Archive for January, 2021

3,000 grave goods unearthed from Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Northamptonshire

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Archaeologists have unearthed almost 3,000 objects from 154 burials in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Overstone Leys, Northamptonshire. It is the largest Anglo-Saxon burial ground ever discovered in Northamptonshire. Most of the grave goods are jewelry, including 2,000 beads, 150 brooches, 15 finger rings, 75 bracelets and 15 chatelaines. There are also numerous weapons — 25 spears, 40 knives, 15 shield bosses — and utilitarian items like combs and cosmetic kits. Very rare textiles remains survived attached to some of the metal objects, mineralized by their corrosion.

A team from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has been excavating the site of housing development for the past year. In addition to the cemetery, the MOLA team has also discovered an Anglo-Saxon settlement with 22 grouped structures and another 20 found elsewhere on the 15-hectare site. There are also Bronze Age barrows and structures, so in total there are 4,000 years of occupation at Overstone Leys.

Simon Markus, MOLA Project Manager:

“It is rare to find both an Anglo-Saxon settlement and a cemetery in a single excavation. The excavations will help us understand the way people lived in both the Anglo-Saxon period, around 1,500 years ago as well as the Bronze Age, nearly 4,000 years ago. The human remains will tell us about diet, health and even the origins of the people themselves whilst their buildings can teach us what their day-to-day lives were like and how they utilised the local landscape in these two different periods.”

Overview of excavation at Overstone. Photo courtesy MOLA.

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Marigold found with tobacco in Maya vessels

Monday, January 18th, 2021

Traces of Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) have been discovered along with tobacco residue in Maya ceramic vessels. This is the first time a non-tobacco ingredient has been identified in a Maya tobacco container, and the first archaeological evidence that marigold was used in mind-altering plant mixtures.

Spanish chroniclers recorded the smoking of herbal blends among the Maya and Nahua, and dried marigold, on its own and mixed with tobacco, is still smoked today in Mexico. Maya smoking devices were usually organic materials like corn husks (business idea: tamale blunts) which obviously have not survived, but smoking was not the only way indigenous Mesoamericans took tobacco. It was also chewed, drunk, snuffed and administered via enema.

Nicotine residues have been found in small vessels indicating they were used to hold fresh/dried tobacco rather than the products of tobacco consumption (like spit from chaw, for example). The new study analyzed the organic remains inside 14 miniature vessels of four different forms ranging in date from 250-900 A.D. Twelve of the containers were excavated at various salvage digs over the past 15 years in Mérida, Yucatan. Two were unearthed in 2016 at the archaeological site of Ucanha.

Samples were drawn from the vessels and compared with ones in museum collections. The archaeological residues were compared to modern extracts of eight plants — two species of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica) and six other plants known from historic and ethnographic records to have been used in Mesoamerica for their psychoactive properties, including Mexican marigold. This is only the second study to deploy metabolomics, the study of small molecules known as metabolites found inside cells and tissues, to ancient residues, and it blazes an exciting new trail in archaeology.

“While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored,” [Washington State University researcher Mario] Zimmermann said. “The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before.”

Zimmermann and colleagues’ work was made possible by NSF-funded research which led to a new metabolomics-based analysis method that can detect thousands of plant compounds or metabolites in residue collected from containers, pipes, bowls and other archaeological artifacts. The compounds can then be used to identify which plants were consumed.

Previously, the identification of ancient plant residues relied on the detection of a limited number of biomarkers, such as nicotine, anabasine, cotinine and caffeine.

“The issue with this is that while the presence of a biomarker like nicotine shows tobacco was smoked, it doesn’t tell you what else was consumed or stored in the artifact,” said David Gang, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and a co-author of the study. “Our approach not only tells you, yes, you found the plant you’re interested in, but it also can tell you what else was being consumed.”

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read in its entirety here.

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World’s oldest known cave art animal found in Indonesia

Sunday, January 17th, 2021

The image of a wild pig on a cave wall in Sulawesi, Indonesia, has been dated to 45,500 years ago, making it the oldest known cave art animal in the world. The life-sized Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis) was painted in dark red ochre on the limestone wall of Leang Tedongnge cave. It was outlined in profile and filled in with lines and dashes. There are two hand stencils over its hindquarters.

The pig was able to be dated thanks to a coralloid speleothem, a tiny calcite deposit known as cave popcorn, on one of its hind legs. Researchers chiseled the calcite from the wall and conducted  uranium-series isotope analysis on extracted samples. The results found the pig was at least 45,500 years old, and very likely older given the time it must have taken for the speleothem to form.

The pig is in exceptional condition despite its advanced age. At least two other pigs are part of the rock art panel, but much of their pigment has been lost from the natural exfoliation of the cave wall. The complete pig is on the left of the composition facing right towards the two partials who are facing off against each other. A fourth animal, of which very little remains to identify it, is above the pair. Researchers believe it may have been a fourth suid.

Evidence of human habitation of Sulawesi dates at least as far back as the Pleistocene, between 194,000 and 118,000 years ago. It’s not clear whether the folks who painted the pig were anatomically modern humans or another archaic human species like the Denisovans, but there are more than 300 caves and rock shelters with prehistoric wall art on the island. The Pleistocene rock art typically features animals native to Sulawesi — dwarf bovids and pigs — and hand stencils. Of these, pigs are the most popular subjects, present in over 80% of the representations.

The image from Leang Tedongnge, with a firmly established minimum age of 45.5 ka, would now appear to be the earliest known dated artwork in Sulawesi. It also represents the oldest reported indication for the presence of AMH on the island and perhaps in the wider Wallacean region (see below). We infer a similar minimum age estimate for the as-yet undated suid motifs visible on the rock art panel at Leang Tedongnge. As noted, together with the dated figure, these suid images seem to constitute a single narrative composition or scene—perhaps a depiction of social interaction between Sulawesi warty pigs. Furthermore, as far as we have been able to ascertain, the securely dated painting of a Sulawesi warty pig at Leang Tedongnge would now seem to be the world’s oldest surviving representational image of an animal. In addition, this dated depiction of an endemic Wallacean suid may also constitute the most ancient figurative artwork known to archaeology.

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Roman child buried with puppy found in France

Saturday, January 16th, 2021

A Gallo-Roman grave of a child buried with a puppy has been discovered in Aulnat, central France. Excavation at a site slated for  airport expansion unearthed the grave was found on the perifery of a settlement from the Gallo-Roman era. It dates to the first third of the 1st century A.D., the reigns of emperors Augusts and Tiberius.

The child was only one year old when he died. He was buried in a fitted wooden coffin about 32 inches long. The wood has long since rotted away, but the nails that held together and an ornamental iron plate have survived to attest to its structure and design. The casket was placed in a large pit (6.5 x 3.3 feet) and surrounded with a remarkable array of objects and offerings.

About 20 terracotta containers were placed around the coffin and on top if its lid. They were offerings that would have held food and beverages for the deceased’s funerary banquet. The remains of a pig cut in half lengthwise found inside the pit were part of that final banquet, as were three ham shanks, one pork butt and one ham. The remains of two hens with their heads cut off (not present) were in the grave.

Miniature vases and two glass balsamaria likely held unguents or medicines. They are currently undergoing chemical analyses to identify any residues inside the vessels.

The child’s most valued belongings were buried in the grave, one typical of any Roman-era graves: a copper alloy fibula used to pin clothing together. Another is a poignant testament to the child’s all-too-brief life: an iron circle and a bent rod believed to have been a hoop game. The circle was rolled along the ground using the rod to keep it running and vertical. It was found leaning against the coffin.

A puppy was placed at the feet of the deceased, one end of the iron hoop rod between its legs. The puppy was a beloved pet, as evidenced by his snazzy collar covered in 15 bronze appliques and one bell.

Last but not least, a single baby tooth lovingly placed on a shall was deposited in the grave. Archaeologists hypothesize this may have been the offering of an older brother or sister of the deceased.

This is an extremely rare burial for a toddler in the Roman era. With child mortality so high, children who passed away this young were usually buried informally, not in the community cemetery and not sharing the Detail of vessels. Photo by Denis Gliksman, Inrap.funerary practices their older relatives would. At this time and place, the dead were typically cremated. This baby was inhumed, probably near or on his home, but the richness of his grave furnishings, the lavish offerings, the high quality and quantity of vessels, animal remains and personal belongings are exceptional. Nothing like them has been found before in the graves of Gallo-Roman children in the region. The second most furnished child grave on the record had only 10 vessels and two small pieces of butchery. It is clear that this child came from a very privileged family.

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45 pre-Inca ceremonial pieces found in Tiwanaku

Friday, January 15th, 2021

A group of 45 pre-Inca ceremonial objects have been discovered at the archaeological site of Tiwanaku, western Bolivia. The objects include ceramic vessels and statuary, stone knives, bottles, a gold head with blue stone yes and lips that may have represented a deity and the remains of animals including fish, camelids and birds. They are at least 1,500 years old, and may date as far back as the 4th century.

Fifteen of the pieces were unveiled at a press event on Tuesday.

The Ministry of Culture, organizer of the event, specified in a technical report that the find is “made up of many components or ceremonial supplies” and that “it will allow to establish the ritual and ceremonial system that was deployed during the beginnings of Tiwanaku.”

The archaeological pieces “tell us that we are here in Tiwanaku, sitting in a gold mine of knowledge and information, not only important for us, but for the whole world,” declared Bolivian President Luis Arce, invited to the event.

The artifacts were discovered during an excavation last year in the Temple of Kalasasaya about a foot under the surface. The temple was built by the Tiwanakota culture in what is known as the Tiwanaku III Phase (375-750 A.D.). According to Julio Condori, director of the Tiwanaku Center for Archaeological, Anthropological and Administration Research, these artifacts are the most important find since the monumental edifices of Tiwanaku were rediscovered in the 1800s.

Located in the Andes about 45 miles west of La Paz near the southern bank of Lake Titicaca, Tiwanaku was the dominant empire  in the Andean region before the rise of the Inca. Its political, religious, cultural and economic influence stretched from what is now the border with Ecuador to the north to central Chile/northwest Argentina to the south. It rose to prominence in the first three centuries A.D. and became hub of trade in the region.  By the 6th century, it was the largest urban center in the region. A sophisticated network connected town in western Bolivia, northern Chile, southern Peru and northwestern Argentina, moving raw materials to Tiwanaku’s whose crafts guilds created manufactured goods for export over the same routes.

Tiwanaku society collapsed around the 11th century. Ceramic production ceased around 1000 A.D. and within a few decades of that most urban centers in the empire were abandoned. Its sphere of influence splintered into tribal chiefdoms until the Inca conquest in the 15th century.

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Endangered Diego Rivera mural to get landmark status

Thursday, January 14th, 2021

One of Diego Rivera’s greatest masterpieces, a mural at the San Francisco Art Institute, is no longer at risk of being removed and sold to pay off the institute’s $20 million debt. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors have voted to designated the mural a city landmark which means it’s staying put no matter what.

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera, 1931. Photo courtesy the San Francisco Art Institute.The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is boldly self-referential. As the title suggests, it is a fresco about making a fresco depicting the construction of an Art Deco cityscape. Painted on the wall of an art school It seamlessly ties together Rivera’s favorite subjects — industrial workers — with his own profession, showing his work, as it were, and illustrating the labour and mechanics undergirding his depictions of labourers.

The central figure is a giant hard-hatted worker stretching from the peak of the roof to the bottom of the mural. He operates a gear shaft and a valve, representing the coordinated labour on a massive scale required to build a city. On each side of him the cityscape rises, skyscrapers in the background, steel workers on the right join steel beams, creating the skeletal structure of a new skyscraper. To their right in the midground workers heat rivets and rivet the steel girders.

In a meta masterstroke, Diego Rivera painted himself painting the fresco. He’s seen front and center sitting on a scaffolding plank in grey pants and a yellow shirt holding a palette in his left hand and a paintbrush in his right. To his right applying wet plaster is his assistant Matthew Barnes, to his left assistant John Hastings. On the plank above him are more assistants, English sculptor Clifford Wright and English painter Viscount Jack Hastings, son of the Earl of Huntingdon.

On the top left carving stone is sculptor Ralph Stackpole, host to Rivera and Frieda Kahlo when they were in San Francisco for Rivera’s commissions. The sculptor’s assistant sharpen tools. In the panel beneath them, another sculptor chisels the stone with a forge bellows operator on his left and a belt machine operator on the right.

The machine extends into the center bottom panel where three men examine a paper. These are Rivera’s patrons: architect Timothy Pflueger who commissioned Rivera to paint a mural in the San Francisco Stock Exchange, banker and SFAI president William Gerstle and architect of the SFAI building Arthur Brown, Jr.

In the bottom right square are the architects, with the only woman in the fresco, Art Institute lecturer Geraldine Colby Fricke, standing at the drafting table, flanked by engineer Alfred Barrows and architect Michael Baltekal-Goodman. Rivera’s signature is on the underside of the drafting table.

This visionary mural was commissioned by Gerstle in 1930, then president of the SFAI. Anti-communism made it difficult for the artist to get a work visa, so a lot of strings had to be pulled before Rivera was able to get the commission. Commission secured, Rivera wasted no time. He completed the mural in less than one month, beginning it on May 1st (appropriate for art depicting labourers engaged in all kinds of work) and finishing it on May 31st.

It has been the pride and joy of the SFAI and is a required stop for all scholars and fans of Diego Rivera’s work. Unfortunately, expansion costs and a very inconveniently timed pandemic have increased the museum’s debts while kneecapping its income. SFAI defaulted on a private bank loan and the bank announced it would strip and sell the institute’s collateral, mural included. The University of California Board of Regents swooped in in October to buy the debt and gave SFAI six year to repay it or the University of California would foreclose.

All kinds of solutions have been explored — mergers, fundraising, partnering — but none of them have worked out. Last month, SFAI’s board floated the idea of selling the mural, appraised at $50 million, which would solve its money problems in one fell swoop. George Lucas was said to be interested in purchasing the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. The idea was not received well, to put it mildly.

After an outcry from artists, preservations and the press, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday 11-0 to initiate the process of designating the mural as a landmark. Once granted landmark status, any changes to the fresco could only be done with the approval of San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission, and they are obviously never going to approve dismantling it and selling it to the highest bidder.

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Engraved Stone Age plaque found in Catalonia

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

A stone engraved with multiple animal figures in the Upper Paleolithic era has been unearthed at the prehistoric Coves del Fem near Ulldemolins, Catalonia, northeastern Spain. About 15,000 to 11,700 years old, the stone is intricately carved with at least six animals: a doe, a stag, two goats or bovids and two others as yet undetermined.

The plaque was discovered last summer during archaeological salvage in the wake of flooding. It is oval, about seven inches long and five wide and was engraved using a very sharp flint. The artist or artists were able to create impressive detail with the flint. Anatomical details like eyes, ears, noses, horns and fur are visible. The stag’s antlers are particularly impressive with their seven points.

The piece was among stone blocks found on the surface of the site after the floods eroded the strata. Researchers were examining the blocks because the prehistoric inhabitants of Coves del Fem used rocks and slates to make tools. They didn’t engrave them with art, however, so this stone came as a surprise.

Without a stratigraphic context, the engraving can only be dated by its style. The composition and execution compare to similar pieces found at other Paleolithic sites that do have well-established stratigraphic and absolute dates. The use of the cave to make tools took place long after the plaque was carved, between 6,000 and 4,500 B.C.

Its origin is still unclear but there are different theories about its presence in that area. “The river might have moved old remains and moved them to other, younger sectors,” she said adding that it was also possible that “maybe the younger communities, whose members tended to dig holes in order to keep their belongings there, touched older levels and moved that piece to their place.”

The piece is important as it appears to reference the ideological world of a community of hunters and collectors when engravings were symbolic representations. “It is known as ‘moving art’, it was not used to hunt or produce food, it is linked with the ideological world, with a way of ideological communication, but we do not know what it means,” the professor said.

She added that it might have been used to share rules with the rest of the community, or even to symbolize the tribe or the community. “What we do know is that for them, it had meaning and this meaning was shared with other individuals.”

Paleolithic art of this kind is very rare in Catalonia, which gives the piece oversized significance in the study of the Stone Age in the region. It also expands the known human occupation of the Monstant massif through the end of the Upper Paleolithic.

The piece is briefly on display at the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia from December 14th through January 24th. After that, researchers will continue to study it.

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Rare murals found in Tang Dynasty tomb

Tuesday, January 12th, 2021

Two Tang Dynasty (618-907) tombs with surviving murals were unearthed in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. Archaeologists from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology discovered the tombs last month in Buli Village, 25 miles from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province today and the ancient capital of China during the Tang Dynasty. The tombs are intact with inscriptions identifying the owners and the murals, while damaged, contain imagery that is extremely rare in Tang Dynasty art.

One of the tombs contained the remains of a Tang Dynasty official. The single-occupant tomb was made of brick, encircled by a ditch and sealed with soil. It is oriented north to south and is 140 feet long with a sloped passage leading into the burial chamber. Archaeologists have found 102 funerary figurines, most of them depicting riders on horses, some standing individuals placed in niches.

The interior east and west walls are painted with a mural of caravan led by a blue dragon and a white tiger. Huren (a broad term meaning northern barbarians used by Chinese chroniclers to describe the nomadic peoples who were conquered and absorbed under the dynasty’s second emperor, Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626-649)) are depicted training horses and leading camels. Horses, canopies and attendants armed with bows and arrows follow. Below them are hunting hounds lying down, looking up at the caravan and running.

The quality of the painting is high with fine pigment and smooth brushwork. The people and animals are captured in dynamic movement. Horses and hunting dogs were very rare subjects for murals in Tang Dynasty tombs, and the epitaph explains their presence: the deceased, Kang Shanda, was the supervisor of horses under Emperor Gaozong (649-683). His father had held the same position and the family was very wealthy, rich in, the inscription says, cattle, horses and hidden treasures. He died in 671.

The second tomb is a joint burial of two royal family members. It is 110 feet long, north to south, cut out of the earth. The four walls of the chamber are decorated with murals. The raw soil walls were whitewashed and painted with scenes of feasting. One wall features dancers standing in the middle between two groups of musicians. Another mural features a table with dishes of food placed along it.

The epitaph identifies this tomb as that of Yang Zhishi and his wife from the Pangda family. Both the Yang and the Pangda families married into and were related to the imperial families of the Wu, Zhou and Tang imperial dynasties.

A mural depicting a scene of music and dance in the second tomb, owned by a royal couple, is in the typical style of the golden age of the Tang Dynasty.

The discovery of the two tombs has provided new materials for the study of murals and social customs at the time….

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Rarely-seen Dante illustrations digitized

Monday, January 11th, 2021

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, diplomat, poet and author of the seminal Divine Comedy. In honor of the occasion, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has digitized a rare set of illustrations of the Divine Comedy in high definition and made them available online for the first time. The 88 drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy were created by Mannerist painter Federico Zuccari in the late 16th century and few of them have ever been exhibited, and even then only twice, once in 1865 and once in 1993. Very little known but beloved by Dante scholars, the Zuccari drawings are widely considered the most important illustrations of Dante’s masterpiece until Gustave Doré’s burst on the scene in 1861.

Zuccari (also spelled Zuccaro) is best known today for having completed the frescoes inside the dome of Florence’s cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (Vasari started them), but he was famous in his time and very much in demand by the crowned heads of Europe. His patrons included several popes, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Philip II of Spain. He was working King Philip, designing frescoes for the El Escorial palace north of Madrid, when he embarked on his illustrations of the Divine Comedy in 1586. It took him two years to complete all 88 drawings.

They entered the collection of the Uffizi in 1738, donated by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, Electress Palatine, less than a year after she saved the Medici’s art collection for Florence in perpetuity. Today the pages are extremely fragile. They are kept in a dark, temperature and moisture-controlled environment and can only be exposed every five years. That makes them all but inaccessible to scholars as well as to the public, which is why the Uffizi has chosen to digitize them in their entirety so the works can be studied without putting them at risk.

The museum has compiled the digitized Zuccardi illustrations into a journey mirroring their original context in a bound volume. Zuccardi’s illustrations are on the right page; on the left are the verses from the Divine Comedy being illustrated, plus short synopses written by Zuccardi himself. The Zuccardi exhibition is currently only available in Italian, but an English version is imminent. Meanwhile, you can peruse the illustrations in each of three cantos —Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Already available in English is an exhibition exploring Dante’s connection to the visual arts and how the poet and his masterpiece were represented.

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Victorian bathhouse found under car park

Sunday, January 10th, 2021

Tiled pools from a Victorian-era bathhouse have been discovered under a parking lot in downtown Manchester, northern England. The excavation has revealed the first and second class bathing pools with their handsome white and blue tiles.

The site adjacent to Picadilly Railway Station, Manchester’s main railway station originally constructed in 1842, was home to the Mayfield Public Baths built in 1857 by the Manchester & Salford Baths & Wash-Houses Company. The Mayfield neighborhood was known as Cottonopolis for its central role in Manchester’s textile industry. The baths provided entertainment, exercise and invaluable public hygiene facilities to employees of the print and dye factories, their families and neighbors, many of whom lived in grimy, overcrowded dwellings lacking in amenities.

They flocked to the grand Italianate building to swim and play in its large pools — the first class men’s pool was 62 feet long — and to clean both themselves and their laundry. The wash house, just as an aside, looked like the engine room of an ocean liner or something. Victorian laundromats were not here to play. In 1878, the city of Manchester acquired the Mayfield Baths and they remained integral to the live of Mancunian workers until they building was flattened in a bombing during the Blitz in 1940.

After the war, a parking lot was built on top of the bombed out baths. Nobody thought there was much of anything left under the rubble, so archaeologists excavating the site for the Mayfield Regeneration Project, the conversion of the area behind Piccadilly Station into Manchester’s first new urban park in a hundred years, were surprised when they found the bathing facilities in such good condition.

Through machine excavation and meticulous hand digging, the team has uncovered the remains of two large tiled pools as well as parts of boilers, flues and pumps which were used to heat and circulate water around the pools and laundry rooms.

The archaeologists are using 3D laser scanning and low level drone photography to produce an  accurate, detailed record of the findings which will later be combined with historical documents and CAD software to produce digital drawings, in a process known as ‘preservation by record’.

“The Mayfield bathhouse is a fascinating example of the social and public health advancements that came about during the industrial revolution,” said Graham Mottershead, project manager at Salford Archaeology.

“As the city’s population boomed with factory workers, crowded and substandard living conditions gave rise to the spread of cholera and typhoid. For those living and working around Mayfield the Mayfield Baths would have been a vital source of cleanliness and hygiene.

“The sheer pace of change and innovation during the industrial revolution means many advancements were not recorded. Excavations like this help us to learn a great deal about what is arguably the most important period of human history and, in the case of Mayfield, a location that is so very relevant to the heritage of the people of Manchester”.

The new Mayfield Park project will revitalize 6.5 acres of industrial blight into a sustainable mix-used green space with homes, retail, leisure facilities, renovated historical structures and even a reborn river, the River Medlock, which was buried by development in the 19th century and has been hidden underground ever since. Artifacts recovered during excavations will go on display in the new park.

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