I am going to start this post with some disclaimers. I am not a planning archaeologist. I don’t claim to be an expert in either planning law or developer funded archaeology. What I am is an archaeologist and geophysicist who wrote her PhD on peatland environments. You will shortly see why this is relevant. Shortly I’m also going to speak about the GeoSIG (geophysics Special Interest Group) at the IFA. I’m not an IFA member at the moment, partly because up to the instigation of the GeoSIG it was a bit hard for geophysicists to define themselves properly as members. I will be joining up shortly though as the recent debate has convinced me more than ever that we need to be organised and professional, and though the IFA has flaws, it’s what we have to work with and it is much better to try to work from within to improve things.
I’m happy to get into a discussion here: I know a lot of archaeologists and academics personally and as I’m going to be tweeting this post out, I know I’m not just waffling into the ether (I hope). What I won’t do is stray off into areas I know I’m not an expert in. I have a lot of colleagues and friends who ARE experts on planning, law and heritage and I’m hoping they will wade in to any debates that get sparked off.
So, some history. Last Wednesday (June 23rd) the conservative lead councillor, one Alan Melton of the Fenland District Council announced at an award ceremony that “I can announce tonight, that from the 1st July. A requirement for an archaeological dig/survey will not be required. The requirement will no longer feature at pre-app. Or form part of the committee agenda.” He went on to talk about how he knew the ‘bunny huggers wouldn’t like it’ and said something about polar bears drifting down the Nene, somehow bringing climate change scepticism into the already baffling mix. The story was broken by local news site EDP24 the following day, and went on to helpfully publish a transcript of his speech here,which is the source of my above quote.
This caught the attention of some archaeologists, unsurprisingly. One wrote to him asking for some detailed response to questions about the legality of the decision got an email back stating ‘Long Live Eric Pickles’ (source). This was dutifully reported on by EDP24, and the story started to break on twitter (where as you all know I lavish a disproportionate amount of my attention).
A flurry of official and unofficial responses began, which are summed up in two excellent blog posts by @lidongni and @ruthFT. I linked to both of these over the last few days, but if you’ve not read them you should now please- I don’t want to duplicate their excellent work and I want to draw attention to these well thought out posts.
OK, back? Right. There has also been a petition. If you’ve not signed it yet, you can do so here. I’ve linked to it before, but I’d urge you again to go and sign if you haven’t already.
Another offshoot has been a facebook group, which you can find here. Facebook is very odd about urls so if that doesn’t work, you can find the group by searching for its name ‘Oppose Plans To Scrap Archaeology In The Fens’. They are doing a really good job of collating documents, sharing ideas and organising individual responses such as writing letters to MP’s and councils.
I don’t need to explain to most of you that what Cllr Melton has proposed is illegal. We have laws and guidelines in place to protect Archaeology in England and Wales that have been worked out over a long period of time and for the large part, work well. Developers have had to pay for investigation and mitigation since the mid 1990’s. The Fens are an internationally important landscape that preserves material not found on driyland sites and as such gives important evidence for the past. Here is an excerpt from my PhD which tries to explain why these landscapes are so important to archaeologists:
Archaeologists have long been aware that peatland environments (along with other waterlogged deposits) are a rich source of information and artefacts simply not available from other, drier, contexts (Coles 1987, 12). The anaerobic nature of the peat means that organic materials are sometimes preserved in almost pristine condition, or at least as long as the environment is maintained. The problem is that most of these sites only come to light as they are being destroyed, as chance finds during engineering or extraction operations. These sites are largely invisible to conventional prospection techniques such as fieldwalking, aerial, photography, and topographical survey, especially in the lowlands.
The wealth of wetlands as an archaeological resource in the UK has been demonstrated by a number of surveys and overviews, largely in the form of four regional projects commissioned by English Heritage from 1973- 2000, the Somerset Levels Project, The Fenland Survey, The North West Wetlands Survey and the Humber Wetlands Project. These projects produced a wealth of individual publications and overviews, and lead to the production of a report on the state of the wetland archaeological resource, Monuments at Risk in England’s Wetlands (MAREW), and a strategy document explaining how English Heritage planned to tackle the problems facing these landscapes (Olivier & Van de Noort 2002; Van de Noort et al. 2002)
Peatland archaeological sites are under constant threat, from commercial peat extraction, development, desiccation, climate change and changes in agricultural practices. In the past, peat extraction has at least offered an opportunity to discover buried sites, for example during the Somerset Levels Project, but as commercial peat extraction has slowed the threat has become more insidious, with drainage for agriculture and development desiccating the sediments and destroying the archaeology without it ever being exposed for examination.
“The archaeological resource is extensive; in England and Wales alone the Monuments at Risk in England’s Wetlands report quantified it as follows:
The identifiable archaeological resource of England’s wetlands is estimated at 13,400 monuments, including:
- 1800 monuments in upland peatlands
- 4200 monuments in lowland peatlands
- 7400 monuments in alluviated lowlands“
(Van de Noort et al. 2002, 11)
The report then goes on to discuss the fact that in the last 50 years an estimated 2,930 wetlands sites have been totally destroyed and a further 10,450 are likely to have suffered damage, desiccation or partial destruction (Van de Noort et al. 2002, 23).
The Cambridge County Council (the overall authority in the area) have already stated there is no plan to start ignoring PPS5 (the relevant bit of planning guidance) but there are some really important questions outstanding.
First of all, we have yet to hear anything from the Fenland Council themselves. They really need to come out and clarify this issue.
Secondly, since this story first broke, archaeologists have been wondering if this is a sign of things to come. This deregulation and move towards commercial interests being given strongest weighting in planning seem to be core to the Tory agenda, and in particular to the ‘localism’ push. If the Fenland Council aren’t going to abandon PPS5, what are they planning on doing instead? Mr Melton made some very sweeping statements about how ‘delayed’ projects would get the go-ahead, that archaeology wouldn’t be considered by the planning committee and that we were all very welcome to come and do watching briefs as the footings were dug out. People with much more sense and experience than me have been pointing out the folly of this: emergency archaeological interventions- ‘rescue digs’ are far more disruptive to development, and ultimately far more costly, than a plan which has taken the need for archaeological mitigation in from the start. I wonder if perhaps the councillor has had some bitter, horrible experience in his time as a bricklayer that has led him to this grossly distorted view? Either way, archaeologists as a group need to get behind organisations like the Council for British Archaeology and engage with the consultation around the National Planning Policy Framework and ensure our voices are heard.
Yesterday the story hit the national press, Dr Mike Heyworth, director of the CBA spoke to Alan Melton on Radio4. You can listen to the segment here. And this is where my further questions start. First of all, why has Cllr Melton backpedalled from ‘No archaeology as of 01/07/11’ to ‘I was just starting a debate’? More worryingly, he seems massively ill informed. He seems to think that test trenching causing problems for builders… can anyone comment on this?
He seems to have watched the recent programme about Lidar being used to locate sites in Egypt and totally misunderstood it, talking about GPS. Someone on the facebook group has suggested that we need to put together some sort of information pack for local authorities, which are often made up of non-specialists, explaining planning law and the role of archaeology. I think this is a fantastic idea, but they should have experts on hand in the planning department, surely?
I’m left with a disturbing feeling that we’ve failed somewhere critical in our education of the public/politicians if this guy doesn’t know that we routinely use geophysics, remote sensing and other non-invasive methods in archaeological planning evaluations. We are arguably the world leaders in this! I know that one thing the GeoSig was concerned with was setting up training programmes for local planning officers, and curators so they could understand the role and limitations of geophysical surveys, and become more savvy in their commissioning. We need to do more of this! Geophysicists particularly need to engage with the rest of the discipline and take part in a more joined up approach. We need to publish our failures as well as our successes and talk to the archaeologists that excavate our sites and improve our models of interpretation. There is some excellent work going on at the moment towards this (such as the DART project) but it can’t happen fast enough. I hope my PhD helped a bit with this, and that my new project will do so too, albeit for very different landscapes.
Final question: Why has no-one sacked this guy yet, or at least reported him to some sort of standards committee? If I replied to a legitimate enquiry to my work email account with ‘Long Live Lord Renfrew’ I’d be sacked on the spot!
Sorry if it was a bit rambling and incoherent. I’ve been writing up data processing logs all day so my brain is mostly filled with how in hell to explain how a zero mean traverse is OK for gradiometer data but not for EM conductivity data to a group of excellent archaeologists with very little experience of geophysics. I am off to look at the wonderful T-shirts Digging the Dirt have designed. I’m rather taken with this one:
Coles, J, 1987. The case for wet archaeology. In: Coles, J & Lawson, A, (eds). European Wetlands in Prehistory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Olivier, A & Van de Noort, R, 2002, English Heritage strategy for wetlands. London/Exeter, English Heritage/University of Exeter.
Van de Noort, R, Fletcher, W, Thomas, G, Carstairs, I & Patrick, D, 2002, Monuments at risk in England’s wetlands. London/ Exeter, English Heritage/ University of Exeter