Finding the heritage in Sheffield’s woodlands

Woodland Heritage Festival at Ecclesall Woods: Caitlin Nagle showing Lauren Kirkland the skull of a lioness
Woodland Heritage Festival at Ecclesall Woods: Caitlin Nagle showing Lauren Kirkland the skull of a lioness

Ecclesall Woods were smoking in the drizzle as archaeologists recreated the atmosphere of their industrial past 400 years ago.

“We think we have the only demonstration Q pit in the country,” insisted Dr Toby Pillatt out of the mist. Historians have found at least 100 Q-shaped pits amid the trees, dating back to a time between the 1500s and 1700s when the woods of Sheffield were smoky industrial sites full of people making ‘white coal’ ready to re-burn for the local lead smelting industry.

Woodland Heritage Festival at Ecclesall Woods: Organiser Courtenay Crichton-Turley looking at a skull with Rose Thomas-Hanks (8)

Woodland Heritage Festival at Ecclesall Woods: Organiser Courtenay Crichton-Turley looking at a skull with Rose Thomas-Hanks (8)

“You can find Q pits in the woods of South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, but they’re rare elsewhere,” said Toby.

Monday’s Woodland Heritage Day at the Ecclesall Woods Woodland Discovery Centre was hosted by postgraduate students from Sheffield University under their ‘Archaeology in the City’ outreach programme.

“This event allows us to show our research to the public. People think archaeology is just about excavations, they forget all these behind the scenes teams working on projects too,” said Courtenay Crichton-Turley.

So around the site were students with human and sheep skeletons for visitors to assemble, lion, bear and dolphin skulls to compare, and prehistoric pottery to make. Visitors could even try their hand at ancient cave art and soap carving.

Woodland Heritage Festival at Ecclesall Woods: Joseph Kirkland (9) putting together a skeleton of sheep bones

Woodland Heritage Festival at Ecclesall Woods: Joseph Kirkland (9) putting together a skeleton of sheep bones

“People say if they’re not at the university, they can rarely find out the research happening behind closed doors,” said Courtenay. “So it’s nice to open those doors to show what’s going on and how we get to the conclusions we reach.”

The team were also able to talk about archaeology work in the local area. Ecclesall Woods, for example, is home to cup and ring rock art dating back thousands of years. “This shows the woods were a special site, with a possible spiritual significance,” said Toby.

And a flypast by a plane with precise ‘Lidar’ laser detection equipment found signs of a 2,000 year old Romano-British field system and a possible bronze age fort.

This was the third Woodland Heritage Day, part-funded this year by an Arts and Humanities Postgraduate Research Forum grant from the university, and brought in 450 visitors despite the rainy weather.

The university students and staff were joined by Heeley City Farm, demonstrating their wool-spinning techniques, and Sheffield Feminist Archive promoting their new oral history project.

Co-organiser Emma Hook said the university was able to step in to hold public archaeology events when council resources were stretched. “The university has the resources, with students and volunteers ready to come out and share their passion for their subjects.”

The chance to explain complicated techniques to the lay person was also good experience for trainee archaeologists, said Courtenay. “We learn so much from the public,” said Courtenay. “It’s not just us talking to the community, we can also learn things which then has an effect on our own projects.”

The university’s archaeology team are currently researching a medieval hospital at Castleton, and there are free taster surveying sessions on the practice trenches of the Sheffield PALS at Redmires between June 19 and 23.

“Archaeology is continually adding to the sum total of human knowledge about ourselves now and where we came from, and sometimes also relates to issues we face today,” said Toby. “I’ve just finished a project looking at the history of tree health, for example, which complements the work of ecologists and biologists looking at current tree disease epidemics.

“But most significantly the archaeology, history and heritage of a community is part of its identity, and in our fast-moving world, this is important. Increasing our understanding of our deep and long-lasting connections with the places where we live, how we succumbed to problems in the past, or how we overcame them, is crucial in maintaining our sense of self, our humanity, and our ability to model our future for the better. If our day at Ecclesall Woods inspires people to start thinking about these issues, I think we’ll have succeeded.”

Visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/dig for more information.