The last day of November saw the third annual Greater Manchester Archaeology Day. First run in the 1980s and 1990s, the day was revived in 2011 by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service and the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford. It’s a chance to inform the public about the most recent and some of the longer-term archaeology projects in the city region. It’s one of several similar events in the North West, in Cheshire and Lancashire. Nor is it a day for only the professionals, with presentations from local societies, reports on two local community projects and stands with displays and books (remember those?) to buy. What’s more the programme was put together with the help of the Greater Manchester Archaeology Federation and the fine venue at the old Fire Station, Salford University, allowed around 100 people to listen to ten presentations.
So what’s the point in all this effort? It’s the serious business of informing the public about the discovery of the past, much of which is done by professionals through the planning process in their name. Therefore, this kind of event can be seen as one of the added benefits of the archaeological planning process. Furthermore, it’s a chance for local societies such as MRIAS, STAG and TAS to let a wider audience know about their own research. There were also many volumes free to collect on the day from the Greater Manchester’s Past Revealed series – a popular publication series overseen by GMAAS, telling the story of discovery from many of the developer-funded projects undertaken across the city region, as well as community archaeology projects undertaken by local societies at Newton Hall and Timperley Hall. The topics on the day ranged from late prehistoric farmsteads to 19th century workers’ housing and from medieval pottery to the technology of the coke oven.
You might regard such a day as rather exclusive, attended by only those interested or in the know. But consider the reach of this and the other archaeology days in the region, and the two annual meetings held by the Council for British Archaeology North West – nearly a thousand individuals attend these events each year, not to mention the wider media impact through the press, Facebook and twitter (you can catch up on the tweets from this year’s conference @archaeologyuos #gmarchaeo). This way of informing the public about the heritage consequences of the planning system is unique to archaeology; construction professionals, surveyors, and architects don’t have this kind of interface with the public. You could even call this the Big Society in action, although that’s not a term I favour; this type of engagement activity was being undertaken by archaeologists decades before that particular phrase became popular.
The serious point about these hopefully enjoyable and informative days, is that it brings the professional and volunteer into the same room, sparking discussions and sometimes new ideas. We should not forget that the ratio of volunteer to professional in archaeology is roughly 36 to 1. Indeed, how many other of the professions involved in the wider built environment have such a significant volunteer input that includes primary research? It also demonstrates the wider public benefit of such work and why we should continue to preserve and understand the past. This is particularly important at a time when the Government has just announced reviews of the guidance for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the role and funding of council-based Historic Environment Records (threatened by the continuing cuts to local government). There is also a final point, and it’s one of the reasons why the Greater Manchester Archaeology Day was revived – no one outside archaeology is going to pull such an event together, so it’s up to us as professionals and volunteers to continue to shout loudly about how and why this work is important.