Can you dig it? | Questions about archaeological preliminaries, etc.
September 11, 2018 3:43 AM   Subscribe

Over the summer there was news of sites of archaeological interest being discovered in the UK and Ireland via aerial photography as a result of the unusually dry weather (as mentioned in these posts on the blue: 1, 2, 3). In order for archaeological digs to be conducted at 'new' sites like these, what has to happen, and who is responsible for making it happen?

- How does it get decided which archaeologists get to excavate which sites?
- Would they typically be working under the auspices of academic institutions, or would government agencies be involved?
- Who has the job of getting the go-ahead from landowners & other affected parties to start surveying or excavating?
- What procedures are there for safeguarding newly-recognised sites from potential damage or development?

I'm mainly interested in how things work in the UK & Ireland, but insights from elsewhere would be welcome too.
posted by misteraitch to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here's an old-looking webpage titled the The Organisation of Archaeology in the UK. It might provide a general overview.
posted by Thella at 4:31 AM on September 11, 2018

Your answers if you wish to volunteer are probably here
Chartered Institute for Archeologists in UK sets out the legislation and the Council for British Archeology sets out best practice.
posted by adamvasco at 6:41 AM on September 11, 2018

Here in the US, there are two reasons to do archaeology:

-Reason #1: Someone is going to disturb a historical site. Archaeologists are hired to assess the impact of disturbing the site, and even if they decide it's okay to proceed, they may learn as much about the site as they can before it's destroyed.
In the US, public land and publicly-funded projects get the most protection - there are few protections for private sites. I think there are more protections for private sites in the UK, but I don't know the details.

-Reason #2: A researcher wants to answer a specific research question. Usually they work for a university or some other cultural heritage organization.
In the US, if they wanted to do a project on private land, they would have to get the landowner's permission.

Note that protecting a site and studying a site are totally different. Here in the US, certain sites are protected, like sacred sites, human remains, National Monuments, etc. That doesn't mean there will be funding to study them.

Also, archaeology does not necessarily mean excavation. Sometimes remote sensing, like aerial photography, is a really valuable way to gather data. So in that sense, archaeologists are already studying the sites you've linked to, without any need for boots on the ground.
posted by toastedcheese at 12:39 PM on September 11, 2018

I'm an archaeologist in the UK, I also made the 3rd post you linked to.

So the thing to remember, and I know that for some people it can take a bit to get their heads around this, the best way to protect archaeology is to leave it in the ground, where it was originally deposited, undisturbed. Yes, we won't get to see it, but if we leave it there, nothing will happen to it. Excavation is destruction, and archaeologists avoid doing that if we can. It also generates a lot of stuff that needs processing, cleaning, recording, and then long-term storing, and it also creates a lot of data, that needs to be written up and shared.

As I hope my post illustrated, and as toastedcheese said, archaeologists don't need to excavate to study a site.

Most of the sites that were 'discovered' this year, aren't new. We've mostly found new bits of sites we already knew about, or seen things that haven't been seen for a long time. There's a lot we can infer from what we already know. For instance, a country house, which had formal gardens in the 18th century that we know about from documents and plans. This summer, the outline of the 18th century flower beds were visible for the first time. Or a medieval monastery, where the church survives. We know where the cloisters should be, because they all had a similar layout, but no one's ever excavated. This summer they're visible for the first time as parch marks. (Those are both made-up examples)

That's not to say there haven't been some complete surprises, but mostly what's been revealed is confirming data we already had or could infer. For any new sites uncovered this summer, it'll be rare if they're excavated, they might be protected, probably as scheduled ancient monuments (although there's other forms of legal protection too). The data that's been revealed will be added to the Historic Environment Record, which is a database of all the know archaeological sites, usually maintained by the Local Authority (and are mostly searchable online!)

We have a pretty good idea of what's where in the UK, partly because we've got a relatively long history of systematic excavation (compared to other countries), and because there's been several projects where people have poured over aerial photographs and maps and logged every archaeological site they can see. Also, sometimes you can guess - that street led from the Roman town gate, so there should be a cemetery just about here. Or these Thingamabobs are generally 20 miles apart, and there's a gap round about here - if you look at the fieldnames there's one called Thangbob Meadow, and Thangbob is a common way to shorten Thingamabob.

I'll try and answer your questions. Because this is the UK, the legislation is different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, I'm only familiar with England (I don't even know if Welsh protection is the same as England). (The link Thella shared is out of date, and refers to government departments and organisations that don't exist any more)

Most excavations in England happen because a site is going to be redeveloped, and archaeology will be damaged. There's a whole planning process to go through which assesses the risk to archaeology of any development. It might be that the developer has to change their plans to avoid damaging any archaeology. But if that's not possible, and excavation is necessary, then there's a competitive tendering process and a commercial archaeological unit will be commissioned to do the excavation, and write up a report. (That's simplifying things a lot, there's a whole series of hoops to set the planning conditions for a project and then make sure they're discharged).

There is some archaeology that's done for research purposes, by academic institutions and local groups, but it will be to answer specific research questions, and should fit into overarching research frameworks (so we're not just digging because we feel like it...) and is always done with the landowner's permission.

Many sites have extra legal protection, usually they are scheduled ancient monuments. In England, you have to get consent from Historic England to disturb a scheduled monument, and if you're excavating you have to go through a series of hoops to get sign off. If you're a farmer and you've got a scheduled ancient monument on your land in the way of your new drainage trench, you have to get permission for that too. Or go round the moment.

Very occasionally Historic England will fund excavations themselves, if it's particularly significant site that's under threat but not from development. Historic England is the public body that's charged with protecting the historic environment in England. There's similar bodies in Wales and Scotland, but they'll probably all have slightly different responsibilities because of the different legislation. I'm not familiar with the situation in Northern Ireland at all.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:48 PM on September 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

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