Enthusiasts who care about the past are looking to the future
Archaeology has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years.
While once considered the preserve of a small group of dedicated academics, thanks to Time Team and a clutch of other TV programmes, digging into the past has proved an unlikely ratings winner.
Those programme have seen university applications to study archaeology rocket, but in Sheffield a passion for preserving the past emerged long before Tony Robinson presented the very first Time Team back in 1994.
The Hunter Archaeological Society, known fondly by members as the Heritage Makers, held its first meeting in the spring of 1912. Named after Joseph Hunter, the 19th-century antiquarian, whose various books on the history of Sheffield and South Yorkshire are still considered among the best in the field, the group aimed to carry on where he had left off.
At the time, preserving the country’s heritage was far from the top of most local council’s priorities. By then many of Yorkshire’s towns and cities were industrial hubs, where new factories and mills quickly erased what had gone before.
Things were different in Sheffield. At that first meeting of the HAS, membership was nudging 300 and the Duke of Norfolk had already been appointed as president.
Back then the aim of the group was simple – to record, study and promote the heritage and history of Sheffield. In the intervening decades, much has changed in the city, but the aim of the group has remained just as it always was.
The centenary will be celebrated with an exhibition at Sheffield’s Western Bank Library, which will see historical artefacts, photographs and documents from the HAS archives on public display for the first time.
“It has been an amazing few years building up to the centenary, not only in working together as a team to plan events and in researching the life stories of those who have been involved in the group over the years, but also in discovering how little the society’s role and interest have changed over the years,” says Ruth Morgan, secretary of the HAS. “People have come and gone, but the commitment shown by every single volunteer has remained the same. We hope the exhibition captures some of that spirit and hopefully it might inspire people to take an interest in their heritage and get involved.”
Over the years, the HAS has been instrumental in preserving a number of key Sheffield landmarks and has emerged as an influential campaigning voice. Two of its biggest success stories have been the preservation of Sheffield Castle and Manor Lodge. The latter was built in the 16th century as a country retreat for the Earl of Shrewsbury, but by the 18th century the estate was being dismantled and the building fell into disrepair.
Salvation only came in 2004 when it featured on the BBC’s Restoration programme and various groups, including the HAS, joined forces to secure National Lottery funding to convert the site into a heritage centre and traditional farm.
The importance of the group’s ongoing work was recognised earlier this year when it received £36,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to inspire and train a new generation of what it called “heritage explorers” as part of its centenary celebrations.
“There has been a long history of amateur involvement in archaeology,” says Ruth. “Without enthusiastic volunteers, there is so much that would have already been lost to the ravages of time. However, if we want to build on this success, we must also look to the future.”
Earlier this year, the HAS celebrated another victory when plans to build homes on Wincobank Hill were thrown out. The group, along with a number of other interested parties, had objected to the proposals on the grounds the area is the site of an ancient Iron Age hill fort.
“The exhibition is not just a celebration of Sheffield’s past, but also the people who have given it a voice,” says Andrew Moore, exhibitions curator at the city’s West Bank Library.
“There are various finds excavated from both Sheffield Castle and Manor Lodge, but I also hope that it throws a spotlight on some of the most influential society members who deserve their own place in history.”
Heritage Makers is at Sheffield’s Western Bank Library until December 21.