ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 36, July 1998


Building roads to intellectual nowhere

Archaeology on road and rail schemes is too often devoid of research objectives, writes Richard Morris

Later this month the Government is expected to announce the candidates for its Short Term Roads Programme - that is, the 70 or so new trunk roads that might be started in the next five years. Around the same time we shall see the Government's White Paper on transport strategy.

Both will have repercussions for the historic environment. Large infrastructure projects destroy archaeological sites. They also provide unusual opportunities for archaeological study across wide tracts of landscape.

Compared to the money available for most archaeological work, the sums generally available in major infrastructure projects, such as road-building, are very large. Spending them well calls for clear objectives. This means research objectives, for it is the intrinsic interest and quality of research which determines the value of archaeological work.

This may seem obvious, yet in certain circles there is a notion that archaeological work in advance of development amounts to little more than heritage decontamination, and that `research' equates with some privileged esoteric pastime for which no developer should be asked to pay. Only a few weeks ago I was shown the brochure of one of Britain's better-known archaeological contracting units which actually assures prospective clients that their money won't be wasted on research. As far as the CBA is concerned, a developer's money will be wasted unless it is spent on research.

Working to clear research objectives in such schemes is admittedly not easy - and at present, it generally doesn't happen.

Some of the unusual challenges of infrastructure schemes can be sketched out: it is difficult to evaluate the archaeological potential of schemes which cover large areas; and advance access to land in many different hands is not straightforward. The long gestation of major schemes may also mean that questions asked during the initial evaluation are obsolescent before the main work starts.

There is also a problem of supervision. Most development-led archaeology is overseen by local government archaeologists - the `curators' of the planning system, independent of the contractor-client relationship, who understand local archaeological conditions such as surface geology, soil types, and the history of fieldwork in the area. Without this knowledgable local supervision, archaeology trudges both blindfold and manacled.

The largest projects, however, may be outside normal planning procedures, thus weakening the curator's all-important role. Moreover, one road or railway may run through a number of local authority areas, requiring multiple consultations and denying unified intellectual oversight.

To add to the problem, many local government curators, and the SMRs upon which developers depend, are in any case inadequately resourced, and thus barely able to give all projects sufficient attention.

A programme for the study of a large tract of Britain will only work successfully if there is commitment to its research objectives by all the parties involved - the curators, contractors, and client. Among other things this means early planning. That in turn requires early investment in archaeology.

As things stand, both are often over-looked. Worse, a single project may be fragmented between different contractors who are actively discouraged from communicating with one another before they tender.

The result of all this is that the archaeology of major infrastructure schemes can often be inadequate, amounting to virtually a waste of money in some cases, and certainly a tragically missed opportunity in others.

Ultimately, the programme of research has to be `owned' by those who have to make it work: the consultant archaeologist working for the developer, and the contracting archaeologist. Discussing with the contractor how research objectives are to be achieved is the way to ensure that a research programme is not inflexibly prescriptive but crystallises from the bottom up.

It would be nice to imagine that ministers in the Departments of Culture, Media and Sport and Environment, Transport and Regions have been liaising on these questions. Experience of this Government's indifferent attitude to the historic environment, however, suggests this may be a vain hope.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1998