Who Owns Our Dead?
Corroded In Action
Archaeology At Sea
Heathrow Today, Tomorrow The World
Home and Heritage
Yorkshire's Holy Secret
tv in ba
Editor Mike Pitts
Heathrow Today, Tomorrow The World
At the country’s largest construction site, archaeologists are working on the largest excavation: but that is only the beginning of the story. Mike Pitts went to see
Stephen Leech is an archaeologist. Tall and thin, in hard hat and luminous yellow jacket, he tells me what he is doing, his long muddy fingers round the handle of a shovel. ‘There’s this big, isolated pit’, he says. ‘It might be Mesolithic, but there’s no dating evidence. But it has to be important’.
So far, so normal. Leech is a supervisor at the excavation where Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (T5) is being built. It is his job to get things out of the ground, record them and say what they mean. We are close to the site of the new terminal building, a futuristic lorry-seething crane city. Every two minutes a plane rises behind us.
The UK’s biggest construction programme, however, seems far away as Leech suddenly conjures an ancient society of monument builders, users and destroyers, and a landscape of tradition, change and deep continuity. A few months later, I listen to him address a conference of academics about Heathrow’s former fields and tracks as recorded in historic maps, how some were new, some reached back to the Bronze Age.
For Stephen Leech is not just digging holes: he is creating a vision.
‘Archaeological mitigation’ at T5 was always going to be big. The construction includes 47 aircraft stands, a 4,000 space multi-storey car park, 13 km of bored tunnel and the diversion of two rivers. When the archaeologists have finished at Heathrow, they will have dug 75 ha, of which the current T5 project alone is the largest single excavation ever to have occurred in Britain. The database contains over a million words.
Yet what makes the Heathrow project special is not its scale. The outcome is an insight into nine millennia of human settlement that changes the way we think about our modern landscape: yet the true uniqueness of T5 is not its archaeological story.
Rather it is the way the 80-strong field team have done it. A revolution in archaeology is underway beneath the jet-swarmed skies of Heathrow airport. The excitement of those who took part is so strong that if half their claims materialise, we will see a fundamental change in archaeological practice: a change that will replace the much-derided compilation of unread field records, with the writing of history.
The story begins when BAA (formerly British Airports Authority), after a lengthy planning inquiry obliged them to undertake a programme of archaeological work, decided they wanted a return. Two archaeologists, Gill Andrews (a freelance consultant) and John Barrett (Sheffield University), wrote a research programme. To confront the scale of the work, Oxford Archaeology and Wessex Archaeology formed a joint venture agreement, which they called Framework Archaeology. At the end of 1998, Framework’s John Lewis began a year-long excavation at Perry Oaks Sludge Works immediately west of Heathrow airport. He used and developed the research design, and found that not only did it encourage historical research, but it made for easier management and saved money.
To understand the significance of this, we need to go back to the early ‘90s when modern excavation began. A handful of archaeologists had been campaigning for money and legislation to ‘rescue’ archaeological evidence as it was destroyed by development. In England this culminated in archaeology and planning guidance (PPG16) and a management system known in the trade as MAP2.
Before, archaeologists had been digging at roadworks and inner city developments, but with such small budgets they had little time to fill their trenches before starting on the next. Finds and records would lie in huts, in garage roofs, even under beds, waiting for that mythical moment when there would be time to ‘write up the results’.MAP2 was concerned that this should not happen again. It proposed that once a dig was over (in the chilling phrase of the time, when the site had been ‘preserved by record’), the archaeologists should assess how to turn this ‘record’ into history. ‘Post-excavation’ should be in the budget.
The problem, say Andrews, Barrett and Lewis, is that this separated recording from interpretation. The laborious and costly results are unread reports. Historical enquiry should be at the project core from the start.
So what is this history that archaeologists should be looking for? The key is to picture people living in history they can see and touch. Around them are the things they have made, in a world created over generations – altered and managed landscapes, ruins and buildings, rubbish and heirlooms. These frame and affect people’s lives, but they are also part of them: food is cooked, pots are traded, graves are dug.
As time passes, what is new becomes old, and meanings change (the antithesis of the ‘timeless past’ beloved of many travel writers). What archaeologists should do, say the BAA team, is seek patterns of culture amongst what survives of this blend of thoughts and things. As Mortimer Wheeler put it 50 years ago, ‘the archaeological excavator is not digging up things, he is digging up people’.
When I visited the Terminal 5 site, where excavations began in April 2002, I found a rare enthusiasm for the work. ‘The old practice of 10% sampling stops you thinking’, project manager Ken Welsh told me. ‘We will dig according to our own interpretations as we go along. People have to think. It’s a fantastic experience – everyone really enjoys it’.
Lewis and Welsh showed me round. Instead of being taken straight to a large hole with small ditches, I found myself in an office (as much as a steel container midst the development planet of T5 can be so called). On one of 27 site computers I viewed part of the database.
The entire field record is digitised, and all staff contribute to and use it. You can bring plans up onto the screen and select anything you want to know. Iron Age pottery? Red dots show a restricted concentration in the centre of the excavated area. Some of the marked features are circular ditches. What else was found in these? Lists of artefacts appear. You want to know about the shape of the ditch sections? The relationship between the ring ditches and what look like field ditches of a different era? It is all there, gathered where everyone from project manager to diggers can consult at will.
In another container was an environmental processing lab. Simon Dobinson showed me three flotation tanks, where bags of soil bubbled and dispersed, releasing their loads of insects, waterlogged plants, rodent bones, charred cereal grains, or perhaps nothing. ‘I’m overwhelmed with samples’, said Dobinson. ‘If I’m not in here processing, I’m outside collecting’.
The amount of scientific work that occurs on site, during excavation, is unprecedented. It means the results can feed back: questions that normally arise years after the dig has ended can be answered by adjusting the fieldwork.
It also means that the people doing the digging can see their contribution to the story. The staff give each other tours, explaining their ideas and learning from others (‘They may be your colleagues’, said Lewis, ‘but talking to 80 people can still be scary’). Training is vital, with regular sessions on how to use the database, identifying pottery and flint tools, surveying and so on. This is good for archaeology; and it is good for morale. And, most importantly, it is good for history.
Leech is digging out part of a cursus monument, distinctive but mysterious features of the British Neolithic landscape. The Stanwell cursus consists of two parallel straight ditches 20 m apart and at least 4 km long, flanking a mound (now gone) an estimated 4 m wide and 1.6 m high. On one side Leech shows me the pit he thinks might be Mesolithic; on the other, a Bronze Age ditch that approaches the Cursus and instead of crossing, avoids it by turning a sharp corner. Here, in grey smudges in the gravel spanning five millennia, is the essence of Heathrow’s story.
The first signs of human activity are a few pits filled with burnt flint beside a stream channel. They were dug around 6,600 BC where the Heathrow gravel terrace meets the floodplain of the river Colne. At that time the land would have been forested, with areas of more open ground near rivers among those favoured for hunting game and gathering wild food plants.
Farmers, or the practice and wherewithal of gardening and rearing stock, reached Britain around 4,000 BC. Activity now moved onto the terrace, away from the edge. The most visible signs are not houses or fields, but ceremonial monuments: a double row of timber posts, a ditched and banked enclosure in horseshoe plan and a ring ditch. These are in the same area as the hunter-gatherers’ pits. There seems to be a continuity of ceremonial tradition, of marking the landscape boundary.
This attention to the edge was reinforced when the cursus was built in 3,800 BC. It maps the earlier space so closely that the relatively short post rows are precisely followed by its parallel ditches. What had been a ceremonial zone marked by small and scattered structures was now united with this grand earthwork that both linked what came before with a ceremonial route, and divided the land with a physical barrier.
Already much of the forest had been cleared. Pollen indicates an open, grassy environment, interrupted by occasional cultivated ground and cereal plots. A strange deposit in the eastern cursus ditch suggests that the bank had been coated with silty river clay containing onchonoids, calcareous nodules up to 1 cm across. With this white covering the cursus could have been seen for miles.
A dramatic change occurred when the first regular fields (with the implied permanent settlements and land claims) were laid out in the Early Bronze Age, from 2,000 BC – 500 years before this key moment has been observed anywhere before. These fields did not obscure the cursus: the old monument was respected. By 1,500 BC (Middle Bronze Age), however, fields were crossing it. Their ditches and banks had themselves become the monuments, foci of both economic and ritual attention.
Degradation of soils by the Late Bronze Age may have contributed to further subdivision of the field system, and abandonment of small scattered family villages for a larger settlement in the centre of the excavated area. Then in the Roman era, for the first time in 2,000 years, tracks and fields were established on a new axis, to fit a plan created off the Heathrow terrace, and a polity anchored in Italy.
What is striking about this story is the blend of continuity and change, never before untangled so clearly. There are obvious differences between the worlds of the first farmers and their hunting predecessors, yet the ways they both imagined their landscape seem similar. More dramatic than the arrival of domestic crops and animals in 4,000 BC, are the monumentalisation and intensification of farming in the Early Bronze Age. Not until Roman culture reaches Britain does that change.
A small Anglo-Saxon settlement at Longford evolved into the Medieval village still there today. There are some Medieval ridge-and-furrow fields; when the sewage works were built in the 1930s, Heathrow was supplying London with fruit and vegetables. The tracks and fields then were not all created in the 20th century, or the Middle Ages, or even Roman times. Some were new; some Medieval, some Roman. Some, where the ‘new’ Roman system had not spread, were Bronze Age. A farmer on a tractor could have cleaned out a field ditch that had first been dug nearly 4,000 years before.
The new excavation design that made possible these insights was part of an initiative within BAA to modernise the construction industry. When, as they frequently do, BAA staff ask Welsh ‘Isn’t that what you do anyway?’, he thinks he must be on the right track.
‘We’re proud of this’, says Andrews. ‘We all worked together as a team’. She subcontracted Barrett, a well-known university theoretician, having worked with him before. ‘Many academics are not interested in development archaeology’, she says. ‘It’s “grubby money”, not proper research money’.
That is something that will surely change. For this is not just about Heathrow, or the next airport (in December the government announced plans for massive runway extension across the UK). Nick Wells, a former Framework project officer, hopes the system will become the new standard.
‘Universities should teach it to everyone’, he says. ‘We have all been changed by digging at T5’. Or as John Lewis puts it, ‘We have turned diggers into archaeologists’. Soon, perhaps, it will change us too. It is from evidence such as theirs, and the stories of changing landscapes and cultures, that the full history of the British Isles will one day be written.
Mike Pitts is the Editor of 'British Archaeology' Magazine
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005