Exiled Glaswegian, working for Historic England (formerly English Heritage) as an archaeologist since 1985. Currently Head of Excavation and Analysis, based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth.

Holding a Fort

Back at work today after a short break at home in Scotland, I’ve had to catch up with lots of business, and this includes the current programme of conservation work at Fort Cumberland. The present fort was built from c. 1782-1812 to hold the Eastney peninsula and the entrance to Langstone Harbour. It replaced an earthwork fort of 1747 from which two buildings survive. The fort is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and contains several listed buildings.

Fort Cumberland from the air, copyright Historic England

Previous repairs have largely focused on the buildings that we occupy as offices, laboratories and for storage, but this time funding has been allocated to a major programme of conservation work on the fabric of the defences. These have been left largely untouched since the monument passed to State care after the Royal Marines moved out in 1973, and were not in a terribly good condition even then thanks to the effects of weathering, root penetration and wartime bombing. The intervening years have not been kind to the fort, in particular to the brickwork elements which are suffering from the roots of ivy and brambles, and repairs were needed to safeguard the survival of a range of historic features.

The first step, taken last year, was to demolish some derelict military structures that were not capable of being reused. In all cases these were beyond economic repair, and had been identified as being intrusive or of low significance in the site’s Conservation Plan. These had been recorded in advance of demolition, and I maintained a watching brief throughout this work.

Demolition of derelict mess buildings in the moat in 2016.

As a result of this work we have fewer military urinals and toilet blocks, and a great deal less asbestos.

The priorities for the current phase of work are the defences, mainly the bastions and curtain walls, but also including components of the extensive counterscarp defences that generally survive very well. Of particular concern is a double set of steps leading from the moat to the counterscarp. These had been badly repaired in the past, with damaged stone treads replaced in cast concrete, and extensive cement pointing that had trapped moisture inside the fabric.

Stairs to the counterscarp defences, during the removal of loose brickwork

As a result the brick facing is failing, and loose bricks are now being removed to reveal the extent of the problem. The intention is to repair the substructure using lime mortar, and to replace the concrete treads with new stone ones.

The left bastion, scaffolded to provide safe access to the brick parapet

Given the height of the main defences, scaffolding is having to be used to provide safe access to the brickwork of the parapet and the gun embrasures. The tops of the parapets have needed some reinforcement. These were built to a slope, to allow infantry to lean on them while they fired out over the defences, but as built they had no supporting structure.

Top of brick parapet, showing the lack of support for the sloping top.

The effects of root penetration have caused these to move, and they are now being rebuilt against a new sub-structure.

Rebuilding the top of the parapet

Most of the original facing bricks are being reused, only being replaced when the originals are too badly eroded or fragmentary.

The entrance to a WW2 trench, cut into the side of a gun embrasure

The general approach has been to conserve as found, with later features such as the entrances to Second World War trenches being preserved in the course of conservation work.

Scaffolding erected for the conservation of one of the main stairs to rampart level

Work is also proceeding on the conservation of the stairs to the ramparts. The stone treads are generally in reasonable condition, but have moved due to the effects of root penetration and frost. I excavated a small section to show that the brick sub-structure is sound, and the treads are now being moved back into position.

Jim of DBR pausing to let me admire the quality of his masonry work.

A conservation project of this scale requires careful liaison and management, and regular project team meetings are held to review progress and to discuss discoveries made during works and any changes to the methods or scope of the work. The conservation is being carried out by DBR Conservation supervised by the architects Consarc Design Group. Project management and curatorial oversight is being provided by English Heritage, and colleagues from Historic England Planning Group are monitoring the work which is being carried out under Scheduled Monument Consent.

The project team inspects work to the stairs

Opportunities for excavation are limited, but I did help to locate a missing stretch of Portland stone coping, blown off a stair wall by the blast of a bomb on 26th August 1940.

The coping of a stretch of stair parapet, as recovered by limited excavation

This phase of work, due to finish in late 2017 or early 2018, is a good start, but more remains to be done to open up more sections of the fort for use. We are currently trialling a waterproofing technique for the casemates, which are currently too damp for occupation, and other buildings await a new lease of life.

Lastly, the work is being carried out with due regard to the ecology of the site as well as to its archaeology and architecture. Ecological surveys have been undertaken to ensure that the fauna and flora of the fort are being protected, and our resident foxes have managed to raise a litter of four cubs while the work has proceeded around their den in a deep bomb crater. Helped, as usual, by the generosity of Pete the security guard.

George the fox, a hunter-gatherer rather than a hunter.

High Angle Fire

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Warning – this contains a lot about big guns and concrete.

A small part of my job with English Heritage is running occasional tours of Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, the remarkable coastal fortification where our team is based. Up until 1974 it was occupied by the Royal Marines, and traces of their occupation and work remain everywhere around us. I’ve been here so long that I’ve absorbed some knowledge of the Fort, its history and development. Hence my role as a part-time guide.

We will shortly be running a tour for the Palmerston Forts Society, and in September we will be hosting Heritage Open Days, so in preparation for these events we thought we should add interest to the tours by clearing the long-abandoned High Angle Fire battery. This is a small battery located outside the main body of the Fort; the gun pits had become almost entirely engulfed by bramble growth, to the extent that nearly all of their details were hidden. This would be the first chance that we’ve ever had to see them properly exposed. The overgrown emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage

We know a lot about the battery thanks to the work of David Moore, an historian who runs the excellent Victorian Forts and Artillery website. He has uncovered the history of the battery, showing that it was built from 1890 to 1894, using older 9-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns (from the 1860s) on special high angle mountings. The theory was that shells fired from such guns could plunge onto the relatively lightly-armoured decks of attacking ships, which would have to anchor to bombard the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard effectively. A small number of trial carriages were built to test the idea, and two of these, the Mark I and Mark II, were then installed in the purpose-built concrete emplacements at Fort Cumberland. Only one of each carriage was ever made, so our emplacements are unique, and the differences in carriage designs is reflected in the differences between the two emplacements. An example of the Mark IV carriage, which was used in a small number of batteries, can be seen on the Victorian Forts and Artillery website.
Rapid advances in the design of naval ships and artillery during this period meant that the battery was obsolete by 1905, and disarmed by 1907.

Access to the battery was by means of a tunnel built under the counterscarp defences of the Fort. Built into the side of the tunnel were the magazines for powder and shells, and there was also storage space for the larger pieces of cannon maintenance and cleaning equipment. The entrance to the HAF battery from the counterscarp wall of the Fort

The eastern emplacement for the Mark 1 carriage retains one of the two derricks used to lift shells to the top of the emplacement, and rails for the trolley which was used to move the shells to the muzzle of the gun. The racer and pivot on which the gun sat had been removed as part of the construction of a later building. The top of the emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage.

The western Mark II emplacement is simpler, as the shell-loading mechanism was built on to the carriage. Emplacement for the Mark II HAF gun carriage.

In the Mark II emplacement, the pivot and racer on which the gun sat survive, partially concealed by the floor and foundations of a later structure. Racer and pivot for Mark II HAF gun carriage

Common to both emplacements are recesses for storing the fuses used to fire the guns, and dial recesses, where information on direction, elevation and charge were displayed, having been transmitted by wire from a Fire Control point on the ramparts of the Fort. There was also a bunker-like telephone shelter built into the concrete wall between the emplacements, along with cartridge recesses, where small quantities of gunpowder could be safely stored close to the guns. Cartridge recess and traces of rifle rack

Behind the guns was a brick building with a reinforced concrete roof, marked on the drawings as the artillery group store. The building is derelict but survives reasonably well. Artillery Group Store

There is plenty of evidence for later activity on the site; at some point after the removal of the guns, structures have been built into both emplacements, and other buildings were added to what had become, by the 1970s, a works compound for the Property Services Agency which maintained government and military buildings in the Portsmouth area. This continued into the 1980s, after which the site of the battery was locked and abandoned, although it is now home to birds, lizards and a large family of foxes.

By clearing a very small proportion of the rampant vegetation we have shown that the remains of the battery are relatively well-preserved, and their significance is enhanced by the documentary information provided by David Moore. We were lucky to have David visit us yesterday when I was giving a tour of the battery to my colleagues based at the Fort, and he was able to answer all the difficult questions that would have stumped me.

I’ve enjoyed showing colleagues around the last day or so, and look forward to showing this battery to visitors on Heritage Open Days. We can ensure that it is included in the new condition survey that is due to be carried out later this year. In the meantime, back to the day job and the overdue book chapters that really aren’t writing themselves.

A date with Team Dating

As Head of Intervention and Analysis, I manage a number of that provide expert advice on archaeology to English Heritage, commissioning and carrying out research in support of the organisation’s aims and objectives as set out in the National Heritage Protection Plan. This year’s Day of Archaeology saw me heading to London to take part in a meeting of the Scientific Dating team.

I’ll skip the train commute into London – I did that in my 2011 piece, and it wasn’t that interesting then.

We gathered at 10am in the Wroxeter Room in EH’s headquarters building at Waterhouse Square in Holborn.

Team Dating: Cathy Tyers, Alex Bayliss, Peter Marshall, Kate Cullen, Shahina Farid

Team Dating: Cathy Tyers, Alex Bayliss, Peter Marshall, Kate Cullen, Shahina Farid

The purpose of the meeting was to review progress across the full range of the team’s activities and projects, to look at issues arising from the team’s work, and to try to resolve the pressures that arise in a small team with a heavy workload. Much of the meeting focused on the two main commissioning budgets, for radiocarbon dating and tree-ring dating, covering progress on commissioned work and progress on completing reports. While much of the work goes on to appear in monographs and journal articles, most of the work is also disseminated through the English Heritage Research Reports series – the database of reports can be searched at http://research.english-heritage.org.uk/ (try searching using the keywords radiocarbon dating or dendrochronology).

Commissioned research can include work on English Heritage historic properties, designation casework, archaeological and characterisation projects. The team also becomes involved in specialist research arising from this work, including Bayesian analysis and wiggle-matching, and new guidelines are currently being drafted for radiocarbon dating. This work can involve working closely with European colleagues, for example in developing chronologies that will help us to date softwood timbers, much of this timber having been imported to England from Baltic states. The largest current European collaboration is The Times of Their Lives, a project jointly run by Cardiff University and English Heritage that won  €2.5m of European Research Council funding to develop a new dating framework for the Neolithic period: http://totl.eu/project-introduction/. This builds on earlier ground-breaking work on the Neolithic in Britain and Ireland (Whittle, Healy and Bayliss, 2011 Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland). This is an important and ambitious programme of research, and involves frequent travel to coordinate research across Europe, from Serbia to Scotland. It is also, of course, a demanding programme of work and travel, and quite a lot of discussion at our meeting was devoted to trying to resolve some of the programming difficulties arising from juggling this and other commitments. Too much (unpaid) overtime is being incurred, and we will have to defer some work to try to bring working hours back to within reasonable limits.

Serious discussion requires serious fuel: iced bun time.

Serious discussion requires serious fuel: iced bun time.

My role, apart from listening to and taking part in the discussions, was also to update the team on developments elsewhere in Intervention and Analysis team and in our Department, Heritage Protection. The biggest development is, of course, the recent decision to split the organisation into two parts – a new charity, retaining the English Heritage name, to manage the historic properties, and a new service under the working name of National Heritage Protection Service, which will advise government on historic environment issues including heritage protection and designation. This change will have to be implemented by April 2015, by which time we will also have to absorb a further 10% cut to our grant-in-aid from government. There’s not much I can say about this beyond recent press statements and briefings from our Chief Executive, but coming on top of the major reorganisation following on from the last Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, a further period of uncertainty is inevitable. I also had to update the team on our Division’s response to last year’s staff survey and on developments with the Reports Series. There was also some discussion over our IT, but I’ll draw a veil over that….

We also took the opportunity to celebrate success. Since the last team meeting, another in volume in the series of Radiocarbon Datelists has been published covering the years 1988-93. This can be bought or downloaded as a PDF from http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/radiocarbon-dates-1988-93/.

Alex Bayliss and Kate Cullen celebrate the latest Radiocarbon Datelist.

Alex Bayliss and Kate Cullen celebrate the latest Radiocarbon Datelist.


The next notable event will be the publication later this year of another major book, on the dating of Anglo-Saxon graves: Bayliss, A, Hines, J, Høilund Nielsen, K, McCormac, F G, and Scull, C, (forthcoming) Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework.

The meeting wound up by 3pm – my thanks to the team for wide-ranging and stimulating discussions, interrupted only occasionally by the need to explain complicated stuff to me. Thanks also for the tea and cakes.

After this I popped upstairs to see Richard Lea of the Properties Research team; we’ve been working together with another colleague, Nicola Stacey, on coordinating a programme of research on one of our historic properties, Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. This work has included a substantial programme of tree-ring dating coordinated by Cathy Tyers, and has resulted in new dates for a number of surviving roof and floor structures within this partially-roofed monument.



We’ve recently received a revised report on the analysis of parts of the building by Wessex Archaeology, and we’ll be reading that with keen interest next week.

I also dropped in to see my manager John Cattell, and also caught up with another senior manager, Barney Sloane, before catching the bus to Waterloo and heading home. There to sit in the garden with my other half, the cat and a large gin and tonic to contemplate writing this blog.


Frankly the cat appears at the special request of Lorna Richardson.

An archaeobureaucrat writes…

A day or so in my life as an archaeologist working for English Heritage.

Started off by working at home at Haslemere in Surrey, eating toast with tea while dealing with e-mails with Radio 4 providing the background noise.  As usual, was mildly distracted by Frankly the cat who views my attempts to sit down and work at a laptop as his cue to demand food with menaces and then attention, generally in that order. 

A demanding cat. Frankly.


E-mails give me a few things to deal with before I do anything else. There are corrections to check on a chapter I helped to write for the forthcoming book on the Elizabethan Garden reconstruction at Kenilworth Castle. I was involved in organising the programme of archaeological and architectural research that contributed to the project, and I’ve co-written the archaeological chapter with Joe Prentice of Northamptonshire Archaeology, who directed the excavations, and Brian Dix, garden archaeologist extraordinaire, who advised throughout. Not much left to do – just checking that the photographs are in the right order, have the right numbers and captions, and are available in the right format for reproduction.

That done, I moved on to deal with some work on our forthcoming organisational restructuring. It’s no secret that English Heritage took a huge hit in last year’s government Comprehensive Spending Review. The organisation is having to deal with the impact of a net 35% cut in our grant from government. I can’t say a great deal about what is currently going on, but it will come as no surprise to learn that many jobs are being lost, and that I and many of my colleagues will be put formally ‘at risk’ in the autumn, and will have to apply for a smaller number of jobs in the restructured National Heritage Protection group.  We’ve been through such reorganisations before, and I know the stress that this puts my colleagues through, but the scale and scope of these changes is greater than anything we’ve seen so far. A lot of colleagues are having to consider other career options and paths; an unsettling time for us all.

After a couple of hours, time to trek to the station to catch the 11am to Waterloo. I’ve been taking a few pictures to illustrate this blog, and drew pitying looks from fellow travellers as I took a photograph of the train as it came into Haslemere station.  I’m a blogger, not a trainspotter….


My train arriving at Haslemere station


The train was fairly full, but got a seat and used the time to write up the blog of the day so far. Also did a little more on the draft publication strategy and synopsis for the Windsor Castle updated project design.  I worked at Windsor from 1989 to 1995. We started off in the Round Tower, the shell keep that stands on top of the 11th-century motte, excavating and recording the structures as part of a major engineering project.

Round Tower team, 1989, with the blogger looking much younger.


We’d just finished that project and evacuated our site office in November 1992 when fire broke out in the Upper Ward. That was the start of a huge programme of salvage and architectural analysis, with some excavation involved too.

Archaeological salvage of fire debris starting in the Grand Reception Room, Windsor Castle, 1993

The assessment of these large project archives was largely complete by the end of 1998, but work has been on hold then for a number of reasons.  I’ve been in deep discussion with my colleague and good friend Dr Steven Brindle over the last few months, and the next stage is to get in touch with all the project specialists to let them know that the analysis may finally be about to happen. Hence the publication strategy, so they can see what we’re asking them to do.  By Guildford my seat was surrounded by loud and excitable children, and I was bitterly regretting having left my i-pod in my bag, which was overhead and thus inaccessible.


English Heritage offices at Waterhouse Square, Holborn

By bus to our Waterhouse Square offices in Holborn, where I find a seat among friends in London Region. Here I dealt with a variety of business by e-mail, including mundane admin tasks such as approving invoices and expenses.  Fortunately we have quite good electronic systems for dealing with such things, so they were finished very quickly. The online press summary included a link to a Telegraph opinion piece on the listing of London tube stations. I tweeted the link with my own comments, and was later gratified to learn that my comment “Entertainingly daft Torygraph rant” appeared on the relevant page of the Telegraph website.  A small but pleasing result. At this point I lost the use of the camera; my chum Dr Jane Sidell was off to give a walking tour of Roman London, and borrowed the camera to record the event.

Trying to persuade Dr Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, to point the camera somewhere else.

I also had to draft a response to a member of the public who had written to say that she was disappointed to learn that we aren’t running the Fort Cumberland Festival of British Archaeology event this year. I explained that this was as disappointing to us as it was to her; our free FOBA weekend event has been very popular, usually attracting c. 2000 people over a weekend to enjoy a range of archaeological and related activities. We enjoy it as much as the visitors do. We had to take the difficult decision not to hold the event this year in late 2010; by then it was already clear that we would be in the middle of a major reorganisation, and in that context it seemed unfair to ask colleagues to commit their time and energies to planning the event at a time when they were likely to be severely distracted by other events. We hope to be able to reinstate the event next year, resources permitting…

At 2pm, I took part in a Portico project team  meeting. Portico is a project that aims to provide up-to-date research content on the English Heritage website for our historic properties. Enhanced content is already online for all of the free sites, and the first sets of pages for 12 of the pay sites are now available. An introduction to the project with links to the available content is available at (insert link).  We were updated on progress, which remains good; the first batch of site information is now online, and all of it has been or is being updated with links to online resources. Another batch of sites is nearly ready to go online, including Susan Greaney’s excellent Stonehenge pages.  The next stage of the project is currently being planned; I may have volunteered to write up one or two sites myself.  A day conference is being planned for London next April to promote the project. The introductory page on the EH site shows the content that’s available so far – http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/archives-and-collections/portico/about/

Following the meeting I had a very useful discussion with Christopher Catling about the National Planning Policy Framework, which is currently out for consultation.  I think we agreed that it’s a huge improvement on the earlier practioners’ draft, preserving more of PPS5, but there are still some concerns, including the assumption in favour of development that permeates the document.

After that, there was time to check e-mails and deal with a few more bits of business before catching the train home. This included correspondence relating to one of last year’s fieldwork projects, on the Romano-British settlement around Silbury Hill, and the forthcoming excavation at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, where we’ll be digging up parts of the French Parterre to assist in its restoration.

That was Thursday 28th July – I decided to write it up for Day of Archaeology as I was taking today off.  In the event, I took a trip to Corfe Castle, which I haven’t been to for far too long.  Despite the long queues of holiday traffic, it was a useful and hugely enjoyable visit. I always particularly enjoy the path up to the keep, which passes through the tumbled remains of the demolished sections of the keep. It’s very evocative of the sheer scale of destruction on this site.

The degree of destruction caused by slighting varies from site to site; this would appear to be off the vindictive end of the scale. The site is looking very good, but I was very disappointed by the new interpretation panels, full of rubbishy unhistorical cliches. The panel about ‘oubliettes’ was the worst example. It went on about the agonies of the poor prisoners abandoned in deep pit prisons. The work of Peter Brears has, of course, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that such structures are strong-rooms, for the safe storage of documents, money and other valuables. The reason that they often have well-lit chambers with fireplaces above them is not to provide accommodation for the better-off prisoners, but to provide a room for the clerk or steward to work in. Worst of all, having conjured up imaginary sufferings  in imaginary oubliettes, the panel finished by admitting that no such chamber survived at Corfe. So the point of this rubbish was…..?  Rant over.

The effects of undermining - the tower has slid down the slope, and the curtain wall has fallen over.

I took some time looking at the evidence for the destruction of the site, which is a particular interest of mine. This was the subject of the thesis of a friend of mine, Dr Lila Rakoczy, and since reading her work I’ve become more interested in looking at the evidence for how buildings were demolished. The walls at Corfe have certainly been undermined, but there’s no clear evidence for the use of gunpowder, despite the claims on a number of panels that the site was ‘blown up’. The surviving unused sap at the base of the keep’s latrine tower is a simple horizontal rectangular slot, which I think argues for the use of the ‘burnt timber prop’ method of undermining – i.e. using timbers to prop up the wall as the sap is excavated, and then burning them out to bring down the mass of masonry above. Drawings of near-contemporary saps used for explosive undermining, e.g. in Vauban’s work, show that these saps tend to be hollowed out behind a small opening in the outer face of the wall, to contain the blast and thus maximise the effect of the explosion on the masonry.  A bit anorakish, but it keeps me happy.

Possible sap at the base of the Keep's latrine tower, The masonry at the right hand corner is, I think, relatively-modern underpinning.

After that, I enjoyed a much faster and prettier drive home by avoiding the main roads. So there you have it – two days for the price of one, and I got to see some archaeology on one of them.

Brian Kerr, Head of Archaeological Projects, English Heritage