Using archaeology to add value to projects and communities

Archaeology not only records the past but helps project planning through early risk assessment

Author: Peter Hinton and Michael Dawson

08 November 2019

Our historic environment is the product of people's past interaction with their surroundings, and is made up of buildings, monuments, buried sites, settlements and landscapes. Historic places may be on land or underwater, and range from the extraordinary to the everyday. Any development that affects the historic environment and requires planning permission is also likely to require consultation from a heritage professional.

In many jurisdictions – including the UK – planning policy emphasises sustainable development that benefits the economy, society and the environment and requires, among other things, the protection and enhancement of the historic environment. Archaeological input is part of this development process.

Archaeologists work alongside other disciplines in the built and historic environment and, by deducing how people lived in the environment historically, are able to add value to its potential development and the wider society.

A staged approach

Legislation and policy relating to archaeology is complex and varies between jurisdictions. As a starting point, there are some basic principles in the UK – any harm that potential development is likely to cause may need to be mitigated by redesign, or to be offset by the new knowledge and public understanding that arises from archaeological excavation of the ancient remains that construction will destroy.

Development planning decisions need to be informed by a staged approach, with a good understanding of the heritage assets present. If a project seems likely to affect above- or below-ground assets or their setting – whether or not they are scheduled, listed or otherwise designated – an archaeologist should be engaged. The sooner the potential archaeological risks of the site can be assessed, the sooner they can be factored into the project planning.

archeological trench

Ahead of commercial development, trial trenching after a geophysical survey at a site in the Midlands revealed the remains of a Roman period settlement. Trial trenching is intended to test the character of remains

Archeologist inspects corn-drying oven in Northamptonshire

The remains of a corn-drying oven from the fourth century AD. Evidence of malting and possibly brewing on the site of a Roman villa were found during investigation for a biomass processing area in Northamptonshire. The site was first revealed by aerial photography

An initial desk-based assessment will establish the parameters, that is, the risks and opportunities associated with the historic environment for a proposed development. A desk-based assessment is not always sufficient, however, and further evaluation may be necessary.

In these situations non-invasive surveys using scanning methods, such as lidar or geophysical prospection, can be used to identify the nature of below-ground assets. The results of these surveys often need further evaluation, through trial trenching or similar exploratory interventions into built fabric. But, new technologies and techniques are changing the way these evaluations are conducted, and formulaic approaches may be inadequate – or excessive. Once the assessment and evaluation are finalised, masterplan designs can be modified and negotiations with the planning authority can fine-tune an appropriate response.

"Archaeologists, by deducing how people lived in an environment historically, are able to add value to its potential development"

If the proposal reveals considerable impact on heritage assets, the evidence supporting the planning application can also indicate how this impact can be mitigated or offset. Mitigation is normally achieved by design – for example, by reorienting a scheme so that foundations and groundworks are restricted to less sensitive areas, and so that important archaeological remains are protected undisturbed below public open spaces.

Offsetting can also be a consideration if the demand for development outweighs the arguments for preservation. In these cases, the destruction of assets can be permitted if compensated by an improved public understanding of the history of the site, area or community. Normally this would involve excavation – itself destructive – or another type of investigation, such as fabric, analysis of standing buildings. Archaeology can enhance significance, if the value of new knowledge is judged to outweigh the damage to fabric.

Excavation, analysis and dissemination

 If a development is considered to affect heritage assets, the planning authority will impose planning conditions, which will usually be staged. Typically, these conditions will require an agreed programme of works.

A programme of works covers many different approaches that can vary from watching briefs to full excavation.

  • Watching brief: this allows an archaeologist to monitor demolition and groundworks and, if necessary, interrupt the development to allow for archaeological investigation. This potentially inexpensive approach may be attractive if the likelihood of significant discoveries is low, as reacting to unknowns is hard to control and may result in unanticipated costs and delays
  • Excavations: these can be planned to dovetail with the development programme. Excavations allow experts to retrieve evidence from the past and answer important questions addressing national or local issues. They also provide an opportunity to engage local and other communities on the benefits of the development. Initiatives vary depending on the proposal but can involve opportunities for the public to participate in investigations, exhibitions, tours, lectures and school events

excavation in advance of gravel quarrying

An archaeologist and the local authority visit an excavation in advance of gravel quarrying. A small Saxon period house has been fully excavated as part of the mitigation strategy. The remains were found after the full range of desk-based assessment, geophysical survey and trial trenching

removing topsoil under archaeological supervision

Excavation prior to house building in Derbyshire. Assessment and trial trench evaluation revealed the remains of an Iron Age settlement, probably a large farm. The excavator is removing the topsoil before investigation, under archaeological supervision

The agreed programme of works is often provided in a project brief issued by the planning authority. A written scheme of investigation (WSI) sets out how the brief is to be achieved. The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) provides a standard for this document that demonstrates knowledge of the geological, topographical, archaeological and historical background – and the research aims and methods for the project.

The WSI will also specify the collection and disposal strategy for artefacts, ecofacts – organic material found of archeological significance – records, and arrangements for conservation and the post-fieldwork process of assessment and analysis. It will set out:

  • publication and dissemination proposals, detailing how needs of different relevant stakeholders will be met
  • plans for public engagement and communication, where the archive will be deposited
  • options for the client to enhance its public relations or corporate social responsibility profile

The WSI will also detail the staff associated with the project, their competencies and relevant professional accreditation, training and any continuing professional development built into the project. The WSI distinguishes between work conducted onsite and the post-excavation analysis, and is carried out by skilled specialists researching the diverse records and recovered materials from the excavation. Once the evidence is interpreted and the findings are pieced together in a published report, archaeologists can work with architects, designers and artists to create displays, public art and other physical reminders of what previously existed on the site.

Professional standards and contracts

The WSI is the benchmark against which contract compliance can be measured. It will include details of compliance with the relevant CIfA and technical standards, along with any contingency arrangements.

All these stages of work are covered by CIfA standards and guidance. Professional archaeologists are accredited by CIfA, which indicates they are skilled in the study and care of the historic environment, and ensures their work meets requisite standards.

Archaeology, like many sciences, has its uncertainties but these are usually quantifiable. The WSI will set out sampling regimes and recording strategies, which should be based on professional judgement and adequate evaluation.

A contract for archaeological services, whether for a fixed fee or a bill of quantities with provision for contingencies, should be measurable, transparent and quantifiable. It should have achievable aims and objectives, a clear management structure and appropriate key performance indicators (KPIs). These KPIs should be identified to form the basis of stage payments, and all outcomes should be clear and quantifiable.

Because off-site work is extended it is better to have staged conditions that allow for construction to begin when archaeologists have finished on site, but which retain a charge on the land until their off-site analysis and reporting have been concluded.

Archaeology, in common with any practical discipline, can have its complications. The most common issues with archeology relate to time spent on site, resulting from an inadequate understanding or agreement of project performance.

Unexpected discoveries are also possible, but the risk of discoveries can be quantified at the outset, refined and reduced by adopting the staged approach to assessment and evaluation of the site. Contingency arrangements can then be put in place, for example, anticipating where human burials may be found and planning for them.

Risk management is common to archaeological management, but it is essential that a competent archaeologist is on board from the beginning. Issues relating to bad planning, inadequate resourcing and disruption due to poor design are problems common to all complex projects – and they cost money.

If you are involved in a scheme that has not been properly planned and encounter unexpected remains, contact the planning authority's archaeological adviser immediately: this will be important for sustainable development, for your reputation and to reduce the risk of prosecution – for example, it is unlawful to disturb human remains without a licence.

If risks can be anticipated from the start, the costs of archaeology can be quantified, risks managed, and outcomes structured to benefit the project's development – and the community.

Peter Hinton is chief executive of the CIfA

Michael Dawson is director of RPS Consulting

Related competencies include: Construction technology and environmental services, Contract practice, Programming and planning

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