Surprise find @ Manchester Museum

Working as Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum is never short of variety. I am currently working on a temporary exhibition about figurines from Koma Land in Ghana in West Africa that opens October 25 2013. This will be the first time that such figurines, which date roughly from the same time as our Middle Ages, have been shown outside Ghana with the approval of the Ghanaian authorities. It has been quite a learning curve and it’s been a great privilege to work with Prof Tim Insoll of the University of Manchester and Dr Benjamin Kankpeyeng of the University of Ghana to find out about what these beautiful but enigmatic figurines mean. Today I am editing some text for the exhibition. Shaving off words in order to reduce the number for the designer is challenging as a few words can subtly change the meaning about figurines that are already loaded with significance and complexity.

Working at the Museum means that I come across some great objects during my day to day activity. Yesterday I was just about to take a seat at the staff presentation when Lindsey Loughtman, one of the Assistant Curators  called me over to say she’d found an object in the Botany collection that appeared to be archaeology. I recognised it immediately as a neolithic ground and polished stone axehead dating from about 3500-2000 BC. Not only that, it had the original ‘O’ number museum reference written on it together with the name of the place where it was found: Winton near Eccles. It was a stone axehead I knew of from references in J.Wilfrid Jackson’s papers about the archaeology of Manchester. Jackson was the very widely respected curator who worked at Manchester Museum during the first half of the 20th century. The Eccles axehead is listed in Jackson’s ‘The Prehistoric Archaeology of Lancashire and Cheshire’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 50 (1936), pp.65-106; and in his ‘Contributions to the Archaeology of the Manchester Region’, The North Western Naturalist 11 (1936), pp.110-119.

The axehead turned up during the building of the new Westwood housing estate at Winton in 1922. At the time it was described as one of the finest and most perfect specimens in the Manchester area. J.J.Phelps in a short article ‘Stone Implement found at Winton, Eccles’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 40 (19XX), pp.42-44 described it as ‘a remarkably fine specimen’ and ‘one of the finest and most perfect specimens found in the district around Manchester’.

Wilton Axe c. Bryan Sitch

Wilton Axe c. Bryan Sitch


The axehead was found in June 1922 by Mr. James Caine, who saw it lying on top of spoil thrown out of a drainage trench cut in the soil about the centre of a newly made roadway named Westwood Crescent near Parrin Lane. The axehead has been sampled petrologically. You can see the thin slot cut in the side of the axe in order to provide a thin section to be used for identification. The stone was identified by J.W.Jackson of Manchester Museum as group VI greenstone, a kind of rock known as volcanic tuff. It is fine grained because it is made up of the compacted dust and grains from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. It shares characteristics with glass and flint which means it can be shaped by flaking because it will break in a predictable way. The source material outcrops in Langdale in the Lake District and the Pike O’Stickle quarry is famous for its breath-taking location. The prehistoric axe-makers made rough-outs and then ground and polished the rough-out until it was smooth and of a regular, symmetrical shape. I wanted to display it with other Manchester neolithic discoveries in our new Ancient Worlds displays which opened last autumn but unfortunately I couldn’t locate it at that time. And to think it was in the Botany department all the time!

So all-in-all a wonderful surprise and great to be reunited with an old friend.

Written by Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections and Curator of Archaeology at Manchester Museum.

Follow @BryanSitch