British Archaeology, no 13, April 1996: Letters

Highways chief states his case

From Mr Laurie Haynes

Sir: I recently attended the British Archaeological Awards biennial lecture, but was disappointed to hear the Highways Agency described only as a developer when we are one of the largest financiers of rescue archaeology in England. All of us are responsible for ensuring that our heritage is preserved wherever possible and I take this aspect of my professional role very seriously.

My interest in history is long-standing. As a boy, I spent many enjoyable hours at the museum of my home town, Scunthorpe. As an adult, I take pleasure in restoring a period house. History shaped where we are today and our children have the task of shaping the future. It is up to us to ensure they understand the value of the past.

My team and I carry out a sophisticated balancing act, working as far as possible to meet the needs of industry, the economy, local communities, motorists, environmentalists, archaeologists, land owners and many others, including the Department of Transport. Our remit is to manage and maintain the trunk road and motorway network in a safe and environmentally acceptable manner. Archaeology is one of many important factors that we take into account but we cannot consider it in isolation or take decisions upon it lightly. Increased road safety, reduced environmental impact, value for money and engineering feasibility often conflict.

With the strong emotions stirred by Newbury and Stonehenge, it may be easy to believe that the Agency considers roads and only roads. But we are a public organisation, working for the public, taking into account public views. Before construction begins, years of public consultation take place. Assessments carried out by archaeologists determine sites of interest and our designers endeavour to avoid important areas wherever possible. Environmental assessments are carried out throughout the scheme preparation. These are always available to archaeologists and other interested groups, and the appropriate national agency is always consulted. With many schemes, threats to archaeological sites are ruled out from the start by selecting routes for public consultation which avoid conflicts. The A303 Sparkford-Ilchester improvement to the west of Stonehenge was realigned to avoid a potentially important Romano-British site discovered by Agency consultants during preliminary survey work. How many people realise this?

Implicit in the business of road construction is the possibility of damage to archaeological sites, but the Agency is committed to minimising the impact of roads on the archaeological heritage of the country. Where important sites cannot be avoided rescue archaeology to record sites or watching briefs are used, to preserve artefacts and knowledge - 15 projects were carried out last year. Recent successes include a remarkable find of Early Bronze Age artefacts along the route of the new Derby Southern Bypass. Archaeologists believe these could have been lost forever had farming continued on this land.

Rescue archaeology work worth about UKP250,000 will be carried out where an important Mesolithic site was discovered on the Newbury Bypass route. English Heritage is involved in the planning of this rescue work. The route has been designed to follow the embankment of an old railway line affecting the fringes of the 1643 Battle of Newbury site but avoiding the area of the main battleground.

Last year the Agency spent UKP795,000 on excavation and post-excavation work, excluding funding for assessments. Was it well spent? Each individual will have their own answer, but we must look in terms of our collective audience and value for tax-payers' money. If funding helps the Agency to protect one nationally important site then surely that is money well spent.

Perhaps the Agency is guilty of not explaining its task to archaeologists. Maybe archaeologists could take another look at the Agency in its entire context. Certainly, I will continue to listen to the professional and public community. I will encourage my team to develop the expertise we have accumulated and I hope that the community will come forward with constructive criticism and suggestions so that we can work together in achieving our aims.

Yours faithfully,
Chief Executive
The Highways Agency
London SE1

Woodcut forgery

From Dr Keith Sugden

Sir: As a former astrophysicist I was delighted to see an archaeologist taking an interest in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (`Diggers at the final frontier', February), but the article was illustrated by a well-known fake.

The woodcut of the medieval scholar peering through a hole in the celestial sphere to observe the machinery of the heavens first appeared in Camille Flammarion's Astronomie Populaire, published in 1851. It was revealed as a forgery in the 1950s when historians were unable to trace Flammarion's source. The content of the woodcut does not correspond to medieval ideas as we now understand them. Nobody ever believed in the machinery of the heavens and Cardinal de Cusa certainly never wrote about it. Neither is the style of the woodcut 15th century. The whole thing is a 19th century fantasy.

Yours faithfully,
London, E5
13 February

Sound mirrors

From Mr Kenneth Jermy

Sir: The sound mirrors described in your review of Mirrors by the Sea (`Heath Robinson meets the Luftwaffe', November) remind me of a WWI device for tracking Zeppelins, described by Commander Rawlinson in The Defence of London.

A light, horizontal wooden beam, pivoted at the centre, had sound mirrors (on the lines of ear trumpets) fitted, one at each end. Stethoscope-type tubes brought the sounds to the ears of specially selected, blind listeners. The beam was turned until the sound in both ears was equally loud. A reading at right-angles to the beam gave the direction for the anti-aircraft guns to fire.

Yours sincerely,
Churchdown, Glos
6 February

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