Nico Ditch was constructed some time between the end of Roman rule in Britain in the early 5th century and the Norman conquest in 1066. Its original purpose is unclear, but it may have been used as a defensive fortification or as an administrative boundary. It possibly marked a 7th-century boundary for the expansionist Anglo-Saxons, or it may have been a late 8th or early 9th century boundary marker between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria. In the early medieval period, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex struggled for control over North West England, along with the Britons and the Danes. Whatever its earlier use, the ditch has been used as a boundary since at least the Middle Ages.
Legend has it that Nico Ditch was completed in a single night by the inhabitants of Manchester, as a protection against Viking invaders in 869–870; Manchester may have been sacked by the Danes in 870. It was said that each man had an allocated area to construct, and was required to dig his section of the ditch and build a bank equal to his own height. According to 19th century folklore, the ditch was the site of a battle between Saxons and Danes; the battle was supposed to have given the nearby towns of Gorton and Reddish their names, from "Gore Town" and "Red-Ditch", but the idea has been dismissed by historians as a "popular fancy". The names derive from "dirty farmstead" and "reedy ditch" respectively.
A map of Nico Ditch between Reddish and Slade Hallin Longsight, printed in 1895. This section of the ditch is still evident.
Antiquarians and historians have been interested in the ditch since the 19th century, but much of its course has been built over. Between 1990 and 1997, the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit excavated sections of the ditch in Denton, Reddish, Levenshulme and Platt Fields, in an attempt to determine its age and purpose. Although no date was established for the ditch's construction, the investigations revealed that the bank to the north of the ditch is of 20th century origin. Together with the ditch's profile, which is U-shaped rather than the V-shape typically used in military ditches and defences, this suggests that the purpose of the earthwork was to mark a territorial boundary. The conclusion of the project was that the ditch was probably a boundary marker
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