Sites and Monuments Record

Monuments and Maps – A day working with the SMR

Having recently re-joined the world of traffic lights and bustle from my four years spent on Orkney studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I find myself working from an office on the outskirts of Aberdeen where I work in the Archaeology Service at Aberdeenshire Council as Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) assistant.

2016 Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology logo2

Click the logo to see the full spread of what the Archaeology Service does and offers.

Studying archaeology allowed for a time of fairly self-indulgent research where there was usually enough wiggle room that I could find a way to write about things I wanted to look at. Coming out of that into the world of working in archaeology has been exciting, as I have been forced to move beyond my comfort zone of Neolithic Orkney and into the full spread of archaeology in the North East of Scotland. While I work at Aberdeenshire Council, the Service covers Angus, Moray and Aberdeen City, as well as Aberdeenshire, so we have a large and varied area to cover. Once I had got over the idea of recumbent stone circles (I mean, really?!), discovering the archaeology of a new area has been hugely exciting and rewarding.

Whole area GIS

The full spread of sites and monuments that we cover (each coloured dot represents a unique site)

So what is it I actually do? Well the Archaeology Service has a wide ranging role, from answering enquiries from members of the public and getting involved in local community digs, to working with developers to ensure that  any archaeological remains are dealt with appropriately. Whatever we are doing, the focus is always on providing the best protection, management and promotion of the historic environment for the benefit of all. An important part of this is knowing what archaeology there is in the area we cover, and where it is, and this is where I come in. What I do most days is ensure our publicly available SMR is as up to date and accurate as it can be.

At desk

Today, I am working my way through the records for listed buildings in Moray. I check what is entered on the digital SMR against the Historic Environment Scotland listed building description, and make sure any discrepancies are checked and any additional information is added. I also aim to make the descriptions of the monuments as user-friendly as possible. Finding the balance between technical descriptions of specific aspects of monuments, and language people might actually understand, is always tricky, but I hope it helps enable those without a background in archaeology to get an overview of what there is out there, as well as being of use to those with a more specialist background. I also make sure that the monument is marked in the right place on the map, and that the mapped  area covers the whole monument. Looking at old maps is something I have always found great joy in doing, and checking these to see the evolution and origins of a site is always a highlight.

Elgin cathedral

GIS map showing Elgin Cathedral. Click on the image to go see the publicly available SMR details of this fantastic site.

I have found working within archaeology from an office side of things to be very fulfilling. While sitting in a cold muddy hole for several hours a day will always be my first true archaeological love, this job has similar aspects to it that can make it just as exciting. Like anything within archaeology, the unknown and unexpected is always just around the corner, and there is always something new that we will suddenly have to respond to. The various specialisms within the team mean there is always something to learn and discuss throughout the day, discussions can go from a Mesolithic flint scatter to an 18th century farmhouse in a flash. The job has also highlighted to me the importance policy effecting archaeology, and how imperative it is that, as archaeologists, we are engaged in this and ensure our voice is heard and consulted at every stage of the process.

Local Government Archaeology 2012

Over  the last year my team have went through a massive restructure (fairly typical local government practice these days), and I was lucky enough to keep my job after being re interviewed. Last year I was HERO (Historic Environment Records Officer) and now I am an Historic Environment Consultant – which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it! I’m now working in a multi-disciplinary team called Place Services, which comprises archaeologists, historic buildings advisors, ecologists, urban designers, landscape architects and strategic environmental planners. We provide a holistic way of managing and protecting all elements of the natural, historic and build environment. Consequently, there have been lots of changes to the type of work I do, and I’m enjoying working on big, multi-disciplinary projects. In the last month I have complete a Conservation Area Appraisal, conducted a visitor participation survey at a castle and wrote part of a  funding application for an exciting community engagement project. Last week was incredibly busy and chaotic, so this week is about catching up on my ‘real’ work. On Monday morning my first task was to deal with some emails, mainly invoices that needed sent out and a few HER enquiries from students. There are always a few final year students who start their dissertation early and need information. I then moved onto checking the weekly planning list for Epping Forest, as I now do the development control archaeology for the district as part of my new role. I checked the weeks planning applications, highlighting any that may have  below ground impact, involve historic buildings or historic areas. By locating the sites on the GIS mapping and referring to the HER,I can check which planning proposals are likely to have an archaeological impact and make recommendations to mitigate damage and record the archaeology. I signed off some documentation so that an excavation can begin in the coming weeks, and wrote a brief for an archaeological contractor for a historic barn recording. Over the rest of the week I will be giving the HER my full attention, we recently scanned our entire gray literature library and I need to transfer the reports onto the network so they can be linked to our database. Next week I will probably have another project design to contribute to, and possibly get a sneak peak at a certain olympics venue before the games start!

A day in the life of a HERO (Historic Environment Records Officer).

The day is nearly over, but it’s better late than never!

I got into the office about 9.30 this morning, made myself a cup of coffee as my computer took it’s usual ten minutes to turn on, and starting putting together a list of Industrial Heritage sites for each District within the County.  I sent these to a colleague who is organising a conference on Industrial Heritage, and I need him to select which sites he would like me to create a map for in the conference booklet. Having been on holiday last week, I still had to catch up with emails and respond to people.

I spent most of the morning working on a project to develop Local Lists, which involves working with District Councils and Local Groups, and is funded by English Heritage. One of the local history societies I am working with needed some information on archaeological sites in their local area. Most local lists focus only on historic buildings, but one of the aims of my project is to encourage people to appreciate the historic environment in their local area as a whole, this includes archaeological sites, monuments and even landscapes. Local Lists are exciting, because they allow local communities to decide what parts of their local heritage are important to them. While the list doesn’t provide any statutory protection, it will offer these sites some protection via planning, and what I think is most important, it will promote local heritage. Using the HER database and GIS mapping, I was able to recommend a crop mark complex of ring-ditches, which are likely  to date to the Bronze Age, based on excavation results of a nearby field. The excavation had also produced a number of late Iron Age and Roman finds. It’s always interesting to look at the modern Ordnance Survey maps and compare them to the 1st Edition maps, and you can easily get distracted from what you were mean to be doing!

At twelve o’clock, as per usual, the IT network crashed while some mysterious back-up took place and my map project crashed. I made another cup of coffee and chatted to some colleagues about how the impeding government cuts and impact of Big Society could potentially mean that we a. may loose no desks and b. may loose our library in order to save space. I decide that I can live with both these things, if the alternative means loosing my job. Before lunch I start reading the Draft National Planning Policy Framework, which outlines some of the most major reforms to the Planning system in a generation. It will take me a while to read it properly and form my thoughts to respond to the consultation.

After lunch, I begin to put together a scheme of work for a post-grad who will be volunteering with me next week. I then spend the rest of the afternoon writing up case studies carried out for the Local List project to date, as English Heritage need to include them in the guidance document on local lists; I probably can’t say any more about it at this stage.

All-in-all, today has been relatively calm and not terribly exciting, but sometimes that’s what you want on a Friday. Next week will no doubt be the total opposite, as I will be furiously trying to complete a my thematic survey of windmills, which covered the entire county. Unfortunately, all the fun work of surveying is over, and I will have to start making some recommendations for how to best manage and conserve the windmills and sites of windmills. I’m finishing the day with yet another cup of coffee, and writing a long ‘to-do’ list for things I need to achieve on Monday.