ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 33, April 1998


Education and better care of the land

Fewer ancient sites would be ploughed up if we understood them more, writes Richard Morris

Last month a landowner pleaded guilty to damaging the remains of a small Roman town (In brief). The land was scheduled as an ancient monument, but this somehow slipped his mind. The uncultivated land, he told the court, wasn't doing any good. So he ploughed it up.

This episode set me thinking. How many people these days wouldn't rejoice in a few acres of uncultivated land? More birds, insects, a richer flora . . . Come to that, why wouldn't they rejoice in a piece of land containing the remains of a Roman town?

The notion that protected sites are useless is strange. A scheduled field has a plenitude of uses. It is a cultural resource, and with a bit of effort (as David Hall points out elsewhere in this magazine) our agricultural support mechanisms could reflect that. One hectare of oilseed rape is much like another, but the remains of an 1,800 year-old town are unique.

Crumpled ground which gives away the positions of streets and houses, hints of distant lives, has a capacity to provoke questions, stimulate curiosity, to move. Who lived here? What did they do? Why did they go? The most powerful piece of ground-penetrating geophysical equipment known to science is freely available to everyone. It is called the imagination.

I am not talking about the dafter kind of empathetic history whereby children are invited to imagine `what it would have been like' (say) on the Western Front and then substitute supposition for original sources. My point is rather that if you were to stand the CBA's Education Officer and a score of children on the site of an unploughed Roman town, a spellbinding hour would follow in which scholarly rigour (what we can and can't read from the landscape, strategies for finding out more) and imagination would run in tandem.

Those children would soon discover, and would never forget, that history is not old, but new (because it is part of our here-and-now) and that a considerable number of other skills by which OFSTED, the schools' inspectorate, sets much store can be palatably imparted in conjunction with it. If geometry seems a bit arid when contemplating equal and opposite angles on a blackboard, it comes into its own when you are trying to map the layout of a Roman town. English Heritage publishes very good teachers' guides which explain this. One of my minor fantasies is that Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, reads them in bed.

In the longer term, another result of such a lesson would be better (and, inci dentally, more economical) stewardship of land and buildings. Our landowner in Norfolk ploughed up a Roman town despite the fact that it was protected by law. How much better off would the nation be if landowners declined to plough up Roman settlements that were not protected because they found them enriching?

This is not utopian: there are plenty of farmers and owners of historic buildings who act like this now, especially in areas where active local societies and outreach services still exist to talk to them. Equally, on the other hand, the landscape is studded with scheduled sites which have been fenced off and abandoned to scrub and rabbits in the name of conservation, and allowed to wither. Without enthusiastic public education, starting at an early age, our historic environment will always be at risk; but with it, there is a far better chance it will be understood, loved and protected.

Learning is a lifelong process, but takes its cue from early days. This is why the Government's recent proposal to downplay history in the National Curriculum in English primary schools is wrong in spirit, and the indifference to prehistory - over 98 per cent of human time - is wrong in practice.

If `New Britain' is about anything, it is about feelings. We need a climate in which there is a feeling for - a predisposition towards - the intrinsic and enduring value of the historic environment. A statutory apparatus of preservation will always be needed, but is no substitute for the wider appreciation and spontaneous stewardship that properly balanced formal education will bring.

The Departments of Education and Culture should be starting to understand this, and to act accordingly, for history is not only to do with contemporary knowledge and context; it is also a gateway to many of the creativities - in film, music, writing, design - that this Government has set out to foster. In 1927, when Gustav Holst was working on his tone poem Egdon Heath, he went to visit Thomas Hardy. He wrote excitedly to a friend about a trip with Hardy to some of places described in The Return of the Native - one of them a Bronze Age barrow:

On Tuesday I had an unforgettable lunch and motor trip with Thomas Hardy himself, who showed me Melstock, Rainbarrow and Egdon in general. I've promised to go up to Rainbarrow by night. He is sorry I'm seeing it in summer weather, and wants me to come again in November.

What greater stimulus to the imagination, than to contemplate a place of sepulchre 3,500 years old in the cold fog and gloom of November?

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1998