I Dig Newton

Archaeology can provide instant results and reward long, painstaking, research. The discovery of two Viking-era hoards from Lancashire and Cumbria in 2011 (the Silverdale and Furness Hoards respectively)1 provide evidence of the former and the recent community excavation at Newton Hall the latter. My association with Newton Hall goes back more years than I can comfortably cope with, to 1990, when I began researching my first book on the archaeology and history of Tameside. 16 more volumes were to follow as the Tameside Archaeological Survey tackled a variety of subjects in this metropolitan borough. These ranged from the prehistoric landscape and the buildings of the area, to the archaeology of industrialisation and 20th century archaeology. The attractive black-white timber-framed Newton Hall was the subject of the final volume in 2010 which summarised 44 years of conservation work and archaeological research.2

By the early 20th century the hall had become part of Newton Hall Farm. Hidden behind the brick walls of an 18th century threshing barn, it faced demolition in 1966. Its rescue and restoration came through the foresight and commitment of a local business man (Sir George Kenyon) and the then Hyde Municipal Borough Council. The site was purchased by the company William Kenyon & Sons and the cruck-framed building restored as a timber structure. This was done using building apprentices from Browns Construction Group Ltd of Wilmslow, applying medieval building methods that included replica medieval carpentry tools. This work was completed in 1970 and since then the building has been used as a company boardroom and has been opened to the public several times a year.

The Tameside Archaeological Survey investigated the timber-framed structure in the mid- to late 1990s, demonstrating it was 15th century in date. The project returned to the hall in 2008 to excavate a small section of the farm site. This was part of the research into the history and archaeology of the cruck-framed buildings of the region which culminated with the publication on the hall.

Members of the Tameside Local History Forum3 helped with the 2008 dig, which uncovered the foundations of the farmhouse and farmyard. Intrigued and inspired by the archaeology uncovered the Forum, a voluntary grouping of 30 local heritage societies and groups that has been running since 2000, applied to the HLF for further funds. In February 2012 the HLF-supported ‘The Lost History of Newton Hall’ project was launched at an evening event at Newton Hall itself. During April and early May archaeologists from the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology assisted the Forum in the excavations around the hall.

Despite the cold and wet weather 297 children from ten local schools with 40 teachers and helpers, 126 adult volunteers, 17 children from the Young Archaeologist’s Club, 17 A-Level students from Oldham Sixth Form College, seven students from a pupil withdrawal unit with 5 supervisors, and seven scouts enthusiastically dug in seven trenches.4 By the end of the dig 143 visitors during the excavations and 397 visitors to the organised public open days had watched these volunteers dig up new material about Newton’s past. A third of the farmhouse was excavated revealing a confusion of brick and stone walls, as well as a George I farthing minted between 1718 and 1724 and a pipe bowl dating from 1640 to 1680. A large part of the farmyard and the lean-to building adjacent to the threshing barn were also excavated and to the south of hall an early ditch was found to run under the timber-framed structure.

As is often the case in archaeology, the most exciting finds came during the last weekend and on the very last day of the dig. Firstly, a piece of green-glazed 15th century pottery was excavated from a wall in the farmhouse – we now seem to have two medieval buildings on the site. Then in the trench containing the lean-to building, and c. 5m to the east of the hall, an earlier cobbled surface and a stone lined and capped drain were discovered beneath the 19th century farmyard. Finally, on the last day a fragment of stone walling was uncovered in the same trench at the same level. Since it was found to run parallel with the eastern wall of the cruck-building it seems likely that this could be the foundations of a lost southern wing to the hall. Its discovery thus helps to explain the location of the 21 hall rooms mentioned in the will of Alexander Newton from 1617. Only further excavation can confirm this.

 For me, and it would seem hundreds of others, the thrill of discovering every-day objects not handled in centuries, and the uncovering of the story of a particular site are far more exciting than the dazzling glint of silver. In the meantime, it looks like I might have some rewriting to do.

1) See the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s website – www.finds.org.uk

2) Nevell M, 2010, Newton Hall and the Cruck Buildings of North West England. University of Salford Archaeological Monographs Volume 1, Centre for Applied Archaeology, University of Salford.

3) www.tamesidehistoryforum.org.uk

4) More details about the Centre’s community archaeology programme can be found on the CfAA’s newly expanded website (www.salford.ac.uk/built-environment/research/applied-archaeology). Images of the Newton Hall dig can be found on the Centre’s Facebook pages.

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