On the 29 June 2018 one of Manchester’s great community and voluntary archaeologists died, Derek Pierce. Derek was involved in voluntary and professional archaeology for more than 40 years, contributing to our understanding of several major sites and inspiring many to participate in archaeology.
In the late 1970s Derek volunteered to help dig on a number of Roman military sites being investigated by the late Prof Barri Jones of Manchester University. Falling in with a like-minded group of enthusiastic volunteers the idea to establish a local archaeology society was born. That idea became the South Trafford Archaeological Group (STAG), the home of most of these friends, and Derek was its first chairman. In fact, he would go on to serve as chair for the next 35 years, stepping down in November 2014.
Under his leadership, the Group established its own headquarters to hold meetings and display its discoveries. This was in a building donated free, and then moved and rebuilt by STAG members at Altrincham golf course. It was opened in 1987 by the historian and TV presenter Michael Wood, quite a coup for a local archaeology society. Derek was always immensely proud of this recognition. In the 1980s and 1990s the group’s membership flourished and regularly topped more than 100, well above the national average for such societies. During this time, STAG pushed back our knowledge of the first people who lived in the Trafford area by several thousand years, Derek and his team uncovering a Bronze Age burial, mapping the Roman road through Bowdon and Little Bollington and locating the first evidence for Saxon Altrincham.
Under Derek’s leadership and ably supported by STAG’s first secretary, Pat Faulkner, the group did not confine itself to Trafford, working on sites across southern and eastern Manchester, and central and northern Cheshire. At the helm was Derek, biting the end of his pipe in thought, and at break-times munching on cheese and marmalade sandwiches, interpreting what the Group had found with the aid of his flask of foul-tasting coffee.
Such was Derek’s enthusiasm for archaeology, that when made redundant in the mid-1980s he took the opportunity to become a professional archaeologist. Thus, he worked on several digs in Manchester and Salford in the late 1980s with the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit. His expert field knowledge, combined with his enthusiasm for the subject, made him a natural teacher. He was a passionate believer in the power of archaeology to unlock our understanding of the past, and was always keen to pass on his enthusiasm and knowledge to others, no matter their age.
Of the many sites STAG worked on during his time as chair (over 100, by my reckoning) two fired Derek’s imagination and enthusiasm the most. These were the Roman fort at Northwich in Cheshire, and the Timperley moated site, the original Timperley Old Hall. Derek led digs at Northwichs in the 1980s and 1990s, and worked there again in the 2000s, studying its pottery kilns. The site he was most passionate about, though, was Timperley Old Hall. Excavations between 1989 and 1999, and again from 2009 to 2012, produced one of the best recorded and understood late medieval moated halls in North West England, with an important collection of late medieval and post-medieval pottery. At this site Derek combined two of his three passions, archaeology and gardening, for after the digs were finished the moated platform was landscaped and a small garden established, very much through his vision.
Derek continued to dig and survey with the Group when he could. His most recent and final discovery was of a musket ball, jammed between the stone setts by Altrincham’s covered market, recovered during the recent renovations. This small item was a remnant of the site’s original use as a training ground for the Cheshire Militia in the mid-19th century (see elsewhere on this blog). A true archaeologist to the end, he knew the value of even the smallest items in rediscovering the past and telling the story of the everyday folk, especially of the Altrincham and South Trafford areas.