British Archaeology, no 18, October 1996: Features


Buildings in the grip of preservation

Some conservationists say we preserve listed buildings too much. Simon Denison reports

In Newcastle two years ago, a charity decided to restore its listed 18th century banqueting hall. On the floor was a worn-out piece of early 20th century linoleum. The charity planned to take it up and restore the room's original floorboards.

English Heritage, however, ordered the charity to keep the lino, on the grounds that it was historically interesting and worthy of preservation - a standpoint supported by PPG15, the Government's guidance on historic buildings. `Generally,' the guidance says, `later features of interest should not be removed merely to restore a building to an earlier form'.

Yet is the guidance correct? Listed building legislation has always had its critics among the more philistine type of developer, but now a growing number of conservationists are saying that too rigid an application of the rules - and too great an emphasis on preservation over change - could threaten the continued use of historic buildings, and even their survival.

According to Neil Burton of the Georgian Group, conflict frequently arises between the desire to leave a building as found, and the desire to restore it to an earlier form - either for the sake of good design (as with the removal of the lino), or to make it more habitable.

Good conservation practice, he says, has always been to be flexible, to strike a balance between preservation and change. But with the coming of PPG15 - which he describes as `rather fierce' - there has been an increase in refusals to allow any kind of change. `Good conservation officers don't always stick to the PPG15 line; but weak conservation officers use it as a crutch,' he says.

Buildings are listed for their `architectural or historic interest' and the debate is coming to be seen as a conflict between architecture (the design aspect of a building) and archaeology (its function as a record), with archaeologists gaining the upper hand.

Giles Worsley, Editor of Perspectives on Architecture, said he perceived a `growing dominance' of architectural historians and archaeologists in conservation, with `fundamentalist views on preservation' and an `inability to discriminate' between what is worth preserving and what is not.

`Buildings are treated as documents where everything becomes important,' he says. `This shows a failure to understand that buildings are living organisms. If you preserve each of the layers of change, you have no more change.'

The answer, Mr Worsley says, may often be to record the evidence of a building's past, rather than always to preserve it - an approach that may paradoxically appeal to many archaeologists, for whom archaeology is not a philosophy of preservation but a discipline for understanding the past.

However, if there can be over-preservation, there can also be over-recording and over-excavation, according to the conservation architect Niall Phillips, whose practice specialises in restoring derelict historic buildings.

Mr Phillips cites a recent - and not untypical - case in south-west England, where a charity agreed to restore a ruinous, moated medieval/17th century building for use as a residential home and `working farm' for inner-city children. The cost of repair would be about UKP1m, although the restored building's market value would be only about UKP300,000. The restoration was to be careful and sensitive, including an archaeological record of the building as found.

However, the charity almost pulled out of the project when the county archaeologist insisted on a UKP42,000 programme of additional recording and excavation - including a record of the building's 1950s and 1960s wallpaper - even though several similar sites had been excavated nearby over recent years. Damp floors were not allowed to be raised and repaired, `just in case any buried archaeology was disturbed', according to Mr Phillips. The issue delayed the project by two years, although the building seemed throughout on the point of collapse.

Mr Phillips said: `In principle PPG15 and PPG16 [the Government's guidance on archaeology and planning] are absolutely fine, but if archaeologists are not responsible in the way they apply them, we are going to lose important historic buildings.' His clients would never restore a historic building again, he said, because of the way the archaeology had been handled in this case. `The point of archaeology may be new knowledge, but knowledge has a cost, and people can only stand so much messing about.'

So where do we draw the line? If we want neither total preservation, nor the preservation of nothing, flexibility and good sense may provide us with the only answers.

Are listed building controls sometimes applied too rigidly? Where should we draw the line? British Archaeology would welcome the views of readers on the subject.


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Army pay rises did little for Late Roman Britain's economy, says John Creighton

Tight-fisted soldiers of Roman Britain

The Roman World was characterised by an extreme inequality of wealth. Then, as now, those in power thought nothing of awarding themselves substantial salary increases.

At the end of the 2nd century, a new dynasty took over in Rome after a period of civil war. Septimius Severus (AD193-211) and his son Caracalla (AD198-217) had a clear view of where their power-base lay in this new world order; it was not with the senate and people of Rome anymore, but with the army. The last words Severus is reported to have said to his sons summed up his philosophy: `Enrich the soldiers, despise everyone else!', and this they certainly did. For over a century a legionary had received 300 denarii a year. Severus raised this to 400, and his son to 600 within a matter of years. The army had never had it so good.

Most of the army was stationed on the frontiers such as in Britain, so what effect did this increase in cash coming to Britain have on the British economy? Did these new `fat cat' salaries `trickle down' and benefit the province as a whole? Did this country enter a Golden Age?

Back in the 1980s, the archaeologist Keith Hopkins proposed a model for viewing how money moved around in the Roman World. The state raised money through taxation across the whole Empire, but then spent unevenly, on the army on the frontiers and in Rome itself. If nothing else happened money would build up on the frontiers and in Rome, but dry up in other areas where the inhabitants only paid tax but enjoyed no public spending. Somehow the circle had to be closed, as money had to return to its starting point so it could enter the taxation/expenditure cycle again. Hopkins suggested this was through trade. If Britain imported goods from Gaul then coin would be returned there. The idea was simple, and there certainly were plenty of imports from Gaul to Britain in the 1st and 2nd century, but as the 3rd century arrived the evidence becomes much more ambiguous.

The distribution of silver between the inner and frontier provinces was never even. Up until the Severan era there was always far more bronze coin lost in Britain than silver, especially in comparison with France and Italy. But then with the army pay rises the picture on the frontiers radically changed. The proportion of silver jumps from about 20 per cent to 80-90 per cent of coins found, significantly over-taking that of Italy and France. Not only was more silver going to where the army was, but it appears that the amount of trade to return money back from the provinces to the heart of the Empire was no longer sufficient to repatriate a lot of that silver. It was sent to Britain, and in Britain it stayed. This picture matches that from the ceramic evidence, which shows a marked reduction in the amount of imported pottery after the 2nd century.

Even within Britain the rate at which this money flowed around fell dramatically. Silver coin hoards from the 2nd century all have very similar compositions - hoards of the same date contain roughly the same proportions of coin of each emperor wherever they are found. The similarity is such that it suggests a rapidly circulating currency pool, ironing out any regional differences. For example, if Hadrian's new coins (AD117-138) were paid to the army on the wall, it was not long before trade dispersed them across the country and everyone had them. In the Severan period the picture changed. Hoards near the army in the north all have a far higher proportion of freshly minted coin of the Severan dynasty in comparison to those anywhere else in the country. It is as if money was no longer moving around as fast, and thus leveling out the differences in the proportions of each emperor's coin across the country.

It may be that the army on the wall had more silver than it could deal with. Soldiers didn't spend it on luxuries from abroad, or even from southern Britain, otherwise the coin would have moved. Either they simply had more money than they could spend and they just sat on it, or else locally prices went up to such a degree that the money never left the area. Their large pay increases didn't stimulate the economy of Britain, as it didn't trickle down to elsewhere, but then with a political ideology of `enrich the soldiers and despise the rest', that wasn't really the point.

Dr John Creighton is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Reading, and a specialist in Roman coinage


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In the first of two articles, Mark Roberts assesses what the Boxgrove excavations, now ending, tell us about early human society

`Man the Hunter' returns at Boxgrove

Over the past few years, the archaeological site at Boxgrove in Sussex has produced some of the world's oldest human remains - first a shin-bone, then a tooth - as well as numerous traces of early human activity such as flint-knapping and butchery, all contained on what may be the best-preserved Lower Palaeolithic landsurfaces known anywhere in the world.

But as the Boxgrove excavations draw to a close this month, we must now ask what all this spectacular prehistoric evidence tells us about the behaviour of the earliest humans in Europe, and about the environment in which they lived around half a million years ago.

Broadly speaking, our understanding of the changing landscape of the period is now complete. We know that Britain was physically linked to the European mainland during the Boxgrove interglacial stage, thus providing easy access for our intrepid colonisers, and that the landbridge was breached during the ensuing cold stage. Other factors, such as the courses of major river systems and glacial ice margins are equally well known. The climate of the Boxgrove warm stage can be broadly in ferred from reptile and amphibian faunas, at a local level, and from the sediments of the world's deep oceans at a global level, suggesting a climate very similar to the one we live in today. At the site itself, it is possible to give even more detailed information such as water depths, salinity and flow rates.

The vertebrate and invertebrate faunas from Boxgrove are amongst the most extensively collected and studied from any site of this age in the world. Accordingly, we know what the Boxgrove hominids ate, what potentially ate them, and the type of microfauna they might have had residing in the sediment under their finger nails.

But when we come to study hominid behaviour we have very little direct evidence to work with, and instead have to build a series of models for ourselves and other scientists to validate, develop or dismiss, according to data from this and other sites and the study of archaeology and anthropology as a whole.

Boxgrove is not a single site, but consists of isolated activities on different landsurfaces that span tens of thousands of years, and cover a range of environments from coastal/marine through open grassland to cold periglacial tundra. The landsurfaces are contained within sediments that sit in a framework of solid chalk, the northern boundary of which is represented by a cliff line that during the warm stage was between 75m and 100m high. Behind the cliff on the Sussex Downs sat the gravels that now cover the landsurfaces. These gravels were brought downslope and over the cliff under extremely cold conditions during the Anglian cold stage that began 480,000 years ago. Thus, of the total environment exploited by Boxgrove hominids we are only able to look at the area in front of the cliff, as any activities that took place in the heavily forested area of the Downs would have been destroyed when the surfaces and soils were moved southwards over the cliff.

What is clear, is that the surfaces excavated during the course of the excavations all reveal a broadly similar pattern - namely, that the area in front of the chalk cliff line, to which we have had access, was used for hunting and butchering large mammals, and that the collapsed cliff and screes were used as a source of flint to produce the tools with which to effect the butchery.

Hunting at this period of our hominid ancestry is a controversial subject. From the late 1960s to the present day, the concept of `Man the Hunter' has become less popular with academics studying the Lower Palaeolithic, with the alternative of carcass-scavenging being proposed as the major way in which hominids procured their meat.

The evidence from Boxgrove, however, suggests strongly that the hominids of the period did hunt their meat. The evidence comes directly in the form of a spear wound in a horse scapula (or shoulder blade) and indirectly in a number of ways. Study of the butchery shows that the carcasses were always intact when found, and that the cut marks underlie or precede gnawing marks, where these occur. A scavenged carcass would previously have been gnawed by wild animals, but no single bone has been found at the site where cutmarks overlie gnawing marks. (The level of gnawing on humanly butchered carcasses, in fact, is always low, as a result of the efficiency of meat removal.)

Moreover, animals such as mature adult rhinoceroses have no natural predators amongst the carnivores known to have existed at Boxgrove; and three such adults have been excavated all exhibiting extensive butchery traces. If scavenging was being practised at any substantial scale, evidence would surely have been found for it by now.

Confrontational scavenging, where hominids allow other animal hunters to make the kill and then chase them away from the carcass before they start to gnaw it, has been postulated for Boxgrove. However, this would have required hominids to be constantly on watch for kills as part of their subsistence strategy, as well as requiring fast access to the carcass as carnivores such as lions and hyaenas can begin to leave marks on a skeleton within five minutes of a kill. It is also more difficult to drive animals off a kill than to protect a kill from other predators.

The soft parts of the head, such as the tongue and eyes, were also intact on the butchered animals when they were found, as demonstrated by the cutmarks on the skull, and these would have quickly been removed by avian predators if the carcasses had been left unattended for any period of time. Overall the evidence points over-whelmingly to hunting being the main method of obtaining meat from large mammals such as rhinoceros, horse, bison and giant deer.

This hypothesis has been recently further strengthened by the discovery of wooden tools from the site of Schoningen in Lower Saxony in Germany. The site dated to between 400,000 and 350,000 years ago has yielded three wooden spears around 2m long, together with a shorter implement sharpened at both ends, which is similar to some Australian aboriginal throwing sticks. Two wooden tools were also found with grooves cut into one end, for use as hafts for flint tools. The spears were carefully worked from slow growing spruce - indicating a good knowledge of woodcraft - and in their form closely resemble modern javelins.

After the animals were killed, butchery began, although the pattern varies depending on where the kill was made. At the Boxgrove water-hole, where most evidence for butchery has been gathered, the animals were butchered with handaxes that were mostly brought into the area completed. Additionally there are large numbers of flint nodules that were used as anvils and beach pebbles that were used as hammerstones to break open the bones to extract marrow after butchery.

Other butchery events show a different pattern, whereby the raw flint material is taken to the kill, up to a distance of 250m from the cliff, and knapped around the carcass. The two different patterns probably represent the difference between `encounter hunting', in which an animal is come upon accidentally, and hunting at a regular location where prey animals were drawn by water.

The carcasses were probably gutted first and then skinned and dismembered. The meat was then carefully removed from the skeletal elements and put to one side whilst the bones were smashed open on anvils and the marrow extracted. The numbers involved in the hunting and butchery events are difficult to ascertain with any accuracy, but at one horse butchery episode at least seven separate knapping and sub-butchery events occurred, after the carcass was dismembered. At this and other encounter-hunting kills the carcass would have had to have been secured by part of the group, whilst the other part went off to the cliff-line to collect raw material.

A number of points arise from the study of these butchery episodes that may tell us more about the lifestyle of the Boxgrove hominids. It is clear that the meat yields are enormous, if as suspected most of the guts were eaten as well as the marrow. Animals the size of the Hundsheim rhinoceros could provide up to 700kg of edible products and the large caballine horse up to 400kg. The meticulous nature of the butchery suggests that all the meat was required and that it wasn't just removed to get to the bones. It appears therefore that the marrow and soft parts were eaten at the site of the kill and the skin and muscle blocks transported away from the kill area. As no trace of any occupation has been found in front of the cliff, the campsites and secondary processing areas were probably located above the cliff, in the forested downland. Such large amounts of meat imply that either group sizes were larger than imagined or that the meat was treated and stored for later use.

The possible storage of meat brings us to consider other aspects of hominid behaviour, such as food sharing, future planning and the need for language to articulate these concepts. These hominids also appear to have understood the curation of tools, how to work bone, wood, hide and antler, and how to survive and thrive in very different environmental and climatic regimes. The earliest European hominids are often taken to be dumb brutes, but - as I will argue in the next article - Boxgrove suggests their society and behaviour was far more complex than many people currently suppose.

Mark Roberts is the Director of the Boxgrove Project


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