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Manchester Dock progress report

2 March 2007 by Sam

We haven’t heard from the field archaeology unit for a while, which usually means that they are way too busy uncovering interesting finds out on site to make it near a computer. Here’s the latest news from Rob Philpott:

The excavation on the site of Manchester Dock has continued for several weeks and we have made good progress in revealing the walls of the dock. The dock had been filled in with crushed sandstone excavated from the first Mersey Tunnel so it could be safely removed by mechanical excavator to a depth of about 4 metres.

Several details of the dock construction were also revealed. Variations in the quality and finish of the sandstone masonry may relate to different phases of the dock construction, in particular the creation of a narrow entrance and locks to convert the original open tidal basin into a wet dock. The stonework still bears the groove marks worn by the ropes. Masons’ marks – mostly in the form of an initial letter – are visible on many of the stone blocks. Other features include the rollers set within fine arched chambers which held ropes to open and close the dock gates.

The dock gates and a wooden tidal gauge have been exposed and recorded in detail. The dock walls have so far partially been recorded by three-dimensional laser scanning which creates a detailed computer model of the walls.

Man in hole

Archaeologist Mark Adams examines the excavated dock gates

Near the dock the excavation has exposed the foundations of a series of brick sheds along the quay as well as extensive cobbled yards and road surfaces. Two small square pits, lined with plaster, may have been tanks to hold water for the hydraulic systems or steam engines in the dock area. A brick engine house has been identified and the settings for cranes and other machinery.

One interesting find has been a dump of broken sugar moulds. These provide a direct link to two of the major industries of Liverpool: pottery manufacture and sugar refining. These pottery vessels, made in a smooth red earthenware, were probably made in Liverpool by one of the numerous potteries in the town. In shape they are a rounded cone with a small hole at the narrow end. They were used to refine sugar imported from the Caribbean and elsewhere. The mouth of the sugar cone was set over a pottery jar to collect the molasses that slowly drained out of the sugar during refining.

We have a good idea of their date as they were dumped in the land-fill which was deposited to reclaim this part of the Mersey in the period 1796-1801. At that date, the sugar was processed from the products of plantations which were worked by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

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