Researching the Historic Environment of North West England: Overview and Conclusion

Michael Nevell & Norman Redhead


The research framework for the Historic Environment of North West England was researched and written in the period 2016 to 2020. As part of the data gathering and outreach elements of the project 186 local archaeology, community, civic, and history groups and societies were contacted. In addition, the 81 Chartered Institute for Archaeologists registered archaeological organisations, and many individual historic environment consultants known to have worked commercially in North West England during the period 2006 to 2020, were also invited to engage with the project. All were invited to contribute to the project, and the key outputs of the interactive website and the research that fed into the current volume, online through the project blogging website, through the two project conferences, and via the project seminar series.

It was always envisaged that this research framework a product of this consultation, would support the interactive web platform for the project, and act as a point-in-time document like the original North West archaeological regional research volumes from 2006 (Brennand with Chitty & Nevell 2006) and 2007 (Brennand with Chitty & Nevell 2007). Final production of the volume was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019 to 2021, the multiple lockdowns isolating academic, research, and voluntary communities, and freezing the usual interactions between the various branches of archaeology and the historic environment.

The heritage sector continued to function, although under severe constraints. Professional archaeology through the planning process continued, and under the COVID-19 restrictions for the construction industry important new fieldwork was undertaken, although behind protective fences and without public access and live public interaction. Study of historic buildings through the planning process also continued under similarly tight constraints. The museum sector found itself shutting and opening many times, university archaeology and history departments moved to online teaching, whilst many smaller heritage sites and museums remained shut throughout the pandemic. The long-term impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the heritage sector remains unclear but is likely to be as severe and potentially revolutionary as the recession of 2007-9.

Within this strained environment the project partners, the Council for British Archaeology North West, Council for British Archaeology North, ALGAO North West, and University of Salford, with the support of Historic England, remained committed to publishing a point-in-time document, alongside the North West Regional Research for the Historic Environment wiki platform. This wiki website will provide an interactive platform to take forward historic environment research, engaging the various elements of that community, over the next decade. The current volume thus provides a summary introduction into the archaeology and historic environment of the diverse, rich, and valued landscapes of North West England and a springboard for exploring its archaeology and built environment.

The volume of work undertaken between 2006 and 2020

As noted by Norman Redhead in the introduction to this monograph, thousands of individual pieces of archaeological and built environment work have been undertaken in North West England since work on the original North West archaeology research framework was completed in 2006. Indeed, despite the deep economic recession of the period 2007 to 2009, more archaeological and built environment work has been undertaken in North West England in the period 2006 to 2020 than in the preceding 16 years from 1990 to 2006. We know this through four sets of data.

Firstly, local government archaeological planning services have kept annual lists and hold archival copies of the unpublished, developer-funded reports produced by archaeological units, heritage consultancies, and heritage architects, as well as research reports from local societies, National Heritage Lottery Funded projects, and universities, working in the region over the period 2006 to 2020.

Secondly, English Heritage/Historic England undertook an annual audit of archaeology and built heritage fieldwork from 1990 to 2010 under the title ‘Archaeological Investigation Project’. The results of this survey were published in 2019 and provide a national overview of trends in archaeological work in the two decades after the introduce of PPG16 in 1990 (Darvill et al 2019). An increasing amount of the first two types of data is being made available, free to download, on the Archaeological Data Service website.

Thirdly, from the formal published output of this research, spread across regional and national archaeology and historic environment journals (many now available online), monographs, and single or multiple authored books. There is also an increasing number of downloadable reports published on the web, notably but not exclusively the specialist archaeology, built environment, and conservation reports published by English Heritage/Historic England.

Finally, there has also been a steady flow of academic research undertaken by post-graduate students on North West topics. A summary of PhD work is provided by the British Library’s online data base which shows theses from within the region produced by post-graduate students at Chester, Liverpool, Manchester, and UCLAN universities. There is also research from universities around the UK relevant to North West England. However, there is no central database for current post-graduate research topics nor for Masters’ theses.

Published Works

The North West Regional Research Framework for the Historic Environment has used 607 published articles, monographs, books, and downloadable reports on archaeology and built heritage topics from the region, published between January 2006 and December 2020. This list was compiled from participants of the current project during the period 2016 to early 2021. It is not exhaustive, but it is very extensive and would appear to reflect the balance of published research within the Historic Environment of North West England. The material was a key resource for updating the resource assessment chapters.

This published material is unevenly spread geographically across the region with 128 publications from Cheshire, 258 from Cumbria, 115 from Greater Manchester, 57 from Lancashire, and 49 for Merseyside. Adjusted to the size of each county (using the 1974 boundaries), this gives a publication density per square kilometre in the period 2006 to 2020 of 0.06 research outputs for Cheshire (2,344 km2); 0.04 for Cumbria (6,768 km2); 0.09 for Greater Manchester (1,276km2); 0.02 for Lancashire (3,079km2); and 0.08 for Merseyside (645 km2). Thus, we can observe from the published material that on this single measure Lancashire is the most under-researched area in the region, whereas Greater Manchester is the most intensively studied. However, it should be noted that the North West contains the third largest English county by area, Cumbria, and the sixth smallest county by area, Merseyside. This is reflected in the number of protected historic environment sites for each of these two county areas. Cumbria has by far the largest number of listed buildings (over 7600) and scheduled ancient monuments (over 850) compared with other counties in the North West. In contrast Merseyside has the lowest number of listed buildings (just over 3,000) and scheduled ancient monuments (38). Whereas Merseyside has more registered parks and gardens and battlefields at 22 than Cumbria, with 19, and with 105 conservation areas almost the same number as Cumbria, with 117. The areas with the largest number of registered parks, gardens, and battlefield is Greater Manchester, with 29, which also has the largest number of conservation areas (218). These numbers reflect different levels of research effort historically in protecting such sites and landscapes, reflecting the largely rural county of Cumbria and largely urban areas of Merseyside and Greater Manchester which offer different levels of historic environment preservation as well as economic activity and varying opportunities for commercial, community, and voluntary involvement in researching the historic built environment.

Grey Literature

There is roughly three times the volume of grey literature reports available for the period 2006 to 2019 compared to published material on North west England historic environment sites. In terms of unpublished grey literature reports generated through the planning process and for academic, HLF, and local society projects, the data from the period 2006 to 2020 falls into three sections. Firstly, much of the material from 2006 to 2010 was captured by the Archaeological Investigations Project. Secondly, developer-funded work, and a smaller amount of academic and local society fieldwork, has been deposited with the local archaeological advisory planning archives across the region. Their archives are a major resource for the whole period under study, but especially after 2010 when the AIP survey finished. Finally, there is the material available to download from the Archaeological Data Service website held and managed by the University of York, which although established in the 1990s has grown enormously over the last decade. The core of this data set is unpublished developer-funded grey literature reports, but increasingly it is being used by academics to store data sets, and local archaeology societies as a report archive. Notable data sets housed on their website include the Vernacular Architect Group’s database of cruck-framed buildings from Britain, several hundred examples of which can be found in North West England, and digital copies of the Chester Archaeological Society’s journal covering the old series and volumes 1 to 84 of the news series (at the time of writing).

Regional variations in the amount of developer-funded, academic, and voluntary research are apparent in this data. Cumbria consistently had the largest volume of grey literature in the period 2009 to 2019, more than double the next county. Greater Manchester and Lancashire had broadly similar levels of grey literature material in the earlier part of the study period, although after 2012 work in Greater Manchester greatly increased to levels similar to that seen in Cumbria. Cheshire had consistent, but lower, levels of activity, whilst grey literature from Merseyside was consistently lower than anywhere else.

The volume of developer-funded work in the region was captured in the period 2006 to 2010 by English Heritage’s ‘Archaeological Investigations Project’. This data set begins in 1990 and finishes in 2010 (Darvill et al 2019). Since 2010 individual archaeological advisory services in North West England have kept figures relating to the annual activity of professional archaeologists in their areas. Some annual summaries of this material have been published in county society journals for Cumbria (covering the years 2006 to 2018) and for Cheshire (covering the years 2013 to 2019). The Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service has produced an annual report since 2013 which also provides annual summaries of developer-funded archaeological projects, although the GMAAS reports are not published. Overall, the trend in the volume of developer-funded work within the historic environment has been upward during the period 2006 to 2019, with the notable exception being the recession of 2007 to 2009. Over 3000 grey literature professional archaeology and built environment reports (from geophysical surveys, test pitting, evaluations, and area excavations to building surveys, dendrochronology surveys, and Lidar surveys), were produced for work in North West England in the period 2006 to 2019. Development hotspots are discussed in the introduction to this website.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on professional archaeological work in the years 2020 and 2021 have not been recorded by the current project. However, it should be noted that fieldwork within the professional sector linked to the construction sector remained open, whilst fieldwork within the voluntary and academic sectors in the region was severely curtailed.

Trends in Fieldwork 2006 to 2020

There are fashions in archaeology and built environmental research, just as there are fashionable places to build, and cycles in economic activity. Thus, the trends noticeable in the archaeological research undertaken during the period 2006 to 2020 are responses to rises and falls of economic activity, strategic infrastructure, and research decisions. But ultimately the fieldwork undertaken also reflects the character of the archaeological resource available in particular areas.

The breakdown of published works by ceremonial county shows a number of clear trends in research patterns. The county producing the most published evidence for the earlier prehistoric period is Cumbria, with 34 publications, followed by Merseyside with 13, Cheshire with 8, Lancashire with 6 and Greater Manchester with 4. At the other end of the time-period, Greater Manchester has the most published material for the years 2006 to 2020 on industrial and 20th century sites, with 68 outputs. Cumbria had 36, Cheshire had 23, and Lancashire with 12 and Merseyside with 11. The next most popular period in terms of outputs was the Roman era, with Cumbria seeing the most activity on 48 outputs. Cheshire had 23 Roman period outputs, Lancashire 6, and Greater Manchester and Merseyside both with 3. Later prehistoric published research has been patchy. Cheshire produced the most outputs in this period with 11 publications. Cumbria had 6, Lancashire had 4, whilst Greater Manchester and Merseyside had just one publication each. Likewise, early medieval research publications are equally as patchy. Cumbria led the way with 15, whilst Cheshire had 7 and Lancashire just 3. But Greater Manchester and Merseyside both had none. Later Medieval research was another strong area of interest, with Cumbria having the most outputs with 28 publications. Cheshire had 23 and Greater Manchester had 15 publications, whilst Lancashire had 9 publications and Merseyside had 6 outputs on the later Medieval period. Finally, Post-Medieval sites were explored throughout the region. Cumbria had 26 publications, Lancashire and Merseyside had 9 each, Cheshire had 7 publications, and Greater Manchester had just 6.

However, there were also many multi-period sites and projects which mask some significant period research in specific parts of the region. Thus, Cumbria had 65 multi-period outputs, Cheshire 26, Greater Manchester had 18 such outputs, whilst Lancashire had 10 such publications, Merseyside had 6 multi-period publications. Whilst a significant element of these were annual round-ups of field work for Cheshire and Cumbria, the character of the other articles and books varied by area. Those from Cheshire focused on multi-period sites in the historic city of Chester, although there were also notable landscape studies of Alderley Edge and waterlogged deposits in Nantwich. In Cumbria multi-period studies focussed on the prehistoric period, palaeo-environmental studies, and urban studies of Carlisle. In Greater Manchester the multi-period themes focus on community projects such as Dig Greater Manchester and Warburton spanning medieval, post-medieval, and industrial sites, although there were also rural studies that looked at prehistoric landscapes. Lancashire and Merseyside had prehistoric and Roman multi-period studies.

Research highlights in the period 2006 to 2020

Any overview of the research highlights of the period 2006 and 2020 is inevitably coloured by the research interests of those studying the published and unpublished literature available. However, the following brief literature review is designed to give an introduction to the strands of below and above aground archaeological and built environment fieldwork undertaken during these years. It is arranged firstly by period, and then by landscape surveys. It also highlights some of the larger and more significant community archaeology projects of the period. It’s a way of introducing to those new to North West England the major research themes of the region, and to those familiar with the area and already working here it should act as reminder of the wider context of specific and personal research, and by inference under-researched areas or emerging areas for the future. A fuller overview of each period has been covered in the earlier chapters of this volume, whilst the archaeological research framework volumes for North West England, published in 2006 and 2007, remain foundation documents for anyone working and studying within the region.

Key Sites by Period

The earlier prehistoric period covers the longest timespan for which we have archaeological evidence for human activity within North West England, from the end of the last Ice Age to the middle Bronze Age.

Mesolithic research has been focussed on the uplands above Greater Manchester in the south-western Pennies, and the lowland wetlands and coastal margins to the north of Liverpool around Lunt Meadows and along the Sefton coast. A standout site is the Mesolithic site at Stainton West discovered during the construction of the Carlisle northern bypass which is in advanced post-excavation. The discovery and recording of footprints along the Sefton coast south of Southport is perhaps amongst the most poignant and personal of discoveries in the 21st century, not least because these remains capture fleeting moments in the past and are themselves quickly eroded by the incoming tides and storms.

Cumbrian material dominates the research for the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with early prehistoric settlements investigated at Holbeck Park Avenue at Barrow-in-Furness, New Cowper Quarry in Aspatria, and a field system recorded at Scardale. Burnt mounds remain rare in the region, although examples have been located at Drigg in Cumbria, and the South Arclid Quarry near Sandbach in Cheshire. Early Bronze Age burials have been excavated, either through developer-funded projects or targeted research, at Bucklow Hill near High Legh, Church Lawton, Seven Barrows and Southwall Hall Farm in Cheshire; Brakenber Moor, Jack Hill at Allithwaite, and Leacet Hill in Brougham in Cumbria; Bramhall and Shaw Cairn in Greater Manchester; and at Morecombe.

Cheshire, Merseyside, and Greater Manchester have seen most of the work on the later Prehistoric period, including notable investigations of settlement sites at Eddisbury and Mellor. Elsewhere, the long-running research and community project at Poulton in the lower Dee valley is revealing a large Iron Age settlement of a type not seen before in the region. Arguably the most surprising discovery of the last 14 years in this period has been the recognition of later prehistoric settlement evidence preceding the establishment of the Roman fortress at Chester. No other Roman settlements within the region have produced evidence for pre-Roman activity. The Portable Antiquities Scheme, as well as capturing a late Bronze Age hoard from Lancaster, has highlighted a concentrated of Iron Age metalwork in the Cheshire area, distinguished by bronze horse gear and several late Iron Age coin hoards. The re-examination of a torc found at Burnley in Lancashire in the early 19th century, and the Worsley bog body discovered at Chat Moss in 1958 are a reminder that existing collections can reveal new insights when studied with the latest science techniques.

The Roman period has provided one of the most controversial discoveries of the early 21st century anywhere in Britain: the Crosby Garret Helmet, found by a metal detector in a Cumbrian field in 2011 and sold privately after extensive reconstruction. The period also saw the discovery of two new Roman forts near Burscough in south-west Lancashire. Elsewhere, Roman military sites were the focus of developer-funded and research excavations and surveys at Bewcastle, Castleshaw, Castlesteads, Chester, Hardnott, Manchester, Maryport, Ravenglass, Ribchester, and Wigan, and the Hadrian’s Wall western sites of Birdoswald, and Burgh-by-Sands. Excavations at the vicus at Papcastle were prompted by the flood damage in this part of western Cumbria in 2011 and the wider damage to the Derwent river valley. Developer-funded excavations drove the continued investigation of the Roman towns at Carlisle, Chester, Middlewich, Nantwich, and Warrington. Roman rural farms, such as the ditched enclosures uncovered at Aldford in western Cheshire, continue to be located. However, wider Roman field systems and their associated rural settlements are beginning to emerge at sites such as Saighton Camp north of Chester and in the Mersey valley at Barton and Carrington. Evidence continues to be uncovered regarding Roman industry, notably salt in Cheshire at Middlewich and Nantwich, pottery kilns at Carlisle, and metalworking at Walton-le-Dale. In the wider landscape the application of LIDAR for confirming the line of the many Roman roads that criss-cross the region is also revealing new features in the landscape associated with those routes such as watch towers and potential field systems.

Advances in the early medieval period have focussed on Cumbria. The Viking-period burials at Cumwhitton are nationally important, but early medieval burials are known from elsewhere in Cumbria as well as in Cheshire and northern Lancashire. Light on the wider rural landscape comes from the study of longhouses in the Duddon Valley of southern Cumbria. However, there have also been notable studies of artefacts. These include studies of sculpture in Lancashire and Cheshire, whilst metalwork from the recent discovery of Viking-period hoards at Furness, Huxley, Silverdale has also been studied. The largest Viking-period hoard in Britain, discovered at Cuerdale in Lancashire in the 19th century, has also seen new research. Finally, the early medieval transition from Roman Britain to Saxon England has received fresh data from excavations on the Roman sites at Chester (in the amphitheatre), and the Roman forts and their settlements at Maryport, and Ribchester.

Later medieval research has seen study of some of the more traditional medieval sites continue. This includes castle research at sites including Aldingham, Beeston, Buckton, Halton, Lancaster, and Rose. Excavations of several hall sites have been undertaken or published in the years 2006 to 2020. Sites include the halls at Bewsey, Moston, Newton, Radcliffe, Speke, Timperley. Monastic sites at Carlisle Cathedral, Cockersand Abbey, St Mary’s Abbey at Holme Cultram, Norton Priory, Preston Friary, and Whalley Abbey have also been investigated. Excavations on later medieval towns such as Altrincham, Chester, Cockermouth, Kendal, and Salford have also added to discussion on urban design and material use during this period. This is also the first period where the large number of standing buildings allows archaeological building analysis and architectural studies. Dendrochronological studies of timber-framed halls such as Baguley and surviving monastic buildings at Whalley are further refining our understanding of their design and development. The distribution and survival of other styles of building such as cruck construction have also been specifically targeted for analysis.

Fresh data from the Post-medieval period, the 16th to the mid-18th century has been driven by developer-funded work, which for this period includes a significant number of standing buildings. Urban excavations in towns such as Carlisle, Chester, Kendal, and Salford continue to produce evidence for land use and material culture in the form of significant regionally manufactured pottery assemblages. Studies of Post-medieval industry undertaken during the period 2006 to 2020 include the lead mining landscape around Alston in Cumbria, cloth seals from Carlisle, lime kilns on Wirral, gritstone quarries in the Rossendale uplands of Lancashire, and a major study the pottery production site at Rainford on Merseyside. Parkland landscapes have also been the subject of detailed study including Dunham Park in Greater Manchester and Latham Park and Leagram Park, both in Lancashire. Significant excavations and buildings surveys of 16th and 17th century halls across the region include Backford Hall, Lytham Hall, Monks Hall, Royton Hall, Staley Hall, Tonge Hall, and Worsley Old Hall. A large number of post-medieval rural buildings have been recorded. These include dairy cattle houses in Lancashire recorded through the planning process, management and conservation-led studies of the estate buildings at Dunham Massey, and wider research on the rural buildings of the Alston are in Cumbria and the Warburton area in Greater Manchester. The period 2006 to 2020 also saw the completion of the county updates of the Pevsner architectural guides, with volumes published for Cheshire, Cumbria, north and south-west Lancashire.

The industrial period and 20th century, along with the prehistoric periods, have seen the largest amount of fieldwork and research activity during the years 2006 to 2020. Although much of this has been development-led there have also been significant research projects led by English Heritage/Historic England, universities, and voluntary groups. Many of the community archaeology and heritage projects undertaken focussed on sites and deposits from this period, often engaging new groups in investigating the historic environment.

This archaeological research is dominated by urban excavations with significant sites explored in Chester, Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, and Stockport. There has been a specific focus on industrial workers’ housing across the historic industrial towns of Greater Manchester, with nationally important remains investigated in areas such as Angel Meadow and Ancoats in Manchester. Other workers’ housing associated with specific industries have also been investigated elsewhere in the region, such as coal mining housing at Endmoor in Cumbria and the Risehill railway navvy camp on the Cumbrian/North Yorkshire border.

The exploration of the key industries of the period, coal, textiles and engineering, has continued, with textile mill surveys in Greater Manchester and Lancashire funded by Historic England where the focus has been on the condition and re-use of the standing buildings. In addition, dozens of cotton, silk, and woollen mills have been recorded ahead of conversion and demolition mills in eastern Cheshire, northern Cumbria, Greater Manchester, and Lancashire. Other industries have also been recorded through the planning process, notably the standing buildings of the engineering and machine tool sector, whilst below ground investigations have included glassworks, textile mill power systems and finishing works, and engineering in Manchester; forges in Cumbria, and saltworks in Cheshire, whilst several gas making sites have been recorded and protected. The remains of the extractive industries, coal, copper, lead, and stone quarries have also been investigated across the region. Notable sites recorded include Jubilee Colliery in Oldham, the Rossendale gritstone quarries, Coniston copper mine, Force Crag mine, and the Alston lead mines.

Transport industrial archaeology is dominated by the canal and railway networks, traditionally drivers of industrial change. Regional and national surveys of standing buildings types include warehouses (canal, dock, railway, and textile) and signal boxes, whilst railway and canal infrastructure has been recorded through the planning process (Exchange Station in Salford, railway bridges opposite Liverpool Road station in Manchester, lock renovations by the Canal and River Trust on the Lancaster and Leeds Liverpool canals) and, as part of a conservation projects, as at Worsley Delph on the Bridgewater Canal. Developer-funding has also provided the opportunity to look at port archaeology in Barrow, Chester, and Liverpool. Wider research includes studies of early railways such as the Congleton tramway and the Park Bridge tramway. There is, also a growing interest in road archaeology and the supporting infrastructure throughout these periods from roadside inns to fuel stations. For the 20th century air travel infrastructure is also receiving increasing attention, with aerodromes at Hooton Park and Woodford being the subject of extension recording.

This era has seen hundreds of standing agricultural building recorded, especially in the more rural counties of Cheshire, Cumbria, and Lancashire. Most of these surveys have been through developer-funded work, with thematic or local overviews rarer. The detailed estate surveys at Dunham Massey and Warburton are notable exceptions. Finally, the early 21st century has seen the first serious studies of mid- to late 20th century archaeology in the region. The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War spurred many local history and archaeology projects recording surviving training and manufacturing sites form the period. The CBA Home Front national project provided support and guidance on recording such sites, which included the excavation of the Watson Road WW1 training trenches in Blackpool. Two more other sites from the 20th century highlight the widening of interest in this period: the community excavation of the mid-20th century nightclub, The Reno, in the Moss Side area of Manchester, and the recording on Crosby Beach of building rubble dumped from the centre of Liverpool as a result of second world war damage and clearance.

Multi-period landscape and building surveys

Multi-period landscape and building surveys were funded from a variety of sources ranging from Historic England, research councils, and period societies to universities, local authorities, local groups, and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. Aerial mapping projects, coastal surveys, dendro-chronological surveys and historic landscape characterisation programmes across the region promoted and funded by Historic England have fed directly into local Historic Environment Record databases, local authority conservation plans and into planning mitigation.

Many landscape projects have a community element, and those where this is a primary focus are reviewed below. Two mining landscapes that have seen long-term research are the copper remains at Alderley Edge in Cheshire and the Alston lead mining landscape in the northern Pennines. The hillforts and habitats survey in Cheshire brought together the natural and built environment looking at the hillforts of the central Cheshire ridge and their landscape management. Multi-period surveys with multiple outputs include the Tameside Archaeological Survey (which ran from 1990 to 2012) and the Warburton Archaeology Survey (which ran from 1996 to 2015). Two long running projects looking at Roman, early medieval, and medieval deposits are the Chester extramural study run by Chester University and the study of Ribchester Roman fort by UCLAN.

Finally, significant studies of standing industrial buildings have been sponsored by Historic England and the Association for Industrial Archaeology. The HE work includes thematic building studies of railway features such as signal boxes and warehouses, gas manufacturing sites, as well as textile mill surveys in Greater Manchester and Lancashire. County surveys of surviving industrial remains have also been undertaken by on behalf of the Association for Industrial Archaeology in Cheshire, Lancashire, and Merseyside.

Community Projects

A distinctive feature of the 2006 to 2020 period has been the continued strength of community archaeology and heritage projects in the region. These are separate to the community elements of developer-funded projects. Many, but not all, of these projects have been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (rebranded as National Heritage Lottery Fund in 2019). These fall into two categories: multi-year projects and single year or one or two season projects. Amongst the long-running multi-year projects that fall within the years 2006 to 2020 are the Chester amphitheatre project, Dig Manchester, Dig Greater Manchester, Duddon Valley longhouses, Mellor Heritage Project, Revealing Oldknows’ Legacy in Marple and Mellor, Poulton Archaeological Project, Roman Maryport, and Timperley Old Hall. A significant number of these were run by local archaeology societies and trusts such as the Mellor Archaeological Trust, Poulton Trust, and the South Trafford Archaeological Group.

Shorter projects of one or two seasons or under one year in duration, were more frequent, and usually focussed on excavation work. Amongst these were Roman Ravenglass and the Workington mining landscape both in Cumbria, Halton Castle in Cheshire, Birley Fields and Worsley New Hall in Manchester, Lancaster Quayside, and Liverpool courtyard housing. These shorter projects often produce only grey literature reports.

Future Research Directions and Objectives

The project took the opportunity to look at the potential for the next generation of historic environment research within North West England. This was a major theme of the project workshops, and the research questions and objectives that emerged from these discussions are listed by period on the wiki website. These develop the original research questions and objectives from the work published in 2006 and 2007, updating those first set of period and cross-period questions where appropriate.

Regional Strategies

The strategy workshops, however, highlighted several themes and issues which encompass all the periods under review. These are relevant to the way in which future research on the historic environment in North West England might be framed and developed, and are highlighted here as potential topics for helping to develop the next iteration of the research framework. Thus:

  • We know about national issues in relation to improving best practice, such as the shortage of archiving, the growth of fieldwork backlogs, the impact of new science techniques, and the changing character of publication from paper to digital, but are there specific regional issues from North West England?
  • Can such regional issues be approached through partnership working with local archaeology departments at universities, through MAs, PhDs, and wider community engagement?
  • How easily can fieldwork be published in county and national journals, and are there other publishing platforms or forms of dissemination to consider?
  • Major fieldwork backlogs should be assessed to see if they are still relevant. We need to identify the strategic ones and focus on these so that the problem is more manageable.
  • Web-based research platforms should help link fieldwork across period-research within and beyond North West England, and therefore be part of the solution for dealing with backlogs and publication.
  • More synthesis of research subjects is needed. Funding remains an issue, but Leverhulme/AHRC partnerships, and crowd-funding, could be ways to support this partnership work.
  • We need better working between academic, professional, and community archaeologists, underpinned by more training that transfers skills between each of these groups. One way to do this would be to have regular training or/and dedicated community archaeology posts to aid in the development of these skills and linkages.
  • Framework-based workshops could be requested for community groups working within those periods in order to focus on the specific period objectives.
  • It was felt by some in the workshops that there was a need for wider support groups like the Greater Manchester Archaeology Federation and the Lake District National Park Volunteer network.

Period Considerations

The workshops also highlighted some of the distinctive features and research themes encountered when working in each archaeological and historic period within North West England. These are addressed in the specific research questions and objectives on the wiki website. Additionally, several issues and observations have been raised which are worth recording and are set out below. These reflect the concerns of the research community working on the historic environment of North West England during the early 21st century. They are included as a separate table (Table 1) and should be viewed as contemporary, topical observations arising from the workshops carried out in 2017 and 2018.

Early and Later Prehistoric Period Workshop Observations
1.Ceramics and coins are very different to other areas of the country, as shown by the Portable Antiquities Scheme with only Cheshire having coins
2.A national radiocarbon database is desperately needed eg. we cannot say how many Neolithic radiocarbon dates there are for North West England, whereas dendrochronology dating is better coordinated and accessible.
3.There are is a paucity of four poster structures (although see the middle BA one excavated recently at Cut Acre, Bolton)
4.The EH/HE Thesaurus is not fit for purpose eg. ‘hill top enclosures’. It needs an overhaul/review.
5.We need more predictive modelling, from large hill top to lowland defended sites including promontories.
6.The date range for Burnt Mounds needs to be clarified – don’t assume they are all prehistoric in origin.
7.More training is needed for volunteers in issues/techniques relating to Prehistoric archaeology.
Romano-British Period Workshop Observations
8.How can we ensure we have sufficient finds specialists in the future, such as Samian ware expertise? There is a shortage of specialist curators at museums. We need a mentoring scheme to pass on knowledge (perhaps through apprenticeships).
9.There is still a root problem of not publishing major sites. Roman sites can be daunting for post ex projects as they can produce huge quantities of finds.
10.Have we captured enough about military occupation/Roman forts? The evidence at sites such as Lancaster and Castleshaw show unexpected military formats that do not fit into expected patterns. We need to be sure we have captured this type of data. Late Roman occupation of forts is a key theme within the region.
11.Another important theme to focus research on is the relationship of people in forts/extra-mural settlements and rural settlements.
12.Can systematic analysis of finds assemblages, especially from the PAS database, give an insight into regional distinctiveness? It is crucial we understand material culture and some types of artefact are rare in the North West compared with other areas.
13.The North West has a distinctive history of devolution in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, unlike other areas other areas of Britain, the region being ow governed by York as part of the province of Britannia Secunda.
14.It is essential for archaeology contractors operating in the NW who have come from elsewhere to be aware of the regional distinctiveness as set out in the revised and existing NWRRF. Techniques and methodologies used on Roman sites in the south may well not be fit for purpose in North West England.
Early Medieval Period Workshop Observations
15..The EM period starts from the lowest base with most of the material culture lost and a pseudo-chronology. New science techniques are helping us to get at previously ‘invisible’ sites and most of these occur by chance through other period studies. This is a regional distinctiveness.
16.Have we got enough archaeological evidence yet to support PhDs/research?
17.Early kingdom boundaries are important: they extended into Scotland, Northumbria was north of the Mersey and Mercia was south of the Mersey, so we need inter-regional/cross-country research.
18.One early hoard from outside the area could radically change our view/understanding.
19.The PAS evidence is vital. How can we tell EM ceramics from Bronze Age and re-use of late Roman? A study is needed and training.
20.A lot of the issues highlighted in the previous Research Framework are still relevant.
Later Medieval Period Workshop Observations
21.Development of rural housing from Roman, early medieval through to post medieval – status can change through time.
22.How do monasteries affect settlement patterns and vice versa?
23.Look at failed and successful towns – failed ones just as interesting.
24.Emphasis on problems. Need to look at effect of disaster on settlements, such as Harrying of the North.
25.Granges are the ‘Cinderella’ of studies. Should look at their impact on landscape and use.
26.The wider landscape including royal forests and deer parks need study.
27..Research on quarries should be undertaken to help match up stone to future conservation.
28.There is no national corpus for mason’s marks (last attempted in 1954 by Davis), therefore little chance of identifying masons or teams eg. there are 17 mason’s marks on Lancaster Castle gatehouse of 13th to 15th century date.
29.Why do some elements of religious houses survive and not others?
30.Emphasis on defence but what about ‘pseudo’ defence linked to expressions of status.
Post-Medieval Period Workshop Observations
31.There is a great need for an agreed terminology for ware types – vessel forms are well-established. There are inconsistencies in reporting of fabrics and weight etc and standardisation is required. Guidelines should be provided. 2. Recording of the Rainford black glazed earthenware could be used as a model/template. The Medieval Research Group is producing a fabric recording guide which will be published soon and this could be used as a template.
32.We need to identify key sites of publication and train a new generation of finds specialists, helped through a North West finds network.
33.Landscaping for leisure is an important research theme that deserves more attention – the evolution of formal landscaping and how parks were adapted into the industrial period. An example is Dunham Massey where the deer parks were altered. There should be a focus on looking at the origins of parks and their impact on existing settlements, such as clearance.
34.Can we do more to identify pre-1800 abandoned farms? Cheshire is undertaking an overview of stripped and recorded Post Medieval sites abandoned by the early 1800s. There is a proposal to digitise Cumbria archives which would help.
35.The study of graffiti and protective markings is a key recent research theme and useful work is now being carried out on a wide ranging set of buildings. This subject area of belief systems should include concealed clothing, witch bottles etc.
36.Development of dual occupations amongst the farming community was important for early industry, such as early textile mills, mineral extraction, weaving, glass working, nail making. We need to study this more and the land holding rights of farmers (relative success of tenants vs freehold) that stimulated the dual economy.
37.A lot more can be done on identifying Civil War siege works, town defences, castle adaptations, minor battles and skirmishes. PAS data can be useful for the latter. Look at scaring on church towers. The post conflict evidence is also under-studied, such as slighting evidence, impact of confiscation for Royalist supporters (eg. Wigan town, Lathom House, Blundell Estate in Sefton), but also the flip side of this in terms of the growth of the mercantile class, changes in family fortunes and release of mineral rights which were previously Crown controlled.
38.A key research area should be early river navigations and their link to exchange.
39.The links to Ireland and the Isle of Man and their influence on the region’s archaeology need to be included.
Industrial & 20th century Period Workshop Observations
40.Recent investigations have seen lots of important analysis on human remains.
41.Food production from rural/farms is an important theme that needs mentioning.
42.The rural poor of this period relate to contemporary homelessness.
43.For the Environment theme, the landscape change due to invasive flora/fauna and development pressure are key aspects.
44.Place based research (holistic approach) in a landscape context is important.
45.We should recognise sub-regional variation eg. houses, mills, public buildings etc.
46.Changing building materials is a key theme: glass, steel, cast-iron framework etc.
47.Dealing with other evidence bases eg. photographs, social history incl. oral histories, vital for this period.
48.For the Post Medieval and Industrial & Modern periods generally, we need to stress the unique ability to reveal/investigate demolished sites and enable reconstruction.
49.How do we capture the process of industrialisation? This is a high level question which has been rather overlooked due to a focus on smaller questions.
50.Development of travel infrastructure for people and goods, transatlantic trade and population movements are especially key themes for the North West.
51How do we incorporate Britain’s archaeological and architectural influence on its Imperial world, and that Imperial world’s impact on Britain?
52.How and why do we separate post-medieval and industrial archaeology? We aren’t so reliant on archaeology, so other research techniques such as architectural history and social history are relevant.  We need to be more focused to deal with the scale.
53.For buildings, an important theme is threat due to shifts in the socio-economic trends and political policy eg. do we understand enough about the significance of banks, pubs, police stations, municipal buildings, high street shops, post offices to inform decisions about change and potential loss


This version of the North West Regional Research Framework for the Historic Environment has drawn heavily upon the original archaeological source volumes published in 2006 and 2007, in terms of the approach taken to engaging the regional research community and organising the data. Its publication in 2021, however, is just part of a wider, blended, dissemination strategy. Thus, the interactive online wiki website is intended to be the focal point for disseminating research regionally over the next decade.

The research and writing of the current framework and the creation of the wiki website have relied upon a generation of local authority, professional, academic, and voluntary archaeologists and built environment specialists, many of whom were instrumental in researching and writing the 2006 and 2007 documents. The project was managed by a consortium of the University of Salford, Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service, and the Council for British Archaeology North West and North regional groups. The main data-gathering and administration and recasting of questions fell to the small core project team (Dr Michael Nevell, Norman Redhead, Kirsty Lloyd, Dr Rachael Reader, Penny Dargan-Makin and Dr Sam Rowe). But there was considerable input from Dan Miles, Dr Sue Stallibrass and David Mullin at Historic England, and the Steering Group including local authority planning archaeologists and period co-ordinators.

For the next version of the historic environment research framework for North West England more strategic planning needs to be given to the resources needed to maintain the North West Regional Research framework: in particular improving the linkages between the academic, professional and voluntary sectors, and exploring future potential funding from Historic England, the academic research councils, and whether local authority archaeological services are able to continue to commit to projects such as this in an era of continued austerity. When the first version of this framework was published in 2006 and 2007, many local authority services in the region still had a ‘strategic’ archaeological manager leading each team who was not involved in day-to–day development management or Historic Environment Record matters. This is no longer the case and, even if more financial resources had been available to pay for officer time during the current project revision, the physical resources available to many teams was always going to make the level of commitment required, and perhaps expected by national bodies, difficult to achieve. Despite this, the ‘buy-in’ and commitment from participants has been remarkable and reflects the high level of engagement with the North West’s historic environment community in preparing the first framework.

A central philosophy of both the first and revised version of the regional research framework has been the engagement of a wider range of research communities. This second version consciously broadened that research scope to include the built historic environment. The workshops conducted for each of the periods, including the strategy and community workshops, were vital in giving the steering group a clear understanding of the current character of archaeological and built environment work being undertaken in the region. It was also essential in identifying the relevant material from which the period objectives could be drawn. This allowed the framework to develop in a broader and more inclusive manner. It was clear from the result of the project that the contribution of the voluntary sector to research within the historic environment was very significant and that the project needed to reflect this. The continuing value and the potential of research by the voluntary sector has been assessed by four major studies in the years 2009 to 2018. This includes two UK-wide surveys by the Council for British Archaeology on voluntary engagement and fieldwork in archaeology (Thomas 2009 and Frearson 2018), a study by Historic England on the value of community-generated research in the historic environment in England (Hedge & Nash 2016), and the role of community archaeology engagement within professional archaeology by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (Brown, Partridge & Miles 2018).

The workshops also highlighted the way in which the voluntary sector engaged with the professional, academic, and museum sectors in the region. There was a perception that whilst there were some exemplary networks that promoted cross-sector collaboration, such as the Greater Manchester Archaeological Federation, the Lake District National Park Volunteer network, and the local history federation networks in Cheshire and Lancashire, there was still a recognisable divide between professional and volunteer, academic and non-academic. There was also a perception of less engagement from the academic sector with developing the framework than from other historic environment sectors. Whilst the view of the community workshops, at best a small sample of the voluntary sector in the region, may not always reflect the reality of working in the North West, it is clear from assessing the fieldwork undertaken in the years 2006 to 2020 that community groups are a vital resource that we risk losing if we do not factor in their needs and requirements into this and other professional documents. Regional research issues should continue to be approached through partnership working between universities, heritage professionals, and the voluntary sector. Academic archaeologists in particular have a long tradition of inter-regional studies, from which the North West England research community could benefit. Advocating for the value of the historic environment should involve talking to local politicians, council officers, and local communities in order to promote the value and benefits of local heritage.

Increasingly, the continued improvement and development of science techniques applicable to archaeological and wider historic environment research are being deployed in the region. These are helping to maximise information from what are often challenging field conditions. Furthermore, the Roman rural research project, run from Reading University, demonstrates how using grey literature material can revolutionise our understanding of a particular topic: there is great scope in the North West for many similar projects, especially for the Post-Medieval and Industrial periods. It should also be noted that the data gathered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme is also starting to impact our understanding and perception of the later prehistoric, Roman, and early medieval periods.

The future management of the North West Regional Research Framework for the Historic Environment will be through the newly created interactive wiki website. This should be extremely beneficial to the future of the framework, not only for its dissemination, but also for the continuing use and evolution of that framework. Historic England’s newly created wiki website provides the opportunity to host a multitude of research frameworks, based on geographical location or subject. This will considerably enhance comparative research at cross-regional and national level and provide up to date information on recent research initiatives and investigations.  The wiki platform, coupled with a point-in-time publication produced by CBA North West, offers multiple ways for archaeologists and built environmental specialists to interact with the research objectives and update the website with the latest results of fieldwork and research from the region. It may even be possible to produce a regularly updated point-in-time monograph from the new wiki data. That, though, is a management and research goal for the next generation of archaeologists and historic environment professionals working in North West England.

One thought on "Researching the Historic Environment of North West England: Overview and Conclusion"

  1. sarowe sarowe says:

    ‘Rainford’s Roots project 2013-2014 was HLF funded (Merseyside Archaeological Society)Reference

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