Digging Up Contemporary Archaeology In Sheffield

By James Dixon and Sarah May | 21 November 2005
Shows a photo of an underpass beneath the M32 motorway in Bristol. A blue Transit van is passing over anda church can be seen in the distance, while the underpass walls themselves are coated in graffiti.

Contemporary Archaeology is multi-disciplinary and focuses on those experiencing archaeology. Photo James Dixon

Archaeologists James Dixon and Sarah May put Contemporary Archaeology into practice by taking us on a tour of Sheffield. Read on to discover a world of facade-ectomies, mystery sculptures and Methodist chapels reworked as Aussie theme pubs…As you will find, Contemporary Archaeology is all about perception.

The aim of this tour is to take an easy path through a town, the Blue Route on the Sheffield tram network, and demonstrate how archaeology is all around us. Our interests in Contemporary Archaeology centre on how people engage with archaeology on a daily basis and specifically on how archaeology, art, performance and perception are inextricably linked.

However, archaeology as a broader discipline centres on the materiality of life and how change is managed and reflected by the things we build, their condition and how we work with existing materialities. We hope that the process of looking at this route and its stops will spur you to your own observations about the past, the present and the future. The route runs from Sheffield Station to Sheffield University.

Shows a photo of an underground passageway which has a series of colourful childrens' paintings on the wall

Childrens' paintings at Sheffield Train Station. How different people perceive sites is at the heart of Contemporary Archaeology. Photo James Dixon

Sheffield Train Station

The tour begins at the train station’s tram stop. On the way through the station, just before you reach the tram stop, you can see a display of schoolchildren’s paintings of the station. How different people perceive sites is at the centre of Contemporary Archaeology.

For these children, the station is about brightly coloured trains, for others it is about timetables and getting to work, for still others a piece of architecture transcending any one time and part of a countrywide canon.

Shows a photo of a tramline going over a bridge

Pond's Forge. Sheffield's tram line passes through areas whose only links with the past are their names. Photo James Dixon

Fitzalan Square/Ponds Forge

Coming into the second stop, the tram crosses a bridge adjacent to Ponds Forge Sports Centre. This re-use of an historic site is common in towns today although what is not so common is that there appears to be no remains of the historic site save for the name. The site is now entirely taken over by the tram bridge and a roundabout leading to the motorway.

Further up the track and down a side street to the right is Dixon Lane, part of Castle Market. Here, history is recalled by a 1960s bridge decorated with medieval writing, Tudor designs and a picture of an 18th century building.

Shows a photo of a pedestrian bridge across a road with the words Dixon Lane written on the bridge

Dixon Lane's bridge is decorated with a mix of historic symbols. Photo James Dixon

Such a mix and mismatch of history does not summon up any specific period of history, rather an unspecific ‘past’. The area’s medieval past is instead summoned up by the key-cutting keep, a clearly modern creation.

Shows a photo of a small tower built in the style of a castle which is covered in signs advertising key cutting services.

An old style for a modern creation. Photo James Dixon

Castle Square

Behind a pub called The Banker’s Draft is a mysterious sculpture. I say mysterious because there does not appear to be any accompanying explanation, no title and no date of installation.

This raises a number of questions. How can archaeologists study art? It appears to be art, but how do I know for sure if there’s nothing there to tell me? It is obviously intended to be symbolic of ‘something’, but does this have any relevance if I cannot read what?

Why do I have to reach this sculpture through a dark, smelly alleyway half-lit by a murky shop window and infested with fast food remains? Perhaps it symbolises an historic event or a place that was once in this spot, once important and now the back end of a JD Wetherspoon’s pub. This hard to find, ambiguous statue may be all that remains of the memory of an industry, a man or a moment in time.

Shows a photo of a concrete statue in an urban square which looks like a stylised human torso

Does public art have any significance if you do not know what it is there for? Photo James Dixon


A short walk from the Cathedral tram stop, towards the Town Hall, a 'facade-ectomy' is taking place. This particular operation is one where the facade or front of a building is retained, but the building behind is removed and replaced.

In this case, the work of retaining the facade of the building in question has led to the creation of the most amazing piece of scaffolding I have ever seen.

Purely functional, intentionally impermanent, this beautiful, monumental structure is immeasurably more eye-catching, even fascinating, than the wall it supports. Its maze of walkways, platforms and ladders can be followed by eye without ever really making sense.

Shows a photo of a mechanical digger demolishing a large red-brick building

A 'facade-ectomy' in full swing near the Cathedral tram stop. Photo James Dixon

As a visitor, the scaffold structure is surely among the most impressive pieces of architecture in Sheffield so far, although historically it barely exists. My memory of Sheffield is characterised by it, yet it will leave no trace in the conventional archaeological record.

This pairing of the ephemeral with the monumental is characteristic of the last half century. Complex scaffolds are a transient but persistent part of British streetscapes. They are often used, as in this case, to maintain monumental pieces from earlier landscapes. A history of Sheffield, even of its buildings, would not discuss scaffolds, and yet they are a major part of our daily experience.

Shows a photo of a large building with a tower at one end and a complex web of scaffolding covering it

Complex scaffolds are a transient part of our streetscapes but perhaps have a beauty of their own. Photo James Dixon

City Hall

Walking a minute or so up the track from City Hall tram stop, you will come across, on the left, an Australian theme bar in what was once a Methodist chapel. I was here during England’s World Cup football qualifier against Austria in August. Inside, the original gallery remains and both the upper and lower floors were tightly packed with highly charged supporters.

A giant television screen replaced the pulpit, from where former England footballer and now BBC presenter Gary Lineker told us what we could hope from the future and what rewards our faith would bring.

More than 200 years after it was built, the chapel is being used in exactly the same way now by followers of a different religion. This, however, gave a much greater appreciation of the original operation of the building than would have been gained from studying the empty building. These kinds of reuses offer us the space to think about how the contemporary use differs from earlier uses.

Shows a photo of a former methodist chapel in Sheffield that has been turned into a Walkabout pub.

This former Methodist chapel is now an Australian-themed pub where people now pray at the altar of alcohol and football. Photo James Dixon

West Street

West Street is home to the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology. These annexes to University Campuses tell an interesting story of how universities have changed through the 20th century.

Although the street has many university buildings, its architecture is similar to the streets around it, and less similar to the university. This sense of the university as part of the city contrasts with earlier ‘town and gown’ notions.

Shows a photo of a modern redbrick and glass fronted building on the corner of a street

The university's Archaeology Department building is similar to those around it unlike historical university architecture. Photo James Dixon

Of course, Sheffield University itself is fairly new, so is this a conscious choice for integration, or a practical matter of space? Are the departments based here different from those on the main campus?

The archaeology department’s buildings are purpose-built, but externally the only thing expressing the subject studied is the sign. Another contrast can be drawn with earlier archaeology departments, which were often housed in museums and utilised the architectural identity of those buildings to declare their purpose.

Shows a photo of a long green two storey building with a lawn and pathway in front of it

Sheffield University Students' Union. A university campus is a special type of created community. Photo James Dixon

Sheffield University

Arriving at the University of Sheffield, the final stop on this tour, we come to a very certain type of created community. Different universities have different reputations that are quickly gained and last for generations.

To some extent this must be a knowing creation. Is it consciously perpetuated by the university in question? Or is it collectively upheld by the university’s students, few of whom spend more than three years there?

Sheffield University precinct itself is made up of a number of different building types, designs and areas, with the usual hub of the Student Union. How does the university operate as a community? Why does it not matter that the population is almost entirely changed every three years? To what extent does the materiality of the place condition our experience of it?

Shows a photo of an urban landscape at twilight with tower blocks and a cranes

Sheffield at night. Our perception of our landscape changes at different times and with different weather. Photo James Dixon

After the tour

There are a number of things to do after a tour like this one. You can look for similar Contemporary Archaeological sites in another place. Alternatively, this tour route and the sites and sights encountered will be different on a different day, with different weather or at night.

The way you perceive the landscape you are moving through will be different every time you do it. How does this differ from other archaeological tours you have been on? Do you see different things at the same stops? Would you stop at different places on the route?

James Dixon is a Historic Buildings Analyst for Pre-Construct Archaeology Ltd. Sarah May is Senior Archaeologist at English Heritage. This virtual tour is one element in a series of initiatives organised for the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at the University of Sheffield, December 19-21 2005.

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