Community excavation peels back centuries of history

History in their hands: Archaeologists Megan Clement and Tegwen Roberts
History in their hands: Archaeologists Megan Clement and Tegwen Roberts
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Evidence of a major Industrial Revolution ironworks obliterated from the modern landscape has been uncovered by a community archaeology project in Barnsley.

The work unearthed stonework thought to form part of the base of an unusual kiln, possibly used to treat ironstone before went on to be processed in a blast furnace at the Milton ironworks at Elsecar in Barnsley, along with other buried evidence of the heavy industry which once existed there.

Work was done under a joint venture between several organisations and will form part of a long-term evaluation into the village’s role at the start of the Industrial Revolution, a position which has been overlooked by history but which experts now believe is highly important.

Barnsley Council has been working for years on exploiting the history of Elsecar, including a scheme several years ago which saw the country’s only remaining Newcomen steam engine still in its original site restored.

That is important because it was a device which allowed deep coal mining by providing the means to pump out water and prevent flooding.

Like much of Barnsley, Elsecar is best known for mining but was also at the heart of the early iron industry, with two separate works and the archaeological excavation took place at the site of the old Milton works, now taken up the Forge playing fields.

The work was the culmination of a project supported by the council, Historic England which designated the village among the country’s first ten Heritage Action Zones and the Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar project, another scheme run in conjunction with Rotherham Council to explore the links between the Wentworth Woodhouse stately home and the surrounding industry which generated the wealth of the Fitzwilliam family which built it.

The excavation ran over two weeks and in addition to the evidence of buildings, resulted in many artefacts being found, including a brick of a type previously unknown from a small-scale local manufacturer.

Dr John Tanner, the council’s Heritage Project Manager at Elsecar, said: “It feels that Elsecar is on a journey, and an exciting one.

“The village has a lot of potential for the future, I think we are only starting to realise how very special the area is.”

The archaeological excavation involved 100 local people, including pupils from three schools, and future work in the area is likely to do more to get today’s residents involved in exploring the district’s past.