Spectator Sport

As many TV companies have found out to their cost in the past, not all archaeology makes particularly exciting viewing. This week the main thing I have done to move the project forward is sit at my desk and think. I could write a post about what I have been thinking but, fundamentally, an account of me sitting in my office and staring at the cursor blinking is not necessarily going to make for a riveting read.

So, as is my usual strategy on these occasions, I will distract you by talking about something completely different. University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology have their own WordPress blog here, including a recent post about the archaeology of cricket. They got the tender for the job of the archaeological building survey of the pavilion at Old Trafford cricket ground in advance of its redevelopment in 2012. As previous readers of the blog may have guessed, I quite like my cricket, but, don’t  worry, this isn’t going to be another one of those posts where I use up lots of words re-hashing some mid-80s test series. Instead this got me thinking about the archaeology of modern, professional sport more broadly.

In 2011, my colleague Dave and I worked with the BBC local football show Late Kick Off  to investigate the former ground of Accrington Stanley FC at Peel Park. There are no stands at Peel Park now, the ground is the playing fields for the local primary school, but you can still see where the terraces used to be around the pitch. Stanley famously had to resign from the football league in 1962 when they went bankrupt. The ground, which was first used in the early 20th century, gradually decayed until, after a fire in the main stand in 1973, the local council demolished the surviving structures.

Peterson & Robinson figure 4

We dug and surveyed different parts of the ground but all these photos come from the trench on part of the Hotel Side stand – the one that was destroyed in the fire. These top layers show bits of the external walling behind the stand, all made of Accrington brick naturally, laying on top of a mass of charred wood, broken glass and metal roof fittings. Clear evidence of the demolition after the fire of 1973.

Fig 3-5

Most of the finds from this layer were architectural fittings of one kind or another, like this massive strap hinge, probably from one of the doors to the turnstiles. There were also lots of things left behind by spectators. As you might expect, food and drink packaging was common.

fig 3-9

We divided these finds into two phases. Objects from before 1962 clearly belonged to fans who came to watch the professional league side, those that were more recent would have been left by people who came to watch the revived non-league Accrington Stanley, or to watch schools games at the ground. I wrote the finds analysis section when we published the site and spent a lot of time looking at histories of 20th century advertising to work out that, for example, the Vimto can is a post 1964 design and hence a non-league find.

Fig 3-12

This is the outer metal case of a lipstick, probably post-war but pre-1962, I never did get my typology of lipsticks properly refined. The popular image of the unreconstructed male northern lower league crowd clearly needs some re-assessing.

Peterson & Robinson figure 5

This is what remained of the stand foundations after all of this fire debris had been cleared away. You can see the external wall at the back of the stand in the foreground and then a partition wall before we found a set of concrete rafts to support the superstructure of the stand.

Overall the Accrington project was a great success. It allowed us to look at the mid 20th century experience of supporting a lower league football club and using a traditional pre-Taylor Report ground in great detail. There is a much more extensive history of the club’s struggles and triumphs here. Our work was published in a special sporting edition of the journal World Archaeology which came out to coincide with the London Olympics in 2012. It also got me published in the football fanzine When Saturday Comes, still the highlight of my writing career.


  1. Caroline said:

    Hi.. I have today been to the Peel Park Pub, and looked at the old Accrington Stanley Football Ground. All that remains is the brick structure, and on it, it states it was built by the supporters in 1939 (if my memory serves me right) .. Could you tell me what this structure is.?

    • Hi Caroline

      The surviving brick structure was built by subscription from the supporters club in 1937 to be a tea bar (I think). It is the only bit of the football league ground that survives. You can still see the terrace bank for the Peel Park Kop at the Huncoat end but all the concrete terracing was removed in the 1970s and it is now covered in trees. The old tea bar has been converted into changing rooms and is used by Peel Park FC who play at the ground now.


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