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Cover of British Archaeology 120

Issue 120

Sep / Oct 2011

Contents

news

All the latest archaeology news from around the country

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth plans for the future

letters

Your views and responses

features

THE BIG DIG: Roman roads

Digging up the Picts

Sacred waters

Manga at the museum – NOT ONLINE

7 societies

Stones and names

Win or lose

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

feature

Win or lose: The bulldozer, the Scheduler and the Council leader

Opening image

As has been documented in this magazine, archaeology and heritage are suffering as the country tries to pay off its debts. Perhaps we shouldn't worry – it will get better. But will it? Three cases show how bad things can be, while some archaeologists are hopeful. Is this the beginning of the end? Or can imaginative action now lead to a glowing future? Mike Pitts reports.

The bulldozer

South of Bristol in Somerset are four earthen rings known as the Priddy circles. Though little understood by archaeologists, they have long been recognised as a unique group of prehistoric monuments, each of them closely comparable to the earthwork around Stonehenge. In June about a third of the best preserved of the four was bulldozed.

The rings are a prehistoric mystery. Three of them are perfect circles, close together and aligned roughly northnorth-east; the fourth is apparently also circular and a little further north of the others. Each is just under 200m across, the same size as that at Stonehenge. They look superficially like henges, but – like Stonehenge – they differ in featuring a ditch on the outer edge of a bank rather than vice versa.

These simple details (true circles with an outer ditch) link Priddy to a small collection of sites that range from Flagstones in Dorchester, Dorset, to Llandegai in north Wales. There are suggestions these monuments lie historically between earlier neolithic causewayed enclosures, important places for temporary social and ritual meetings (see feature, Jul/Aug 2011, no 119) and later neolithic henges, a unique British tradition. That Priddy belongs to this pivotal class was confirmed by Jodie Lewis and David Mullin in 2008, when small excavations at the damaged site suggested it was built around 3000BC – contemporary with the start of Stonehenge. Otherwise well preserved, the Priddy circles could hold clues to understanding some of the key questions about prehistoric Britain.

The rings are scheduled ancient monuments, were not listed by English Heritage as being at risk and all are within the Mendip area of outstanding natural beauty. Yet early in June one of the circles was landscaped by a new owner. New fencing and tree saplings were reported, and serious harm to the archaeological site was soon confirmed by English Heritage.

The scheduler

EH Graph

Sandy Gerrard plotted annual designation statistics using data on English Heritage's published national heritage list. The decline in designations is dramatic, particularly of ancient monuments.

Damaging a scheduled monument is a criminal offence, with penalties that can stretch to severe fines or a prison sentence. English Heritage is investigating the Priddy case, which is unusual for the apparent severity of the destruction at such a prominent site. But Priddy is not alone at being at risk. As this magazine reported (May/Jun 2011, no 118), 15 of Devon's Roman forts are scheduled, yet eight of them are already being ploughed under a consent system. Ignorance, cold economic calculations or sheer bloody-mindedness can result in legally protected sites being damaged or destroyed. Nonetheless, scheduling monuments, as with listing buildings, especially if backed by helpful advice and education, has a proven record of saving important remains from our past. Which is why a trend at English Heritage is particularly troubling.

Many ancient and historic sites are not easily seen, and new surveys using new techniques commonly reveal new ones – sometimes of national or even international significance – meriting designation for legal protection. Yet, says archaeologist Sandy Gerrard, the number of archaeological sites scheduled annually by English Heritage has fallen since 1995. Since 2005 it has been so low as to be almost unnoticed; only nine were scheduled across the whole of England in 2008. The number of buildings being listed has also fallen. Gerrard felt so strongly about a situation that he was unable to change, in November last year he resigned from his post as a heritage protection adviser at English Heritage.

He believes sites are no longer being scheduled because where once the relevant people in authority were archaeologists, increasingly they now are not, and have little interest in archaeology. It takes time to schedule a site, and half those so designated after 2005 had been selected before then; over 500 cases started before 2002 have been abandoned. The sudden rise in listed buildings in 2010 is accounted for by a one-off drive to list old cases. The real picture is worse than the graph.

The council leader

Fenland EDP

Bunny huggers at work in councillor Melton's patch, at Must Farm.

In July English Heritage made Roger Bowdler its designation director, on the retirement of Peter Beacham. Formerly head of designation, Bowdler oversaw the listing of the Abbey Road studios and other modern sites (and the submission of a Wikipedia page as evidence in a listing case), and will doubtless be considering the future of listing and scheduling – assisted by English Heritage's new National Heritage Protection Plan. But even a new high for scheduling might achieve little if the wishes of a Cambridgeshire council leader were to become national policy. In a speech on behalf of Fenland district council on June 21, described as a "defining policy statement", Alan Melton laid out his plans to "maximise the benefits of large scale development" – and remove requirements for archaeological investigation.

Melton, who describes himself as a quantity surveyor, National Trust member and bricklayer, was doubtless being rhetorical when he said, "There are of course some areas where we have a duty to the local community"; ratepayers might justly ask, "Only some?" He dismissed fears of changing climate: "I don't believe that polar bears will be floating down the Nene in my lifetime." But he had more to say about archaeology.

From July 1, he said, there would be no planning requirement for an "archaeological dig/survey", except, perhaps, "next to a 1,000-year-old church". "The bunny huggers won't like this", he judged, "but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out".

The system Melton dislikes has been responsible for decades of archaeological investigation of material that would otherwise have been lost without record, transforming the story of the country's past. Mike Heyworth, CBA director, pointed out on the Radio 4 PM programme that the suggested changes would be illegal. The Times published a protest letter from over 50 archaeologists, and Melton seemed to have few supporters. On June 30 Melton said the council had no intention of breaking the law, but was seeking a more "reasonable and flexible" approach to protecting "Fenland's unique conservation and heritage assets".

The future

Alan Melton claims "an excellent relationship with Cambridgeshire county council archaeology team", a rapport that may now need a little burnishing. Don Foster, a Liberal Democrat MP with a personal interest in heritage, raised the matter with the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles. He replied the government did not intend to include such measures in the localism bill, which gives councils no powers to deregulate planning in ways described by Melton; Foster called the councillor's comments "crass". We may have clarification in October, when Melton has promised to "take the message" to the Conservative party conference.

It might be claimed that each of these cases reflects no more than innocent, if damaging, ignorance. With better education about the law, the argument would run, the problems could be avoided. Landowners would not bulldoze monuments and councillors would not advocate trashing heritage (in an approach that if pursued, would almost certainly cause more trouble for builders than the present system of advance liaising). It cannot help that English Heritage, apparently losing sight of the importance of archaeological monuments, is one of the parties that should be spreading knowledge.

There is always a place for education. But teaching can become preaching, and risks doing little more than address bureaucratic process and being seen as meddling. As the next contribution makes clear, there are more positive and powerful ways to involve a wider public in archaeology.


The prize within our grasp

English planning law has recently been sensibly tidied up. There was much consultation about heritage, and the result, says Karen Bewick on behalf of the Southport Group, could transform archaeological practice – for the better.

For 20 years, two policy guides – PPG15 and PPG16 – have been cornerstones of England's approach to planning and heritage. The scale of today's archaeological profession, and the enormous growth in knowledge of England's archaeology, were built on those guides. Yet this was achieved with a system that emphasised recording: it did not explicitly value understanding, by professionals or public.

Last year these guides were replaced by Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment (PPS5). Many heritage practitioners were closely involved in its development. Its publication was a seminal moment, heralding one of the most significant opportunities in decades, for archaeologists, their clients in construction and industry, and the public.

Now, for the first time, heritage planning policy emphasises public benefit and involvement, as well as standards and professional accreditation. Most importantly, it focuses on understanding and enhancing cultural significance. This is an opportunity for everyone, from volunteers to commercial archaeologists, to improve the quality of their work and raise the profession's profile.

There is a problem, however. These opportunities are threatened by the substantial cuts that local governments are having to make to their budgets, shrinking funding to historic environment services and undermining the process of development-led archaeology. To tackle the challenge, a small professional working party was formed, after a debate at the Institute for Archaeologists' conference in Southport in April last year. The Southport Group, as the working party called itself, sought to highlight the opportunities of PPS5.

The vision

Publication

See end note.

Drawing on feedback from workshops and an online consultation, the group prepared a substantial report which was launched on July 13 (see end note); it then disbanded.

The report calls for improved collaboration between heritage organisations, to make the most of difficult times and, with a single, powerful voice, encourage support from public, media and government. It then outlines a vision.

In this new world, local authorities and community groups share management of the historic environment. Commercial, local authority, academic and voluntary archaeologists work together in research, understanding and interpretation, not just recording. Planning decisions take real account of public values and concerns. It is standard practice for commercial archaeological work to involve the local community.

There are gains to business, as archaeology adds value to development. It contributes to sustainability and place-shaping (defined by the website Future Communities, as creating "attractive, prosperous and safe communities, places where people want to live, work and do business"). It adds value to design, brand, and sales and rental opportunities. It facilitates the securing of consents, risk management, public relations, corporate social responsibility and marketing.

To achieve this, all archaeologists meet professional standards, often having acquired new skills and accreditation. Developers commission research into the interests of a place and its significance. Planning decisions are based on sound knowledge derived from professionally managed heritage environment records (HERs).

Ready for change

The report is aimed at all those with the power to shape England's historic environment, from ministers and MPs, to government agencies, local governments, developers, the media, the public and of course all archaeologists, whatever their status or interests.

The principles of PPS5 demand a strong commitment to change, which will be both personally and institutionally challenging. They require the historic environment sector to work in new ways, more rewarding for society and more satisfying for those who commission and conduct the work. Our research showed overwhelmingly that we are ready for these changes. This would be a great prize for any profession, and it is within our grasp.

Realising the Benefits of Planning-led Investigation in the Historic Environment: A Framework for Delivery, by the Southport Group (ISBN 978-0948393204) is available via the website.

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