The Moor Street site, part of the Bull Ring development (and now occupied by the distinctive Selfridges building) in central Birmingham, before excavation. A bleak image of modern concrete urbanism which contains no clue to the archaeological riches beneath.
B I R M I N G H A M ‘ a t o w n e m a y n t a y n e d b y s m i t h e s ’
When did Birmingham’s industries begin? We think of it as a modern city without much history before the Industrial Revolution. Completely wrong, says leading Brummie archaeologist Mike Hodder. The 19992001 Bull Ring excavations – at the time the biggest in the city’s history – have revealed that Birmingham was an industrial town centuries before Boulton and Watt.
It is easy to understand why people do not think of Birmingham as an ‘historic town’. It all looks so modern. It does not even have the grand public buildings and town-houses of its late 18th and early 19th century industrial growth. Such has been the city’s frenetic pace of development in the last 200 years that even most of these have gone.
‘Birmingham is a success story,’ says the city’s Planning Archaeologist, Mike Hodder, a local man whose involvement with the archaeology stretches back more than 20 years. ‘The constant redevelopment of the city centre means that Birmingham doesn’t look like an ‘historic town’. And even those who knew something of the past doubted that much evidence would survive below ground.’
The assumption that modern redevelopment would have destroyed earlier remains was for long a self-fulfilling prophecy. Little, if any, excavation was done, so virtually nothing was found. When the famous Bull Ring Shopping Centre was built in the centre of the old city in the early 1960s – a symbol of what Harold Wilson later called ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’ – there was no rescue archaeology on the site. ‘The impression persisted that Birmingham had just dropped out of the sky in the late 18th century,’ says Mike Hodder. ‘And the assumption was also that archaeology of anything this late would not add to what we knew from documentary records.’ Only the exposure of the well-preserved remains of a medieval manor-house archaeologycurrent