Summertime in South Yorkshire
Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day in Hemingfield, and the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery were delighted to welcome a group of extra volunteers on site to get stuck in to tidying things up, but also continuing the gentle archaeology of the site – peeling back the top layer of soil and roots to reveal some of the former colliery’s features beneath.
Friends Director and Site Manager Glen opened the pit gates to welcome a group of volunteers, Peak adventurers into South Yorkshire, in the shape of John, Chris, Phil and Dave. Friends Chair Steve and regular volunteer John were also present to sign in and discuss the day’s tasks in the shade of the winding shaft headgear.
Before shoveling and barrowing began, however, the new visitors took the opportunity to visit our friends down the road at Elsecar Heritage Centre, and to see the results of the great restoration and reinterpretation work on the 1795 Newcomen-type engine. Elsecar has a great summer programme of activities for all of the family, whether admiring the Newcomen, marveling at the steam engines of the Elsecar Heritage Railway, or joining in the Mini Maker fairs on Saturdays throughout the Summer, with science and engineering activities for families.
Keeping cool and carrying on
Hats and sun lotion were in order as the sun beat down on site. Volunteer Chris arrived shortly afterwards, and work began on the investigatory trench by the side of the switchgear building, picking up where things left off at the last working party weekend in July.
Short back and sides
A sunny spring and pleasant summer so far has encouraged a lush and flourishing selection of grasses and weeds, alongside the bracken. With work proceeding around the other side of the switchgear building, Site Manager Glen, aided by Friends Chair Steve set about neatening things up, strimming and trimming away to great effect.
Extending the dig around the exposed lost stone building, and evening up the area exposed was the main aim of the day’s activities, and occupied the team of volunteers most of the early afternoon.
Lunchtime provided another opportunity to discuss common interests and recent developments and topics covered archaeology, the Peak District, and archives, including some fascinating original documents relating to coal mining in and around the Fitzwilliam estate, and some unique handwritten records from the late 1930s describing the daily work of the South Yorkshire Mines Drainage Committee. A brief – but essential – update on the Ashes confirmed England’s victory at Trent Bridge and lifted spirits ready for a further session of work in the sun.
The current archaeology on site, informed by volunteer and archaeologist Nigel, and supported by fellow archaeologist John, is concerned with taking back the top layer of soil and debris in the yard, to reveal any salient features and record and evaluate them, taking care to understand their context. John has already contributed invaluable insights into some of the standing structures through early survey work. For the volunteers on site, this slow but steady work provides an invaluable opportunity to learn something about the archaeological process and methods, whilst helping to improve everyone’s knowledge and understanding of the history of the site over the past 170 years.
Not the least important aspect is, of course, coal – and as the digging nears the winding shaft end, and possibly nearer to possible boiler houses, we are indeed encountering more concentrated traces of coal. This working party was no exception, as somewhat larger pieces are emerging; low quality coal, but the unmistakable black stuff is a pleasing sight; its disappearance from most people’s lives as we become all too aware of the perils of fossils fuels in the Twenty-first Century, marks a stark contrast from the end of the Nineteenth Century when it was airily stated that:
The present state of trade in this country, and of the civilisation which is based upon it, may be said to depend on three things – our men, our ships, and our coal.
Graves, H.G. [1864-1929] ‘Subterranean Treasures – Coal, Iron, Steel, &c.’, in Samuelson, James [1829-1918] (ed.) The civilisation of our day, London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1896, p.57
Small details can help understand the changing uses of the site as well as raise intriguing questions for (hopefully) future answers. Removing a layer at a time is important to understand different working levels, hard surfaces, as opposed to demolition and rubble. If, as below, we have encountered interesting features, but ones which disappear into the ground, we need to hold back from simply extracting them, but to work down to and around them, so that their relationship with nearby features is clearly understood, or can at least be discounted from the possible explanations.
Digging can be satisfying, but it is by no means always easy. Hardy volunteers are making a great contribution when they attend to help this work proceed, with the redoubtable shovels, picks, mattocks, trowel and trusty wheelbarrow.
It is very pleasing to see volunteers learning from one another as the Friends work progresses. Whether simply understanding how and where to dig; what to look for, or simply watching and listening as more experienced members point out the features and work together to help us understand the bigger picture.
One small example of the importance of little details came as volunteer John had made great strides in removing destructive roots by the side of the switchgear building. This building is a composite structure – consisting of a couple of phases above-ground, though in fact the surface is only part of the story as old Ordnance Survey maps point to other buildings on the same footprint.
From left-to-right, where the older 2 bays of an engine house (believed to have housed horizontal engines) meets the 1920s electrical switchgear extension, the brickwork is sharply contrasted. A tree stump marks a boundary between the rough brick path on the left, and on the right a hollow brick trough which is associated with the electrical cabling installed on site to deal with the pumping underground from 1920 onwards.
As the roots of the stump were removed, and surface debris lifted, it was clear that small packing bricks were in situ to mark a deliberate end to the path. Equally to the right of the tree stump, before the cable trough lies a thick iron plate, but unlike many others, it is actually a feature in the building of the trough – i.e. the brickwork has been structured around it. As we dip deeper and see the relationship between the two sides, and understand what came when in the chronology we can continue to fill in the sketched outlines of the site’s development which is is fundamental to a full understanding of the story of the site’s industrial history.
Volunteers, Visitors and Residents
You can certainly tell summer’s here when you glimpse paragliders in the skies over Elsecar and Hemingfield. Likewise, with volunteers and visitors on site, we should never forget to stop and say hello to the site’s own natural residents, like this beauty:
With the sun continuing to shine, and the dig reaching a natural end point, the volunteers collected their tools and tidied the site, bringing another enjoyable and informative working party to a conclusion.
From pickaxe to paintbrush…
A bright and gloriously hot Sunday morning saw regular volunteers Nigel and Amanda arrive on site, eagerly laden down with shovels, trowels, pickaxes and paintbrushes – all the tools of the archaeologist’s trade and one or two of the artist’s!
They joined site manager Glen to review the excellent progress made by the other volunteers on the previous day and to discuss the tasks for the day ahead.
All three eager beavers were soon busy on the final push to finish the excavation of the strip adjacent to the switch gear building. Switching from pickaxe to trowel to paintbrush with ease, depending on the nature of the archaeology to be excavated, the team gradually uncovered the remaining bricks and stones of the building which had begun to reveal itself the day before.
With swift strikes of the pickaxe, followed by gentle flicks of the paintbrush, awkward boulders were removed and the decaying wood of a railway sleeper was exposed and brushed clean. There was some discussion and theorising as to what the various features being uncovered might mean, but on the advice of archaeologist Nigel, it was decided that the area will need further investigation and exposure before the significance of the archaeology becomes clear.
The final task was to tidy up the edges of the entire excavation area, creating a razor-sharp straight section line that Sir Mortimer Wheeler would have been proud of!
Lashings of ginger beer…
As six o’clock drew near, the beating sun was on the wane, the work almost finished and the team flagging, when director Christine arrived with much appreciated sustenance in the form of delicious sandwiches, scrumptious pastries and lashings of ginger beer.
Funny how everything tastes twice as good when eaten in the open air after a hard day’s brushing, trowelling and digging!