Archaeologists rarely take an interest in old football grounds but Peel Park, the former home of Accrington Stanley, has proved to be quite a treasure trove. Rick Peterson investigates
The idea began when Howard Booth, a producer at BBC Sport North West, suggested Dr Dave Robinson and I should "do a Time Team" (his words not mine – other fieldwork-based archaeology programmes are available) at Peel Park, Accrington Stanley's home from 1919 until 1964. The middle of the 20th century may seem slightly too recent a period to interest archaeologists. However, archaeology is the study of the past through its material remains and we don't have to confine ourselves to the remote ages of pre-history.
Peel Park is important for many reasons. There is the simple resonance of Accrington Stanley's name. They have become almost the paradigm of the heroic lower league underdog. Even the Milk Marketing Board was once interested in drawing on this image. There is also the important point that Peel Park was a typical example of the pre-Taylor Report football ground – a mix of venerable stands and exposed terracing, but, unlike most of its more successful competitors, it is neither smothered by redevelopment nor buried under executive housing.
The history of both the ground and the former League club are extremely well documented, but the main thing that makes Peel Park important is that it remains a central and ongoing place in the life of the town. The ground is now the playing field of Peel Park Primary School. Peel Park FC of the East Lancashire League play there on Saturdays – changing in the last surviving building of the League club's old ground.
In March 2011, we started digging two trenches: one over part of the original hotel side stand and another over the front edge of the Peel Park Kop at the Huncoat End. Earlier work by other archaeologists at Burnden Park had made a lot of the architectural distinctions between the standing and seated areas of that ground, so one of our aims was to see if we could see similar class differences in objects from Peel Park. The Hotel Stand was the oldest structure on the ground – built in 1921 and still standing until a major fire in April 1972. The Peel Park Kop was a large open concrete terrace dating from the early 1950s and demolished in the mid-1970s.
We immediately encountered vivid evidence of the damage caused by the fire while digging on the Hotel Stand. Ash, broken glass, shattered brick and twisted steelwork were mixed up together in the upper layers of the trench. Roof bolts, guttering and gate hinges still had traces of red and white paint on them. Trapped underneath the collapsed roof were the PVC covers and cast iron supports of the seating. Beneath this were the foundation walls of the stand, in the distinctive dark red Accrington NORI brick made in nearby Huncoat, and regularly spaced brick and concrete plinths to hold up the roof columns.
Our work on the Peel Park Kop showed that, after the fire in the main stand, the council's demolition of the rest of the ground was thorough and wide-ranging. Rubble and building material from the terrace is thoroughly mixed with rubbish from all over the ground and from the surrounding houses. There were no surviving traces of the terracing itself in the area excavated.
Everyday objects lost by fans and visitors to the ground were found among all this destruction. These help to tell the story of what Peel Park meant to the people of Accrington. We found beer bottle-tops and cigarette lighters, money and broken toys, lemonade bottles and Vimto cans – everything from lipstick to blank cartridge cases. There were also lots of items directly connected with playing football – part of a goal stanchion, a bootlace, goal net pegs and the highly fragmented remains of a tactics board – perhaps evidence of a Peel Park FC managerial rage.
The objects can be divided into those associated with the site as a Football League ground and those related to the use of Peel Park after 1962. In many ways the clear message is of the continuity of use of the site. Food packaging, children's toys and smoking paraphernalia all clearly belong to both League and non-League phases. However, most of the evidence for the actual playing of football comes from the non-League phase, with an unsurprising concentration around the goalmouth at the Huncoat end.
We had originally expected to see clear class distinctions between the Peel Park Kop and the Hotel Stand. While there are differences between the archaeology of the two structures, it is now clear that these are mostly due to the different demolition histories. In particular, the catastrophic collapse of the original stand after the 1972 fire has helped to preserve the earlier archaeology of the Hotel side stand much better. There is no justification for drawing strong distinctions between seated and standing spectators at Peel Park in either league or non-League phase. We found evidence for a wide range of ages and genders – an interesting counterpoint to the stereotypical view of pre-1990 football fans as overwhelmingly male. There was a surprising prevalence of children's toys. Some of this is due to the ground's afterlife as an unofficial playground and to the nearness of Peel Park School, but many of these toys belong to the League phase of the site.
Perhaps the major lesson from the archaeology of Peel Park concerns continuity. This is clearest in the large amount of evidence for football at the ground at all dates. This begins with the League club, then through the early non-League life of the revived Accrington Stanley to the present day matches of Peel Park FC. Although often considered as a former football ground, the archaeology of Peel Park reveals its role at the centre of the community persists. It has been and remains a place where football is played and watched. It is a place where people meet, smoke, drink and, overwhelmingly, a place where children play.
From WSC 300 February 2012