local authority

Enhancing West Yorkshire Historic Environment Record

Hello! My name’s Ros and I work as a HER Officer for West Yorkshire Historic Environment Record (HER) and this is my second blog for Day of Archaeology. Two years ago I tried to give an overview of what a HER is, my duties, and the type of activities I get up to during a typical day as a HER Officer – you can read my last blog by clicking  here.

This year I thought it might be nice to give a brief overview of some types of archaeology and built heritage that we have recently been dealing with in our HER. Over the last few years there have been only two of us working within the HER, and this has meant we have mainly spent our time on customer-focused activities like answering enquiries, dealing with data requests and promoting the HER to a wider audience. This year, however, we are extremely fortunate to have an extra full-time member of our team, and as such we’ve been trying to make the most of this and have been cracking on with some large-scale enhancement projects. As a result we’re about to hit 15,000 records on the database!

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A selection of fieldwork reports that still need to be added to the HER database

The first main project has been working through our backlog of fieldwork reports. When any type of archaeological work is undertaken within West Yorkshire a copy of the final written report should be deposited with the HER so the information can be used to inform future planning decisions and research projects. The reports we hold can cover a range of archaeological activities such as watching briefs, geophysical surveys, full-scale excavations, and building recording surveys. Due to the constant fluctuating levels of staff, and often high work loads, we have accrued a sizable backlog of these fieldwork reports; some even dating back to the early-1990s! Thanks to the efforts of Rhona, our Assistant HER Officer, this backlog has been dramatically reduced over the last six months. She has been adding about 30-40 reports a month to the database.

At the beginning of the year my colleague Jason started work on a Historic England funded project to enhance the HER’s records on the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. For this project he has been examining the records of antiquarian flint collectors, which are held in the archives of various local museums, and comparing this data with our records. This has involved a lot of improving existing database entries, as well as creating new records for previously unrecorded sites.

Two flints that have been analysed as part of our early Prehistoric enhancement project.  Left: Lee Moor Palaeolithic handaxe, Stanley (held at Wakefield Museum)  Right: Late Mesolithic microliths from White Hill (held at Manchester Museum)

Two flints that have been analysed as part of our early Prehistoric enhancement project.
Left: Lee Moor Palaeolithic handaxe, Stanley (held at Wakefield Museum)
Right: Late Mesolithic microliths from White Hill (held at Manchester Museum)

Recently, we have also had the benefit of a number of excellent volunteers and they have also massively helped towards enhancing the HER database.

Matt, a work placement student from the University of Bradford, has updated our records of prehistoric carved rocks using the results of a local heritage project conducted by Pennine Prospects. The project’s archive has been deposited with the HER and includes detailed plans and photographs of many of the Bronze Age carved rocks that are so characteristic of West Yorkshire’s moors and Pennine uplands.

Idol Stone carved rock, Ilkley Moor – copyright Pennine Prospects, 2013

Idol Stone carved rock, Ilkley Moor – copyright Pennine Prospects, 2013

In April we finally finished scanning and hot-linking our aerial photographic collection to our GIS. This collection consists of over 3,000 photographs, which were taken during the 1980s and 90s of cropmark and earthwork features within West Yorkshire. Due to the geology on the eastern side of West Yorkshire, vast remnants of an Iron Age/Romano-British cropmark landscape is still visible from the air. Scanning the aerial photographs has proved really useful in helping us map where elements of this early archaeological landscape still survive.

Left: detail showing coverage of scanned photographs.  Right: aerial photograph showing cropmarks of an Iron Age settlement enclosure near Pontefract

Left: detail showing coverage of scanned photographs.
Right: aerial photograph showing cropmarks of an Iron Age settlement enclosure near Pontefract

Currently we are just starting a new volunteer project scanning our collection of slides. This collection includes images of many of the region’s historic buildings, as well as photos taken during historic excavations.

Images from the HER slide collection – 1978 excavations of Castleford Roman bathhouse

Images from the HER slide collection – 1978 excavations of Castleford Roman bathhouse

So, what is the point of all this enhancement?! Well, it provides a public benefit helping us to answer the enquiries we get from local people interested in the heritage on their doorstep. Improved records also help the HER to be a useful research tool for archaeological societies and academics. Lastly, as in other areas of the country, the archaeology of West Yorkshire threatened by the need for more housing stock and other developments. Up-to-date and detailed HER records are crucial for helping our planning archaeologists collate the evidence they need to protect, or get the best possible recording of, the region’s archaeology and historic buildings.

If you would like to explore the archaeology and built heritage of West Yorkshire in more detail, you can search a version of our database via Heritage Gateway, visit our website, or follow us on Facebook.

Day in the life of an Inspector of Ancient Monuments

I have the greatest job title in the world, and deal with some of the greatest archaeology in the world (there are four World Heritage sites in London, and I have involvement in three) – something I never forget and never cease to be amazed about. I’ve been very fortunate – getting on in archaeology is about hard work, learning and reading everything, being passionate about the subject but also about luck and being in the right place at the right time. I’ve had more than my fair share of luck, and try very hard not to forget this. I deal with 157 ancient monuments in London, ranging from 18th century milestones to Hampton Court Palace, all of which need protection and interpretation. I always approve of an Occam’s Razor approach to life – simplifying down to key issues/messages, so I see my job as to Preserve and Present London’s Ancient Monuments. I try to interfere a bit in other things, and of course nominate new sites for scheduling where I feel there is real threat to outstanding archaeology. Sadly, the threat in London can be quite high, not just from development, but also neglect.

Fortunately I don’t have an average day, so what has this day held for me so far? It started at 8am, and actually conditions were quite average. It was raining, and I was holed up in a proper caff (Al’s on Bermondsey Street) having tea and toast. This is my touchstone across London – finding good caffs with quality tea and toast for less than two quid. Pleased to say that Al’s is still doing well on my grading, particularly astonishing given how Bermondsey Street is getting more and more chi-chi.

I co-incidentally bumped into my colleague Iain Bright (Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments) in the caff – we were meeting on site, but have similar tastes in caffs. Great start there. So suitably fuelled, we proceeded to site where our contact was 25 minutes late – it was a straightforward meeting to discuss the glass box over the medieval tower base of Bermondsey Abbey – it’s currently in a bar, and the glass occasionally gets broken (not fights, but generally someone dropping wine bottles!) – we chatted about how to improve the presentation, and to incorporate some interpretation into the display to try and help people understand this really interesting 11th century Cluniac Abbey which is otherwise completely buried and can’t be recognised in the streetscape.

Frantic zip back to the English Heritage office for a meeting with colleagues in London about Archaeological Priority Areas (one of many names) – these are zones used by planners and archaeologists to get a handle on whether proposed development will harm archaeology. London has a great range of these, many of which are out of date, not big enough, too big, in the wrong place, and generally in need of revision. We discussed a range of issues from what in fact to call them, grading them, whether all cemeteries are automatically of archaeological interest, brownfield/greenfield, industrial archaeology and so on. It’s a long term project, not least of which because they must be completely tied in with Local Authority policies. But it’s all making sure we recognise the significance of London’s archaeology and protect it as thoroughly as possible. We can’t learn about or interpret our archaeology unless we ensure it’s protected through the planning system.

After that I opened my countersigned performance development review for last year- fortunately I’m not being sacked, and a number of lovely things were said about my hard work (I suspect my managers don’t realise quite how fabulous this job is and how many people would like to do it). Got a bit of a wigging for being a little outspoken on some issues, but see above for the need for passion and enthusiasm in archaeology!

Another item this afternoon comes with some fieldwork on Hampton Court – this is one of the most amazing scheduled monuments I deal with, but of course it’s remarkably sensitive. Some fieldwork is taking place currently, and is taking a little longer than planned, which is course is not unexpected in archaeology. A certain amount of discussion was needed to ensure that enough fieldwork is undertaken to fulfil the brief, whilst not holding up the programme. In many ways, the predominance of email correspondence is a shame as sometimes getting the tone right for these sorts of discussions is difficult.

Iain and I have just discussed a new major planning case in Barking town centre- it has raised the knotty issue of setting. Most developments steer clear of scheduled monuments, but they do affect the context and setting. Barking Abbey is a super site – a nunnery founded in AD 666 (not a very good year, you’d think) and the remains, whilst heavily restored, are very good, and allow clear understanding of scale and form. Barking town centre is on the up and up, and unfortunately, this is literally the case, with quite tall buildings being proposed which may overshadow the Abbey. So we’re recommending a formal impact assessment here.

This is quite a good range of the elements of the job, from fine detail of fieldwork at Hampton Court, presentation of remains at Bermondsey, planning related issues with the Priority Area discussion and then setting at Barking. All important issues, and really interesting sites. A little more prehistory would be lovely, but I suspect that’s asking for the caster sugar on the cherry on the icing on the cake.