house, with plenty to see and to handle, while the older section has three exhibition and interest rooms upstairs and an excellent tea room downstairs.

The Victorian display was quite absorbing, but not surprisingly what appealed most to our group was the older section where we were able to feast on the sight of exposed beams and try to reconstruct the original building in our minds. Only a talk with slides from one of the volunteers and the prospect of tea and cake afterwards, managed to pull us away from our detective work.

We had a grand couple of hours which not only gave us new knowledge, but also a couple of good ideas for further activities. Keep an eye on the Clayton Hall website for news about future Open Days.

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Having seen off the Romans and the Vikings, the good people of York had to cope with a small but determined raiding party from Tameside in early November. Our doughty band of warriors managed to lay waste to the Abbey, the Yorkshire Museum and the Minster, before heading back over the hills in a chariot provided by First TransPennine. A good time was had by all.


Anyone volunteer to check out this place for historic graffiti?

Our best finds all year and we didn’t even have to dig!

Group pic of TAS members waiting for the train home? Or maybe fabulous life-size statues of saints and prophets from Saint Mary’s Abbey.


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Historic Graffiti Project

From images scratched in the catacombs of ancient Rome to aerosol-sprayed tags on modern railway bridges, graffiti has been with us for a long time.

Whatever form it has taken, graffiti has often told us something about the social, political and cultural context in which it was produced; and as an alternative form of expression it can give us a perspective that history books and high art usually do not.

In 2010 the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey was established to undertake a large scale survey of early graffiti inscriptions in the county. Since then the project has spread nationwide and consequently the North West Historic Graffiti Project was set up with the aim of studying such inscriptions on buildings ranging from medieval to C17th.

Members of TAS were inspired and encouraged to play their own part in this by Carolanne King and Ellen McInnes, who have been running workshops on how to search for and record examples of old graffiti. Accordingly, earlier this year we began our own project at St Michael and All Angels Church in Mottram-in-Longdendale. The present church dates from the C15th.

When you know where to look, how to look and what you are looking for, it is surprising what you can find. We discovered circles, meshes, birds and animals on pews, walls and around doors and windows. This was the hidden history of the church and of the community it served; not the history told by the monumental stones and alabaster tombs of the wealthy, but a record of ordinary people – in some cases the very masons who had built the church itself, or modified it over the years.

Marks like the circles were often made near to doorways and windows to frighten off or trap evil spirits. The spirits would go round and round the circles and not be able to escape. Similarly, the meshes were supposed to act like fishing nets to snare them. Other inscriptions might have been simply “signature” marks, or in the case of the birds and animals the significance might have been a link to biblical stories.

The fact is  that the interpretation of the markings will become better informed and more reliable as more and more data can be collected. This is why it is important to carefully record, archive and ultimately share our finds. The finds from the Norfolk project, for instance, have begun to reveal trends such as the relative absence of  farm animals in pictures, in favour of the birds and animals of the forest; or the tendency not to overwrite earlier inscriptions, suggesting that the practice and significance of graffiti inscription was acknowledged and respected. A bigger picture is being formed that suggests the interior of a medieval church might have looked quite different to how we have imagined it in the past.

There is still work to be done at St Michael and All Angels and it is possible that new discoveries will be made at the Heritage Open Days on 8th, 9th and 10th September.

Circles intended to trap evil spirits.

An example of very carefully inscribed lettering.

This bird and the animal in the next picture might be linked to Christian stories,….. or perhaps someone simply liked to draw birds and animals.

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