“A concept made concrete”: 40 years of Shropshire HER

A belated Happy Day of Archaeology from Shropshire Historic Environment Record (HER)! This July has been an exceptionally busy one for the team, which is our excuse for not actually publishing on the Day of Archaeology itself. However, seeing as 2016 marks the 40th anniversary of Shropshire HER, we thought it would be an ideal opportunity to tell you a bit more about what the last 40 years has involved…

By the way, the “concept made concrete” reference is a reference to the brutalist building we have occupied since the start, Shirehall, Shrewsbury. It continues to be a ‘marmite’ building for the town, but our offices on the 5th floor certainly afford good views over the Marches. The header image was taken from my desk, looking out over the concrete domed roof of the council chamber…sorry about the dirty windows!

Where it all began

Compilation of the Shropshire Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) began in May 1976. In those early years, the records were created on A5 record cards with their location marked on a set of record maps, and linked to collections of supporting material such as air photos.

Searches of the card index were carried out by means of “Optical Coincidence sheets”. These had cells for every number between 1 and 9999. Holes were punched in sheets that represented a range of different attributes . In this example a hole is punched in the cell for 251 in the Church Stretton Parish sheet, the Cross Dyke Type Sheet and the Scheduled Monument Status Sheet.

Searches of the card index were carried out by means of “Optical Coincidence sheets”. These had cells for every number between 1 and 9999. Holes were punched in sheets that represented a range of different attributes . In this example a hole is punched in the cell for 251 in the Church Stretton Parish sheet, the Cross Dyke Type Sheet and the Scheduled Monument Status Sheet.

By 1979, about 3000 records had been created, mostly relating to archaeological sites and find spots. Then, in 1979, MSC (Manpower Services Commission) labour became available, and using this resource, by 1983 records of over 6000 historic building had been added, derived not only from the Statutory Lists of Listed Buildings, but also from the results of MSC surveys as well as thematic gazetteers.

It now became difficult to interrogate a card index of such a size, but the advent of personal computers meant that computerisation was now an option. From 1984 to 1985 the core fields of the archaeological records only were entered into a basic system (on the Shirehall’s first PC!)  that allowed indexes and gazetteers to be printed out.  In 1990 the data was moved to the “STAIRS” mainframe system, and over the next couple of years the computerised records were fleshed out with their Description and Sources details. By 1995, the records for the Listed buildings had been computerised as well, by scanning the statutory lists, although the remainder of the buildings records remained on record cards.

The record maps - the back bone of many SMRs up and down the country.

The record maps – the back bone of many SMRs up and down the country.

Meanwhile, in 1990 the issuing of the PPG16 planning guidance had led to the production of a rising number of reports on developer-funded excavations, evaluations and watching briefs, which needed to be fed into the SMR, as well as an increasing demand for information from the SMR. The 1990s also saw a wide range of projects aimed at, or with the potential for, enhancing the range and coverage of the SMR.  These included:

1993 to 1995: The Industrial Survey, which added 820 Industrial sites to the SMR;

1993: Paul Stamper’s Historic Parks and Gardens desktop survey which added 290 records ;

1993 to 1996: The Central Marches Historic Towns Survey which added 1446 records

1995 to 1997: The Shrewsbury Urban Archaeological Database added c1100 records

1994 to 1996 North West Wetlands Survey: 8 areas studied.

The Marches Uplands Survey included the recording of c 2200 features along 12 fieldwork transects.

The associated Marches Upland Mapping Project involved the transcription and analysis of AP evidence for the MUS survey area and generated c 1400 records.

The Millennium saw new challenges and opportunities for the SMR. GIS (Geographic Information System) software was now available, allowing the records to be viewed and interrogated via computer mapping. STAIRS was closed down, but the SMR was migrated to a specialist relational database system called SMR (now HBSMR). This in turn allowed all the Interventions (excavations, Evaluations, Watching Briefs) and Surveys to be recorded in their own right as “Event” records.

Subsequently the database developed modules for storing the Historic Landscape Character Assessment records created by the 2001 to 2004 HLC project, and another for Designations, so that Scheduled Monument, Listed Building and other designations could be recorded and managed in their own right and then linked to the monuments to which they relate.

In the last decade, the SMR has morphed into the Historic Environment Record (HER). It now underpins the work not only of our Archaeological Advisors, but also, since the creation of Shropshire Council in 2009, that of the Conservation Officers. Considerable progress has been made, largely with the help of a number of volunteers, not only in computerising the records for unlisted buildings but also bringing their level of detail up to that of the other records. Recently the HER has used an add-on to HBSMR called “Library Link” to link and manage our large and growing collections of digital images and report pdfs.

Where we are now…and where we might be heading

Our focus on a day to day basis is the results of fieldwork carried out as part of the planning process. This includes ensuring that we have to date information on all investigations relating to the archaeology and historic buildings of the county. Much of this work is unpublished, but our library, includes a wide array of fieldwork reports (from watching briefs, archaeological evaluations, excavations etc.), surveys, photographic records and desk-based appraisals.

Historic mapping of a trio of farmsteads near Trefonen

Historic mapping of a trio of farmsteads near Trefonen

National and local projects undertaken over the course of the last few years have also significantly enhanced our records, and our focus remains on making the results of these accessible to all researchers. The Historic Farmstead Characterisation Project, for instance, mapped and described the locations and characteristics of all historic farmsteads across Shropshire based on Ordnance Survey 2nd edition maps of c.1900, published after the final significant period of development of traditional farmsteads and the general use of vernacular materials. Modern maps were then used to identify the rates of survival to the present day. The results of this project – which mapped over 6000 farmsteads – forms an integral part of the HER collections.

A particular project that may interest readers is the Shropshire Council Aerial Survey Project (you can read more about it in lat year’s Day of Archaeology Post). Undertaken in several stages from 2008, with funding from English Heritage/Historic England, the project has sought to reinvigorate aerial survey in the county.  It has photographed many previously identified sites, as well as recording additional detail of previously known sites. The project has included survey of a wide range of ‘targets’, representing good geographic coverage of the county – including photography of cropmarks, earthworks, buildings and structures.  The full results have been integrated with the Historic Environment Record, and the full size digital images are available for consultation at Shirehall. A large number of these images have also been made available on the Discovering Shropshire’s History website.

From 1976, the HER has relied heavily on voluntary help and this tradition continues to this day. Our volunteers have recently been involved in a wide range of both field and office-based projects. Particular successes include work on the war memorials of the county (which are currently the subject of a programme of designated by Historic England), identifying non-conformist chapels from the desk and in the field, and a number of projects enhancing the way we have recorded street furniture, toll houses, workhouses, and enhancing our building records with dating information.

A few photographs of Chapels in Shropshire, taken by an HER Volunteer. All photographs (C) John Haynes:

A few of the 150+ free-standing War Memorials recorded in Shropshire HER with volunteer help. All photographs (C) John Haynes:

The Historic Environment Record will never be complete! Whilst we work hard to ensure that our records of the varied historic environment of the county are as complete as they can be, we rely on new contributions representing a wide range of research topics.

Although the means by which the HER is compiled, maintained and disseminated has changed beyond measure in the last 40 years, our core objective is still to make available in one place as much information as we can on all aspects of the historic environment to all those who need it or want it. 

Penny Ward (HER officer 1983- 2016)
Giles Carey (HER officer 2016 – present)