Arguably archaeology is at its best when it deals directly with the material culture of the past – through a group of objects or a single item. This kind of data is at the core of the discipline of archaeology. I was reminded of this by a recent discovery at the second Dig Greater Manchester (DGM) community excavation. In July 2012 DGM came to Radcliffe in Bury: to be precise, the area between Radcliffe’s two oldest buildings – the 15th century Radcliffe Tower and the 15th century parish church.
During the first two weeks of July the remains of a row of seven cottages were excavated on the southern side of Church Street (formerly Church Row). These cottages were built in the mid-19th century and demolished in the mid-20th century so had a life-span of around 100 years. More than 170 volunteers and 290 children helped to reveal the outline of each cottage and its backyard. These were small brick dwellings, with, in most cases, just a single living room on the ground floor with a fireplace. Most of the rear yards also had an outhouse with a toilet which in each case produced dozens of small pieces of Victorian pottery.
It was whilst the backyard of the eastern cottage, No. 200, was being dug that a small bronze oval token was discovered amongst some late Victorian pottery and clay pipes. Roughly 20mm by 30mm, one side had an image of a lady and the other some flowers with a star. Around the edge of one side of the token was the inscription ‘Congregation of the Children of Mary’, indicating that it belonged to a Catholic.
The Congregation was founded as a result of a series of visions experienced by St Catherine Laboure in 1830, and was a lay order. At first it was open only to girls who were students or orphans in the care of The Sisters of Charity.1 Girls and young women in the society were encouraged to live holy lives in the everyday world by embracing the virtues of sacrifice, prayer and works of charity. In 1876 membership was extended to include all young people, boys and girls, and a version of the society survives into the early 21st century. Newly joined individuals would be given a bronze or silver medallion as a sign of membership, on which to inscribe their name and the date they joined.
The Radcliffe token is a typical example of a Children of Mary medallion. The obverse side of the medallion shows an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary with ‘rays of grace’ that emanate from the rings she wares. A motto ‘monstra te esse matrem’ (show thyself a mother), can be seen around the edge and is a phrase taken from the 9th century devotional hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’ (Hail, Star of the Sea).
The reverse shows the Ave Maria monogram with lilies and a star above. The inscription ‘Congregation of the Children of Mary’ runs around the edge, and there is a panel for the member’s name. Sadly the Radcliffe name panel was blank – perhaps it had been worn away?
Radcliffe in the late 19th century and early 20th century was a diverse town. Living in the streets close by during the 1890s and 1900s were Dutch, Irish, and Welsh, although the majority of the inhabitants of this growing cotton town were born in Lancashire. The census returns for Church Row/Street show that all the inhabitants of the seven cottages were Lancashire-born. Who, then, was the owner of the medallion? It might be one of the Morgan family recorded living at No. 200 in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, but we can’t be sure. This object was certainly a highly personal item for a young adult, probably a girl, living at the end of the 19th century. Such a personal religious item is a highly unusual discovery from houses of this period in the Manchester region, and how it came to be lost or thrown away in the backyard is unknown. Archaeology can only take us so far in revealing the history of an object, even one from the recent past.
1) St Catherine Laboure’s religious order.