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.

Jon Chandler: The day to day assessment of our cities

My name is Jon Chandler. I am Lead Consultant Archaeologist with the Heritage Consultancy team. I have various responsibilities, including quality assurance technical reviews of our archaeological desk-based assessments. Developers use these to support planning applications – anything from a residential development to major infrastructure projects. Recently this included the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Thames Water’s new sewer for London. For over two years I managed a team of up to 15 consultants and specialists in archaeology and buildings assessment, foreshore archaeology and geoarchaeology.

A broad range of archaeological, documentary and cartographic sources and geological information is consulted for our reports. We try to establish the archaeological potential of the site, taking into account factors compromising survival (e.g. existing basements, foundations, services and landscaping). The likely significance of any archaeological remains is assessed, along with the impact of the proposed development. We provide recommendations which the local authority planners will use to decide what must be done as part of granting planning consent.

This morning I am looking at a development site on the Isle of Dogs. This area is now heavily built over but in the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods was all open floodplain marsh prone to flooding. Prior to rising water levels, the underlying topography would have comprised gravel islands suitable for prehistoric settlement, and deeper channels, crossed by timber trackways in the Bronze Age. Such remains are buried beneath a sequence of deep alluvium floodplain above which is a thick deposit of ‘made ground’ (artificial ground) dumped here from the excavation of the adjacent docks in the mid-19th century.”

We need to assess what depth the archaeology is likely to be at (possibly 3–4 metres down), and how the construction of the new building will affect any remains that might be present. We also need to know whether this is evidence of prehistoric activity or 19th century dockyard remains.

This afternoon I will start to review an early draft of our Portsmouth Harbour Hinterland Project, which is funded by Historic England. The Royal Navy established Portsea Island as its main harbour and base in the 16th-century. As a consequence, the surrounding rural hinterland was developed with an extensive supporting infrastructure, protected by a significant group of sea and land defences. Much of this survives today, but their heritage significance in relation to the docks is not always fully recognised. The aim of the project is to enhance understanding and heighten awareness of how the Portsmouth hinterland has developed as a result of the naval base. This helps to assist local decision making, planning, development and management of the historic environment.

As part of the project a survey toolkit and user-friendly guided will be created. This will help the local community and volunteers identify the presence of buildings, landscape and other heritage assets associated with the development of the hinterland. It enables the local community to further understand and add detail to the narrative.

Yesterday, the MOLA project team met with Historic England to discuss progress on the two-year London Urban Archaeological Database project. We are digitising, in a Geographical Information System (GIS), the location and extent of all past archaeological investigations in the historic centre of London. Thousands of investigations have been carried out (see the map). The information will enhance the data held by the Greater London Historic Environment Record.

Mapping the Archaeology of Scotland

Name: Mike Middleton

What do you do? 
I make archaeological maps. I work in the data section meaning I work with three RCAHMS maps:

  • Canmore (the index to the RCAHMS collection) which to me is lots of distribution maps all in one. Filtering Canmore can help us map regionality.

Defining Scotland's Places - Roman

How did you get here? 
I studied Archaeology at Glasgow then went to France where my wife and I busked and volunteered on archaeological sites for a while before I got a job as a field archaeologist with the French state archaeology service (AFAN – Now INRAP). After seven years I returned to Scotland where I worked freelance for a bit before becoming a manager with Headland Archaeology Ltd. in Edinburgh. I joined RCAHMS in 2008.

Mike digging in France

Mike digging in France

Favourite part of your job? 
The favourite part of my job is the sense of discovery. I interact with the data in Canmore a lot meaning I’m always learning new things but by far the best part of my job is when we get out into the field and visit sites. That’s when you really get to learn about sites and landscapes.

What did university not teach you?
How to dig. I learnt that in Yorkshire volunteering on the Heslerton Parish Project. Thank you Dominic Powlesland!

Top tips for aspiring archaeologists?
Volunteer for everything…experience counts!

Dig as much as you can while at university.

Dig as much as you can after university.

Make sure you have other strings to our bow for when your knees go!


Coralie Acheson (MOLA): Mapping the history of Bloomsbury

Probably the very first stage in most commercial archaeological investigations in the UK is in pre-planning when developers request an archaeological assessment (often known as a desk-based  assessment/DBA) to tell them what archaeology there might be on their site and what they might need to do about it. This is my job and it involves a lot of maps.

I’m sure there’s a desk under there somewhere!!

I’m sure there’s a desk under there somewhere!!

Today I was researching a site in Bloomsbury, looking for clues as to what archaeological remains might be on the site, and what archaeological remains might have been removed (because as interesting as 18th century quarry pits are the don’t leave much earlier stuff in place). The area I’m looking at has little evidence for prehistoric activity and was some distance from the Roman and Saxon settlements. During the medieval period it was part of the manor of ‘Blemundsbury’ (sound familiar?) named after the owner in the 13th century, William Blemund. The site is a little way from the medieval village of Lomsbury though so was probably farmland.

We’re lucky in London to have maps going back to the 16th century easily accessible. The first one of these I usually look at is the Agas map of 1560. It has wonderful little details of people as well as buildings. Bloomsbury was pretty rural at this time.


The Agas map. I like to think these dudes are having fun pretending to be birds (as aeroplanes hadn’t been invented!)


During the Civil War defences were being built to defend towns, cities and other strategic points all over the county. London’s are pretty hard to pin down but on Rocque’s map of 1746 you can see the outline of one of the batteries which ran along the northern part of the defences in the gardens of Bedford House, just south of where Russell Square is today! It’s a little bit from my site though so not going to affect my history.

Rocque’s map of 1746

Rocque’s map of 1746

Moving into the 19th century we had a bit of a panic as I found a Baptist chapel lurking ominously near my site. This caused a flurry of overlaying and georeferencing to find out the exact relationship between my site and this chapel. Turns out it was outside the site so no need to fuss. Nonconformist chapels of the late 18th and early 19th century have a tendency to have burials under the floorboards and few, if any, records.

Later 19th century development of the site looks relatively straight forward so I’m going to write up my report to say there is a high potential for post-medieval structural remains and associated features (i.e. foundations and wells!) but not much happening prior to that date except perhaps a bit of quarrying.

So, time for another cuppa and then I’ll get on to assessing what this means when put into the context of what of the proposed development. This will involve looking in detail at the current buildings and how much archaeology their construction is likely to have involved and what might be left now.

Mystery, Diversity and the Joy of Archaeology

Human beings are odd beasts. So much more than political animals, our ‘habits’ are so varied that they sometimes seem far from habitual. Capable of action on all scales, from building enormous monuments that take millions of people over many generations to a single individual caring for a companion in the face of incurable illness.

Yet, go with any person to the place they sleep and you will learn much about them, their society, economics, politics, aesthetics and so on. You can learn from the materials of that space – Do they sleep on a bed? under blankets? are they clean? Do they have Justin Beiber posters? Picasso prints? Turner originals? Is there water by the bed? is the cup glass, pottery or metal?