Elsecar archaeological project wins national award

7th September 2021

An innovative archaeology project ‘Digging the Earl’s Great Engine’, led by Barnsley Museums at Elsecar Heritage Centre, has won a prestigious national award from the Association of Industrial Archaeology (AIA) for its creative community engagement.

This year it was judged by the Young Members Board of the AIA, who were particularly impressed by the team’s commitment to finding out what local people wanted from the project and involving young people in all stages of the work. Members of the board visited Elsecar on Sunday to present the award.

The dig, centred around the Elsecar Newcomen Engine, brought together archaeologists, artists, community volunteers and local schools. It was part of the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone and Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place projects and featured in the British Festival of Archaeology 2019.

Young people from the local area worked with the Barnsley Museums team and local artists over several months to help design and deliver the project. They created beautiful artworks including cartoons, textiles and a stunning musical soundscape, as part of a two-week-long archaeology festival at Elsecar Heritage Centre. This innovative, creative approach is what made the project stand out to the judges.

125 young people and 40 local volunteers were involved in the project, along with 5 local artists. Over 350 people visited the dig in 12 days, with hundreds more following the project on social media.

The Elsecar Newcomen engine is cared for by Barnsley Museums. It was built in 1794 and is the oldest steam engine in the world to survive in its original location. It was built by the Earl Fitzwilliam, of nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, and stood at the heart of the Earl’s new model industrial village at Elsecar. It is an internationally important industrial monument. The boiler house, which made steam for the engine, was knocked down in the 1920s and had been all but forgotten. The dig found that most of the boiler house still survives underground and has helped experts understand more about how the engine was powered.

Barnsley Museums and Heritage Trust Trustee, John Hamshere, is passionate about the Newcomen Engine and it’s he we must thank for the nomination for this award. John says:  

‘I was very happy to nominate the ‘Digging the Great Engine’ Project at Elsecar for the AIA award. I submitted the application as a Trustee of Barnsley Museums and Heritage Trust, but also as someone who has been committed to saving this Great Engine for some considerable time. I worked as a volunteer digger on the project myself and enjoyed returning to hands-on industrial archaeology for the first time since I worked on the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Archaeology team when I was studying for my Masters at the Ironbridge Institute back in 1984. I have been involved with The Great Engine for over 20 years due to my own interest, but also as the CEO of the nearby Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust from 1994 to 2017. During this time there were many meetings, seminars and opinions as to how to ensure its conservation and secure its future. Success finally came with a Heritage Lottery Funded project, and I served on the Project Board. I joined the Barnsley Museums and Heritage Trust when it was created and have continued my involvement with The Engine and with Elsecar since I retired in 2017. This project was an excellent example of community engagement with volunteers digging and families enjoying the activities in the tent on site. The work the team have done in gaining the support of the local people in Elsecar and beyond has ensured the future of the Engine, including raising awareness and backing from officers and members of the local authority. I am obviously delighted at the outcome and feel this success is well deserved for the team who delivered such an excellent project.’

Elsecar archaeological project wins national award