ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 32, March 1998


First historic landscapes register created in Wales

Britain's first official register of historic landscapes was published last month in Wales. The register has no statutory force, but is designed to `raise awareness' among planners, developers and land- managers about historic landscapes, in order to help protect them.

Compiled by Cadw, the Countryside Council for Wales, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS UK), the register lists 36 landscapes in Wales of `outstanding' historic interest, and will be followed by a second register expected to contain 21 smaller landscapes of `special' (ie, less than outstanding) historic interest.

The listed areas range in size from the very large, such as a vast tract of the central Welsh massif in upper Ceredigion and the whole of the Lleyn peninsula in Gwynedd, to smaller areas such as the former iron and coal- mining districts of Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenavon in the South. Even the smallest areas, however, cover several square miles.

The listed areas are concentrated in the West, with nearly half in the North-West. Well-known areas include Milford Haven waterway, the Preseli Mountains, the Vale of Glamorgan, the Gower Peninsula, the Gwent Levels, the Vale of Dolgellau and the Tanat Valley.

Areas were listed if they met some or all of the following criteria: human occupation has been intense, resulting in substantial alteration to natural forms; land scape development has been arrested at some point, as in a relict landscape; landscape evolution is apparent in a range of features; landscape history can be inferred from buried remains or documents; or the area has historic, artistic, literary, or other cultural associations.

The Welsh approach of listing historic landscapes, not favoured in England or Scotland, has been controversial since it was first suggested some years ago. Critics point to the difficulty of grading the historical importance of different areas, perhaps giving the impression that nonlisted areas have little or no historic interest. They also argue that listed areas could be allowed, even encouraged, to fossilise.

In a long introductory essay, however, the register's authors seem at pains to defend themselves against these criticisms. Instead, they say the register will enable `the historic importance of the whole of the Welsh environment' to be given equal weight in land-management decisions `alongside the more traditional issues of nature conservation, wildlife protection and scenic amenity'.

With such generalised criteria for inclusion, however, debate about the merit of individual entries is likely to continue for some time.

Copies of the register can be obtained (for £15) from Richard Kelly, Countryside Council for Wales, Ffordd Penrhos, Bangor LL57 2LQ.

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Archaeology crisis in Buckinghamshire

County archaeological services in Buckinghamshire faced the threat of complete abolition last month, but following negotiations now seem likely to survive – just – with much-reduced capabilities. The crisis follows the fragmentation of archaeological services elsewhere in local government (see BA, February).

A decision by Buckinghamshire councillors to cut the county's museum budget – which embraces archaeology – by £250,000 this year was to have meant that archaeological advice would no longer be given on planning applications, the county's field unit would be closed down and the SMR disbanded. The decision would have made Buckinghamshire the only county in England and Wales without archaeological services, and unable to meet its obligations under the government planning guidance, PPG16. Following negotiations within the council, however, and representations from outside archaeological bodies, the council has modified its decision. With financial help from English Heritage, a small staff of two will probably be retained to look after planning guidance and the SMR. The posts of county archaeologist, museum keeper of archaeology, and conservator are to disappear, and the field unit will cease to operate.

According to Mike Farley, the county archaeologist, the decision – although not the complete disaster it might have been – will still leave Buckinghamshire's archaeology in a very weak position. Not only will experience and expertise be lost, as senior staff go, but the end of county-run field archaeology will inevitably lead to the dispersal of local archaeological knowledge, as commercial field units from elsewhere take on all new work.

The county will no longer be able to identify and record finds made by members of the public, such as detectorists – despite new national guidelines that encourage the voluntary reporting of antiquities. Nor will it be able to carry out site investigations, following such finds, however important they seem. Involvement with local amateur archaeologists will cease. The future of the museum's archaeological collection, without either a curator or a conservator, has become uncertain.

Even though planning advice will still be offered in the county, it will be inadequate with a staff of two. `The Government have made it clear that they want to see proper conservation advice in planning, but two people is simply not enough to cover the whole county, ' Mr Farley said.

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Clues to Medieval Manchester's vigour

A few tantalising pieces of evidence for why Manchester came to dominate North-West England in the industrial age, an event long regarded as something of a mystery, have been pieced together as a result of recent archaeological and historical work in the city.

Traditionally Manchester was thought to have developed only from about 1750, having been a very minor settlement in the Middle Ages – far less important than established towns nearby such as, for example, Preston. The recent work, however, suggests that Manchester was already one of the region's principal centres by the mid-16th century, and may have flourished commercially for centuries before that.

Two excavations have now produced evidence suggesting a wealthy and vigorous city in the later Middle Ages. Discoveries in Hangman's Ditch, the city's early medieval boundary, include 14th and 15th century gold pins, imported pottery, a rare decorated sword scabbard, and vast quantities of leatherwork – apparently the discarded contents of an entire leathershop. The collection resembles those found from major cities such as London.

Meanwhile, investigations in the moat at Denton Old Hall in Tameside, dating from the 16th century, have produced the timber, rubble, metalwork and objects of an earlier building that had been demolished to make room for a grand new home in the fashionable style of the period – another indicator of prosperity in the region.

The discoveries, by the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit (UMAU), build on the work of archaeologist Mike Morris, whose analysis of tax returns and similar documents of the period produced the first indications of Manchester's medieval vitality, and were published in the book Medieval Manchester in 1983. More recent analysis of the city's street pattern by UMAU have suggested the possibility that the town had a large planned market in the 13th century, similar to that known for Preston.

According to John Walker, Director of UMAU, the social conditions of late medieval Manchester led naturally to the entrepreneurship of the industrial age. The absence of guilds, strong local lords or a powerful church allowed an unrestricted, socially mobile community to flourish, turning to craftwork and industry in an area of poor land. The view that Manchester was an insignificant place owed partly to the absence of information about the medieval town, as many of the town's official documents were burned while temporarily stored in London during the Great Fire of the 17th century.

Lands and Lordships in Tameside, by Mike Nevelle and John Walker, was published by UMAU last month

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In brief

London archive

The Museum of London announced plans last month to open a new, expanded archive of archaeological remains from London, for the first time freely open to the public as well as to researchers. The announcement comes two years after London's former archive closed down for lack of funds (see BA, March 1996), an event regarded as a disaster by the archaeological community.

The Museum will enlarge one of its existing buildings (at Eagle Wharf Road) to house the new archive, with enough space to allow new excavated material to be added. A computerised documentation system will be developed to allow easy access to the material, both inside and outside the building.

Roman tablets

Further homely details of life in Roman Britain may emerge from new research into some of the more illegible Roman writing tablets from Vindolanda fort near Hadrian's Wall, following a grant from the Leverhulme Trust to researchers at Oxford University. Many contain only the faintest scratches and have never yet been deciphered. They will be scanned with high- resolution laser scanners, and the resulting images digitally enhanced, in a joint project between information engineers and classical scholars.

Gaulish dentistry

French archaeologists have discovered the skull of a 1st or 2nd century AD Gaul, at a necropolis near Paris, with a wrought iron tooth hammered into his jaw. The world's first-known dental implant appears to have integrated solidly into the bone, suggesting that the Gaul survived for at least a year after his operation. The tooth, an upper right molar, appears to have been modelled on the original, according to Eric Crubézy of the University of Toulouse, writing in the latest issue of Nature.

The oldest-known dental bridge, however, made of gold and designed to replace two incisors, is earlier. It was found in a tomb at Tanagra in Greece, fitted with two loops to connect it to the teeth on either side, and dates from the 3rd century BC.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1998