Rubble, rubble, toil and trouble…

My second “Day of Archaeology”, and a lot has happened in my archaeological life since last year. I have changed companies once (from Wessex Archaeology to Museum of London Archaeology), and internal positions within that company twice (from Archaeologist [general shovelbum], to Archaeologist in the Planning Team [doing desk-based assessments and writing HEAs], to Senior Archaeologist [everything from doing smaller site work alone, to supervising 15-20 staff on a full excavation, and producing the client reports at the end]). All these changes have brought new experiences and skills, and emphasised to me just how much archaeology is a profession in which you never stop learning.

So, in many ways, I feel I have travelled pretty far in my career this past year! I think, however, a comparison of this year’s post to last year’s may tell a slightly different story…

 

 

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And a few hours later…

 

And a few more hours later…

The archaeology on this site is predictable for several reasons. Its proximity to the City means that it has a very good chance of being recorded on the earliest historic maps of London. Its proximity to the City also means there has been a fair amount of development and therefore archaeological work carried out on sites nearby, presenting an overall picture of how this area was used in the past. The fact that most of this site has already been excavated, and this is now the final phase of archaeological investigation here, means that I know what has been found here over the last year and have a pretty firm idea of what to expect…

“What to expect” also includes the level of archaeological survival on the site. The current building here (now mostly demolished) was put up in the 50s. Heritage assets only started being protected by law with the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, and that was limited to scheduled sites usually of national significance. It was PPG16 (Planning Policy Guidance 16 – Archaeology and Planning) which stepped in as the first legal line of defence for the archaeology and information threatened by any proposals to dig a big hole in the ground. PPG16 is younger than I am – it was only introduced in 1990. It’s not hard to imagine how much archaeology was lost to construction projects across the country before this.

The thing that strikes me most about this site, and others I have researched or worked on where there is substantial modern truncation, is how impossible it must have been to be working on a construction project and not notice the things you are tearing out of the ground. There are human remains on this site, and a skull is a pretty self-obvious thing: if you were digging up several you must at least have been scratching your own…

 

PPG16 may have touched the brakes on the bulldozers, but even after successive alterations and re-wording (Planning Policy Statement 5 – Planning for the Historic Environment in 2010, followed by the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012) the legislation is not watertight or without room for interpretation. As our understanding, definition and classification of heritage assets have changed, so too has the law. There are several things in PPS5 which are not in the NPPF – notably the responsibility to monitor the impact of planning and decisions on the historic environment – and where PPS5 contains the “presumption” in favour of conservation, the NPPF only states that a “great weight” is given towards it. The single word I dislike the most in the NPPF is “should”, e.g. “Local Planning Authorities… should require developers to record and advance understanding of…” heritage/archaeology. The word we need to see is “must”.

With the pressures on the construction industry to provide more housing (and affordable housing, at that – often simply unprofitable), sustainable development, and long-term employment, planning for the historic environment can be seen as a painful extra hoop to jump through. The one attitude you are guaranteed to face in commercial archaeology is that your work gets in the way of construction projects: it’s too expensive and takes too long. Of all the skilled workers you have working on a building site at any time, the archaeologists are the only people whose work is considered not to matter if it’s not done properly. Of course, if the building isn’t put up safely then lives are at risk. The difference is that the lives lost from bad planning and bad archaeological practice are past and not present – we will never again get the opportunity to see and learn about the people who used to live on the exact spot where we are about to.

It all boils down to time and money, the two things that developers have less and less of but which good archaeological practice requires an amount entirely specific to each individual project – the only time you can be accurate as to how much an excavation will cost or how long it will take to do properly is once you have shiny clean natural geology across the site and a comprehensive primary archive of single context records.

I will end my “Day of Archaeology” post with a few final thoughts on money and heritage protection, which were thrown up exactly one month ago and much discussed amongst the archaeologists of Twitter.

(Or perhaps, archaeology companies lower their costs to get the work, but then have to do that work only with the resources that they have available, regardless of the nature and extent of the archaeology that eventually turns out to be in the ground.)

This remains to be seen. Perhaps a few years down the line the “Day of Archaeology” resource might be instrumental to that aspect of PPS5 which the NPPF did not see fit to retain – the monitoring of the impact of planning and decisions on the historic environment – by monitoring the profession of archaeology which has grown around it.