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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Uncovering city's historic past
The arch of the Edward Bridge has been uncovered in Belfast city centre
Excavations revealing part of Belfast's maritime past have been described as some of the most exciting in the city's archaeological history.

A section of a 19th century bridge which spanned the old docks in Belfast city centre has been uncovered during work on a major retail development.

Archaeologists have discovered the arch of Edward Bridge, later known as Mays Bridge, which dates from the early 1800s on the site of the Victoria Square development.

The scheme, which has seen several sites in the area excavated, is the largest archaeological intervention that has ever happened in Belfast's historic core.

The team involved have hailed the bridge as highly significant as it is the first time such a construction has been uncovered in an excavation in the city.

Audrey Gahan, managing director of one of the archaeological groups involved - Gahan and Long, told BBC News Online what had been found.

"This is one of the bridges that spanned across the dock and we have the arch, the spring of the bridge which is constructed of stone and red brick," she said.

"It dates to the beginning of the 19th century, the early 1800s, so it is pretty significant," she said.

"It is the first time that a bridge like this has been uncovered in an excavation in Belfast so it is pretty important."

This exercise was a major engineering feat to create a new dock in the centre of Belfast on land that had previously been foreshore and very much backwater
John O'Keefe
Environment and Heritage Service

The dig, which began in April, is expected to continue until July with various sites throughout the development being examined.

"We have been exposing the dock in various stages through Victoria Square," added Ms Gahan.

"We have only just really started this trench so we still have a fair bit to go down to expose the lower levels of the bridge - we have got about another metre."

Independent archaeological consultant Nancy Rosenberg said a detailed account of the bridge would be recorded but none of the original construction could be preserved.

"We will make a full record of it and then it will be removed because this is going to be the entrance to the underground car park so we have not got much chance of keeping it where it is," she told BBC News Online.

Cutting edge technology is being employed for the first time in Northern Ireland to ensure the detail and significance of the excavation are not lost.

River wall

"We are actually using quite a hi-tech method of recording it," said Ms Rosenberg.

"Three dimensional scanning allows us very rapidly to record it and it gives the three dimensions so that you can look at the structure from any angle which is quite new.

"It is the first time it is being used in an archaeological excavation so it is cutting edge."

Other discoveries made by the team include the wall of the dock, which extends back to Ann Street, along with earlier land reclamations and a river wall which dates between 1715 and 1750.

John O'Keeffe, an archaeologist at the Environment and Heritage Service, said the excavations so far had been some of the most exciting in Belfast's archaeological history.

"One of the biggest issues of Belfast is that it grew massively from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the century," he said.

"It grew from something like 20,000 people in the late 1800s to well over 300,000 people by the close of the century so it was a major period of growth.

Nancy Rosenberg and Audrey Gahan said the find was significant

"These features are associated with the time that that growth is just about to happen and it is tied in with the early industry of the time, it is tied in with new land developments

"This exercise was a major engineering feat to create a new dock in the centre of Belfast on land that had previously been foreshore and very much backwater.

But the thing is the dock itself was only active for maybe about 20 or 30 years and it fell out of use, either commercially it did not succeed or there was some other reason that it didn't last in use.

Victoria Street was built through in the late 19th century and it massively changed the shape of the area.

"So what we are getting a chance to look at here is part of Belfast's early commerce and industry, part of its association with the River Lagan itself and by extension, its trade links, both within the province and throughout Ireland and further afield across the Irish Sea and into Britain.

"It is the first time that we have had a chance to record these things and it really gives us a sense of understanding about how this part of Belfast developed."

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