Religion, ritual and ceremony

Recent years have seen several large-scale excavations of cemeteries, particularly in urban environments, and it is likely that further cemeteries will be uncovered as pressure for development in the urban centres increases. Recent excavations include those at Walker’s Croft and St Peter’s Square in Manchester, and Blackburn, Darwen, Hazel Grove and Swinton, although these were all predominantly of a 19th-century date. Excavation has been carried out, however, of the cemetery associated with the non-conformist Cross Street Chapel in Manchester city centre. Established as a Unitarian chapel in 1694, the building was surrounded on three sides by a well-used burial ground that probably put to use shortly after the chapel opened (Marsden 2014, 76-7).

Numerous burials recorded on Cross Street in Manchester city centre have been dated to the 1720s and 1730s, and analysis may provide earlier dating; the earliest surviving burial register dates from 1785 (ibid). It is hoped that analysis will also shed light on the diet, health and lifestyle of the people of the period and together with the growing body of information from cemeteries in Manchester, contribute to the building up of a detailed picture of 18th-century life in the town on the cusp of industrialisation.

In 2013, an archaeological watching brief was maintained during a re-ordering scheme at the Grade I listed St Bartholomew’s Church in Wilmslow (Ch). A church has occupied the site since at least the mid-13th century, although the present building dates largely to the early 16th century. The principal element of the re-ordering scheme required the removal of existing stone and timber surfacing in the nave to enable the installation of a new limecrete floor with under-floor heating. The existing timber floor was suspended over a void that was c 320mm deep and overlay an earthen deposit that derived from the reuse of the church interior for burials since at least the early 16th century (Raynor and Miller 2013).

Photograph of inside the nave of a church showing the floor being excavated
The arched cap of a crypt in the nave of St Bartholomew’s, Wilmslow, exposed during re-ordering works in 2013 (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

St Bartholomew’s Church is just one example of a religious building that was subject to alterations and improvements during recent years. Another example can be drawn from St Mary’s Church in Deane (GM), which was built in the 13th century and remodelled in the 15th and 16th centuries. An urgent need to upgrade the rainwater drainage from the church required limited excavation across the churchyard, leading to the discovery of early 17th-century ledger stones that were concealed at a shallow depth beneath the modern ground surface. Whilst Deane was one of the 11 parishes in the Medieval Hundred of Salford and covered approximately half of the modern borough of Bolton, the ledger stones in the churchyard provide a reminder of Deane’s importance during the Post-Medieval period, prior to its absorption with industrialised Bolton (Harvey and Harris 2018).

A photograph of a ledger stone lying on the ground with an inscription
Early 18th-century ledger stone uncovered at Deane Church, Bolton, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Salford Archaeology)

Amongst several instances of applying archaeological science to the study of religious buildings is the tree-ring analysis from timbers in the Church of St Mary, Stockport (GM). Dendrochronological analysis of ten core samples obtained from timbers to the vestry roof concluded that the timbers represented were probably cut as part of a single episode of felling in AD 1623 (Arnold and Howard 2014).

A community-led project at Halton Castle in Runcorn (Ch), comprising geophysical survey and the excavation of two trenches unexpectedly revealed two burials that have been dated to the 15th and 16th/17th century respectively. The discovery of burials within a castle is very rare; Halton is the only castle site in the North West known to have contained burials, and they may have derived from the Post-Medieval use of the castle as a gaol, or from the Civil War (Cattell 2015).

A photograph showing two skeletons in an archaeological excavation
Two burials dated to the 15th and 16th/17th centuries discovered during excavations at Halton Castle (courtesy of Salford Archaeology)

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