Beachfront archaeology in the Las Vegas of the North

This year’s Festival of Archaeology saw me in the Las Vegas of the North recceing several features to the north of Blackpool. The intertidal zone, where CITiZAN carries out much of its training is a dynamic environment that can change rapidly, sometimes overnight.  As a result a large portion of the training archaeologists’ job for CITiZAN involves investigating stretches of beach to see if they’re fun for volunteers to visit and making sure that that interesting feature you saw a year ago is still visible today. Happily Blackpool has a wonderful tramline, so I could leave the van at home and travel to site in a little more style.

Historic trams ply Blackpool seafront, just as they would have 100 years ago

Top of the list of features to visit on the day was the remains of a 19th century pier that consists of the timber piles, scattered wrought iron beams and several A-shaped ladders that originally formed a landing spot for ships. It’s a fantastic feature to show our volunteers how to carry out off-sets plans, use an automatic level and take archaeological photographs, all classic field skills transferable to any excavation, wet or dry.  Unfortunately the section of beach on which the pier is located is closed while a large scale bathing water improvement scheme is finished. (Something not mentioned by the landowner when we were negotiating access to the area earlier in the month.)  Optimistically though the feature is only just within the beach exclusion zone, the piles rise tantalizingly out of the sand twenty or so metres away and they don’t seem very close to the main area of works.

Just out of reach: the collapsed Victorian jetty rises out of the sand on the right of the photo

Perhaps we can negotiate access to the feature on a Sunday, when the site’s probably not working.  That’s something to go on the list for Monday morning though, as time and tide don’t wait for archaeologists; so for now it’s on to the second feature of the visit, a prehistoric peatshelf.  This is possibly the same peatshelf identified on Cleveleys’s foreshore in 1980, dated to the Early Holocene (12,000-7,000 BP) and referenced in Historic England’s peat database (Hazell 2008, 3).  Several peatshelves can be exposed on the foreshore at the same time, all dating to different periods and without any sort of location information it’s difficult to know if what I’m looking for is the same ancient land surface seen in the ’80’s.  But hopefully I can find the peatshelf again and we can get permission to carry out some environmental sampling, date the peatshelf and flesh out a little more detail on what the wider landscape looked like in the past.

One of the joys of working on the foreshore is that with every low tide your site can and frequently does change, with the tide moving sands, silts and mud around exposing new features or more of what you were looking at yesterday. But what the tide can expose, it can also cover up and when I get to the co-ordinates of the peatshelf there was nothing but sand, the feature had been completed covered after out last visit.  CITiZAN aims to be a non-intrusive project, doing as little excavation as possible, allowing erosion to largely uncover the features we look at; nature’s trowel as the boss would say.  A few hundred metres further north and closer to the low tide mark a new area of peatshelf appeared to have been exposed though, so this becomes the third feature to visit. Happily the newly exposed landsurface is larger than the original feature and contained remains of a submerged forest, including root systems, tree stumps and recumbent trunks.  These features are located close to mean low water and although it was only an hour after low tide the feature was already starting to be covered by the sea.  When we come back to do some more investigating the tidal window for the work will be narrow.

A prehistoric landscape on the edge of the tideline

With the tide starting to raise it’s off to the fourth feature of the morning, the wreck of a wooden vessel called the Abana a feature CITiZAN hadn’t visited before.  The Abana was a Norwegian barque built in 1874 and lost in 1894 (CITiZAN feature 65294), walking towards her it was clear the Abana would be an excellent feature to record with extant hull planking and frames.  But I got distracted by the new peatshelf and the water around the Abana is getting too deep to wade through safely, so this wreck will have to wait for a return visit.

What does an intertidal archaeologist do at high tide, once the sea has covered your features in several metres of water?  In the Las Vegas of the North it can only mean two things: pleasure piers and fun rides.  Blackpool’s first train station was built in 1846 and by 1879 almost a million people a year arrived by train to enjoy the town’s attractions, by the early 20th Century this had grown to almost 4 million annual visitors (Brodie and Whitfield 2014, 51).  Over the years since the arrival of the railways the town has built numerous attractions to entertain its visitors, many of which are now Listed by Historic England like the Big Dipper and Blue Flyer roller-coasters in the Pleasure Beach and the iconic Blackpool Tower.  So it’s time to make like the masses and head to the promenade for some historic fun.

 

The oldest of Blackpool’s three piers was built in 1863 and is the oldest surviving design of master pier builder Eugenius Birch

Hope to see you at the seaside soon too!

Come join CITiZAN on the foreshore for some intertidal archaeology