He’s the man responsible for helping Brummies understand their city’s history – as far back as the dawn of human civilisation.

As well as delving deep into our Stone Age and Roman ancestors, Dr Mike Hodder has also discovered that Birmingham’s industrial heritage dates back 500 years earlier than previously thought.

Birmingham City Council’s planning archeologist has overseen the major excavations at the Bullring, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Eastside, the M6 Toll road and the Library of Birmingham, which have found new evidence of the life of this city through thousands of years – sometimes challenging widely held views.

He also believes he has proved – particularly with the Bullring excavations – that archeology need not stifle development but can actually improve it.

Dr Hodder, who, with his long wavy grey hair, beard and boundless enthusiasm for the subject, looks every bit the popular view of an archeologist, has seen the evidence of Brummie life stretching back thousands of years.

“At one extreme, we had 10,000-year-old remains in Banbury Street and at the other end of the timescale on the Library of Birmingham site we found two 19th Century canal arms and remains of gas works – they were really well preserved,” he said.

As part of the council’s planning department, his job was to assess sites being developed and, if evidence of historic remains were found, ensure they were explored and recorded before construction began. Now he has decided to take voluntary redundancy, but, at 57, expects to continue work as a consultant archeologist.

Raised in Sutton Coldfield and educated at the University of Birmingham, he arrived at the city council in 1994 after a successful career with Sandwell Borough Council, where he oversaw excavations around the Sandwell Priory medieval monastery.

But Birmingham had a reputation of a city which did not appreciate its past, especially in its post-war redevelopment.

Dr Hodder said: “The attitude was ‘wipe away the past to build something new’.

“Thankfully, we’ve gone beyond that to appreciate the contribution the past makes, in terms of Birmingham’s distinctiveness. We make the most of what we’ve got.”

In 2009, a surprising discovery was made in Banbury Street, near the old Curzon Street Station, on a site earmarked for university development.

Underneath some Victorian cellars, Dr Hodder’s team found two flint tools dating back 10,400 years.

 

Until then the earliest city centre remains had been medieval and even in wider Birmingham there was nothing more than 3,000 years old.

“They are from the very early part of the middle Stone Age. People living at that time would have been hunters and gatherers rather than farmers,” Dr Hodder said.

“We found pollens which showed the landscape of the time was birch and pine woodland. The quality of the remains and the age of them was much greater than we expected.”

With the HS2 Curzon Street Station development due to begin in the next three years, there are hopes of further discoveries ahead of construction – particularly around the Victorian burial ground in Albert Street and Park Street.

“They will tell us about living conditions at the time Birmingham was becoming established as an international city,” said Dr Hodder.

It was nearby at the Bullring where, ahead of its redevelopment a decade ago, archeologists carried out the largest ever dig in the city.

It was here that Dr Hodder and his colleagues concluded that Birmingham could claim to be an industrial town as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries.

Discarded pottery fragments decorated with clay from the Black Country suggested large medieval scale manufacturing and lime pits in Digbeth were evidence of leather tanning.

Dr Hodder said: “We associate these industries in the Midlands with Stoke-on-Trent and Walsall but here we have evidence of trade links with the Black Country and that these were big industries in Birmingham. Every site we have found has been industrial.”

The layout of medieval Birmingham discovered under the Bullring has now been recreated in a model at the entrance to the new Birmingham History Galleries at the city museum.

Dr Hodder said: “We established that Birmingham was a new town in the 12th century – a medieval Milton Keynes if you will. The church, the market place, the manor house and the street system were all new.”

Further digs under the Wholesale Markets, when that is redeveloped, are expected to tell archeologists more about Birmingham’s original manor house and moat.

But Dr Hodder said clues to Birmingham’s past are very much still with us. “You still walk along the streets of medieval Birmingham,” he said. And new developments reflect this past, such as the proposed Beorma Quarter in Digbeth, which has been designed to reflect medieval land divisions.

Dr Hodder said: “This is a great example of how we can bring the past into the present. The new Beorma tower celebrates history.”

Another example of new development uncovering ancient history was the construction of the QE Hospital on the site of Metchley Roman Fort, in Selly Oak.

The fort had been known about for years and previous excavations carried out but a dig ahead of construction found the site was far more extensive and added greatly to the city’s historical record.

Dr Hodder said: “We got a huge amount of detail. There was a timber building and barracks inside.

“Outside there were ditches indicating livestock management and a civilian settlement. The fort attracted locals for the trading opportunities. There were well-paid soldiers with time on their hands and locals only too willing to take advantage of that.”

He said the fort was built very soon after the Roman conquest of Britain and expanded to become a supply depot as the army moved north. It is now designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Dr Hodder added: “This fort has to be preserved, so that area has become the plaza, a public open space in front of the hospital.

“Below ground the site is preserved and above ground it became an area of soft landscaping along the lines of the fort, with panels explaining the history.

“Thousands of people using the hospital can appreciate the size of the fort and read about it.”

Another example of using the past to enhance development, not stop it.