Collecting our past

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University of Liverpool Continuing Education Department and Merseyside Archaeological Society members investigate Rainford's early industries in 1979 University of Liverpool Continuing Education Department and Merseyside Archaeological Society investigate Rainford's early industries in 1979

As National Museums Liverpool celebrates its 30th birthday I sit in the museum store and pause for a moment's thought about the ways archaeology and our collecting has changed since Liverpool's museums gained their national status in the mid 1980s. Working with the regional archaeology collection at the Museum of Liverpool I see, recorded in the collections, the ways in which the practice of archaeology has changed over the last 30 years.

By the time National Museums Liverpool was created in 1986 interest in archaeology was a widespread

with a network of local archaeology societies across the country - Merseyside's had been formed a decade earlier in 1976. Television programmes  such as ‘Chronicle’ and ‘The Grandeur that was Rome’ had helped raise awareness of the discipline. By the mid 1980s archaeology was also a growing profession: when the Institute for Archaeologists was founded in 1979 it had around 500 members (then known as the Association for the Promotion of the Institute of Field Archaeologists).  The Institute started it's regular 'Profiling the Profession' surveys in 1998, at which time it estimated that there were '4425 professional archaeologists in the UK'

But the archaeologists of the 1980s had a fight in their hands to investigate sites. Until 1987 there was no requirement for planning permission for new buildings to be considered in relation to their impact on buried archaeological remains. Instead archaeologists were forced to undertake rapid 'rescue' excavations when they foresaw destruction of sites proposed for redevelopment.

Some of the Museum of Liverpool’s archaeology collections are derived from this approach, including finds associated with the potting and clay pipe industries south west Lancashire excavated at Prescot and Rainford in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Between 1979 and 1981 there was a 'rescue' dig in advance of building of a clubhouse at Rainford Tennis Club. With permission from the Club, the University of Liverpool's Continuing Education students and staff and members of Merseyside Archaeological Society excavated on the site and located important remains of a kiln associated with the clay tobacco pipe-making industry. Through the archaeological remains and documentary research it is known that Rainford was a centre for the clay pipe industry from the early 17th century. Local farmers diversified into this industry to supplement their income, initially using local clay, and later importing clay from the west country.

As a result of these early excavations and significant documentary research, especially by local historian Ron Dagnall, the importance of Rainford’s early industrial history was becoming well-understood by the time a near-complete pot was reported to NML archaeologists in 2010. This discovery, in a back garden in Rainford, led to an exciting new project: Rainford’s Roots. This community archaeology project represents the way a number of sites accessioned into the collection in recent years have been excavated. The Rainford’s Roots project was run jointly between Merseyside Archaeological Society and the Museum of Liverpool with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It enabled local people to try their hand at research, excavation, and post-excavation finds work. They explored the potting and clay pipe industries and revealed probable remains of a potters workshop, and dumps of misfired cups and pots. As a result of these excavations, archaeologists learned that pottery production had begun as early as the 16th century – predating the clay pipe industry by around 50 years. The story of these excavations is explored in a book about the excavations, available through the online shop.

A sample of the pottery found during excavations in Rainford in 2011 as part of the Rainford's Roots project A sample of the pottery found during excavations in Rainford in 2011-14 as part of the Rainford's Roots project

The amazing array of darkware ceramics recovered from this site is complemented further by finds from a 2014 excavation at Rainford Tennis Courts. Under modern legislation new developments are considered for archaeological potential, so when Rainford Tennis Club sought planning permission for expansion and building of new tennis courts, a condition was placed on the planning application that an archaeological dig must take place first - soon to be followed by the creation of their excellent modern facilities. The site revealed numerous dumps of misfired ceramics of 17th century date, including cups, storage jars, and what archaeologists think might be an early type of chamber pot. Many of the finds accessioned into the archaeology collection since the 1990s have been derived from excavations required as part of the planning process, and this legislative framework has enabled us to learn a great deal about the archaeology of the region from the Mesolithic to the modern.