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Issue 118

May / June 2011

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THE BIG DIG: Gough's Cave, Somerset

6 Threatened Sites

Overthrowing Egypt's Past

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

feature

6 threatened sites

There are many ways to excavate and record a ruin. Technologies improve. The things we want to know about the past change. Skill and experience are important factors – excavation is a complex and sophisticated craft. But however and for whatever reason it is done, one dig, or one survey, adds something to our identity, revealing unwritten stories and enriching the character of a place.

Across the UK and Ireland, excavation funding is falling; archaeologists are losing their jobs. The unrecorded past is still there, however, and life continues. Building, farming, roadworks, coastal erosion, forestry, peat extraction and many other forces relentlessly churn over the record. There was a time when routine excavation at development sites never occurred. Only now, after decades of astonishingly productive work, do we realise how much must have been lost before. We are losing things now. And in the present state of the economy it is no surprise to hear calls to relax protective legislation.

For British Archaeology, Mike Pitts describes six sites – special in their own ways, but not exceptional – that are being or may soon be destroyed. They range from traces of 8,000-year-old huntergatherers to a world war two bomb shelter, and the threats are similarly varied. Yet the sites have in common the fact that professional archaeologists are unable to save them on their own.

The way forward is shown when local communities and volunteers work with professionals to record what they can. The problem is affecting the physical remains that chart the story of nearly a million years of human activity. The solution lies not just in proper funding and employing skilled archaeologists, though these are essential: it lies in encouraging and enabling modern Britain – that's you – to embrace its past, with heart and hands.

1 Low Hauxley, Northumberland: Mesolithic landscape and Bronze Age cemetery

Archaeologists have been coming to the Low Hauxley coastline for some 30 years, braving the North Sea to record and save remains as if the cliff were an antiquarian supermarket. But it has an unusual stacking policy: before the shelves empty, the aisle is wiped out to reveal another, a process that one day must end.

The shore is backed by a low cliff cut into sand dunes, whose erosion has accelerated with the warming world climate and changing weather. The dunes began to form at the end of the bronze age, up to 3,000 years ago, covering a Beaker-age cemetery (2200–1700BC) sited on what was once a low hill in a coastal marsh – Clive Waddington of Archaeological Services Ltd calls it an "island of the dead". The sand also buried a layer of ancient peat. This has preserved signs of mesolithic hunter-gatherers (c6000BC), including massed footprints left by animals as well as people. The special conditions in the peat mean there is a good chance that the flint tools recovered to date could soon be accompanied by parts of timber houses – an unprecedented find of international significance should it be made.

The shore is designated a site of special scientific interest for its geological features, and inland there is a nature reserve where once was an open cast coal mine. But the archaeology has no protection. A study Waddington prepared for English Heritage in 2010 recommended immediate recording of footprints as they appear, and seeking funds urgently for large scale excavation. The eroding cemetery was first reported in 1982. Jim Nesbitt, a local amateur archaeologist, continues to monitor the site (his observations suggest theft or unrecorded excavation are also threats). The proposed action plan emphasises the importance of helping the local community to take part: this is a situation where skilled volunteers can achieve results which would be impossible for paid professionals living more distantly. Meanwhile, the remains continue to wash out to sea.

2 Sloc Sabhaidh, North Uist: Iron Age settlement

In January 2005, a hurricane swept over north-west Scotland. It ripped into the Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides, and on South Uist a family of five drowned.

In places the storm took the coast back by 30m in one night. Ancient sites that had been gently eroding for decades were suddenly wiped out. At Baile Sear, North Uist, were two enormous prehistoric middens or refuse heaps, the larger running 320m along the shore and 110m inland. The site had been partially excavated in the 1980s; the hurricane destroyed the rest.

However, other ancient remains were revealed for the first time, as some dunes were less violently abraded. A kilometre south of Baile Sear, at Sloc Sabhaidh, newly uncovered stone walls attracted the interest of archaeologists. In the words of Tom Dawson, manager of the SCAPE Trust (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion), "a wheelhouse had ended up on the beach". Wheelhouses are circular iron age buildings found in coastal Scotland, featuring internal stone walls that radiate from a circular core. In a project driven by local people, Scape helped the community group Access Archaeology to excavate and record half of this new wheelhouse as it washed away. The building had collapsed and been repaired in antiquity; walls still stood up to 1.5m high. Large numbers of finds came from pits dug into the floor, including a whalebone plaque and evidence for metalworking, and a human jaw was dated to AD220–390.

The rest of the wheelhouse is in the dune, and there is no money to continue digging. Dawson says a crofter has put a large stone ridge across the front of the remains, but one big storm would remove it. "The site", he adds, "is not safe".

3 Cullompton, Devon: Roman forts

Eighteen Roman forts are known in Devon. Most were found by archaeologists. Three (at St Loyes, Exeter – recently discovered, under development; Topsham fort – in new school grounds and beneath housing; and Pomeroy Wood – found in road widening) have no statutory protection. Fifteen are designated scheduled monuments, but this does not mean they are safe. Cullompton is typical.

Two Roman forts on the edge of the modern town, showing the distinctive playing-card outlines of defensive earthworks in crop growth, were discovered from the air by Frances Griffith in 1984. It was realised that two sides of the larger fort, which replaced the first, survive as substantial hedge banks; the other two sides had been flattened shortly before the site was recognised. In 1995 evaluation trenching for a cemetery extension uncovered the outer ditch of the larger fort, which contained pottery dating to ad50–70. Pottery from before ad75 is scattered in the field over the earlier fort. A Roman settlement was discovered in 2009 to the south, during excavation by Bryn Morris of South West Archaeology Ltd before development at Shortlands Lane: burials and many artefacts of second to fourth century date were found.

Shortlands Lane, where excavation was a planning condition requested by the county Historic Environment Service, offered a rare opportunity to study a Roman civilian settlement in Devon: the damage by building had a constructive side – Millwood Homes paid for the dig. Now that the forts are scheduled, they are protected from urban spread. But "class consent" is in place, meaning they can be ploughed, and English Heritage describes them as suffering "extensive significant problems" due to arable farming.

Eight of Devon's Roman forts are wholly or partly under cultivation. Bill Horner, deputy county archaeologist, says landowners are often helpful, but the value and vulnerability of such below ground archaeology is insufficiently appreciated. It is a problem common to all arable areas in modern Britain.

4 Fergus estuary, Co Clare: prehistoric and Medieval fisheries

The Fergus Estuary is one of Ireland's most remarkable coastal wetlands, tucked well inland from the open seas of the Atlantic and overflown by planes from Shannon international airport. At low tide, huge flocks of waders and migratory birds patrol vast mudflats. The estuary also contains an outstanding maritime heritage of international significance, much of it under threat due to sea-level rise and increased erosion.

Between 2008–2010, the Irish Heritage Council funded an intertidal survey of this estuary. In two weeks in 2010 alone, almost 70 new archaeological sites were identified. Discoveries include iron age post alignments, one of them 380m long, radiocarbon dated to 100BC–AD50. However, most striking is a complex of 25 medieval fishweirs at Boarland Rock, along 800m of shoreline in a very remote and inaccessible part of the estuary.

Aidan O'Sullivan, of University College Dublin, says these weirs, dated to the 13th–15th centuries, arguably represent "an intact medieval fishing landscape". They are amongst the most spectacularly preserved examples of their kind in north-west Europe, with upright wooden fences running for hundreds of metres, fallen wattle panels and intact woven baskets in the clays.

The UCD School of Archaeology team had hoped to record these remains by working with local retired drift net fishermen. Ian Doyle, the Heritage Council's head of conservation, has described the project as "superb", with good community involvement. But subjected to swingeing government cuts, the council's ability to support this and other heritage projects is now restricted. "The weirs are likely to be entirely destroyed within the next three to 10 years or so", says O'Sullivan. "Yet, despite the fact that almost everybody is volunteering their time and expertise, we will be unable to continue fieldwork, and the sites will go before we can investigate them properly."

5 Hubberston Fort, Pembrokeshire: 19th century barracks and gun battery

In 1858 Felice Orsini bombed Napoleon III. The emperor was unhurt and Orsini was guillotined, but the bombs had been made and tested in England, and the British and French press went to war. The French Navy launched the world's first ocean-going iron-clad battleship, and across Britain dozens of new coastal forts were commissioned. By the time they were ready, any perceived threat had gone, and they became known as Palermston's follies – and as a colossal waste of money.

One such "folly" was Hubberston Fort in Milford Haven. The site is now overgrown, architectural details are stolen and walls are graffitied. In 2005, after coastguards rescued a young girl, the Milford Haven Port Authority said "It is a constant battle to keep ahead of the vandals who break into the property". Every tread of a fine granite cantilevered staircase has been smashed.

The fort blended late medieval Italian design with classic Georgian architecture. Some 250 men were accommodated in d-shaped, bombproof barracks, above a casemated battery of 28 guns waiting to be wheeled out of concrete pits, which are still visible. Abandoned early in the last century, the fort served as an air-raid shelter and American army camp in world war two. But it remains a prominent feature in the landscape, and embodies a story of war, architecture and crafts that it shares with several forts in the region.

Roger Thomas, chair of the Pembrokeshire Military History Working Group, has watched schemes to save the site come and go over 30 years. Conversion plans at Hubberston have included houses, a marina and a hotel: Thomas recognises that a sensitive, practical proposal of this kind is the only way forward if the fort is not to decay to the point where demolition becomes the only safe option. Private owners, he says, sometimes have unrealistic visions for historic properties. There are no cheap solutions.

6 Waverley Road, London: world war two air raid shelter

Post-medieval artillery fortifications are the core concern of the Fortress Study Group. It says 20th century structures from small pillboxes and anti-invasion stop-lines, through forts and batteries, to major military bases like Scapa Flow, Orkney (where the German fleet was scuttled in 1919, and 30,000 men and women were stationed 1939–45) are at risk, "unrecognised or misunderstood and fast crumbling or rusting away".

Bomb shelters are a category of world war two remain that can have significant human interest. Huge numbers were built across the UK. As they disappear and first hand memory of their use fades, their historical value grows. In January this year Greenwich council consented to housing development at the 19th century Kent Waterworks site on Waverley Road, Plumstead. Though no condition was imposed on the future of the industrial remains – which freelance community archaeologist Andy Brockman describes as "of major historical interest" – a report on an air raid shelter was requested.

Brockman found the shelter was of unusual construction and well preserved, with original wooden benches, electric fittings, a filtered air vent in the roof and an intact urinal. It is built of prefabricated concrete sections covered with earth, and has brick blast proof walls and doors at both entrances. The high quality of construction and materials suggests it may have been made to government specifications for Water Board workers.

Nigel Fletcher, deputy leader of the opposition on Greenwich council, noted that "with a bit of imagination, the shelter could… be retained in situ as part of the development", and referred to the scope offered by the new planning guidance PPS5 for considering historic value. Local residents are campaigning to have the shelter restored and included in a new play area, where it could be used for education.

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