The archetypical archaeologist is a history enthusiast complete with panama hat, khaki safari suit and microscopic trowel. In fact, the modern archaeological contractor is more likely to be found sporting a high-visibility vest and wearing a hard hat and boots; and although the trowel is still a necessary tool of the trade, construction plant has also become vital.
One reason for the change in kit is that, since the introduction of Planning and Policy Guidance note 16 in 1990, the archaeological process is often a key part of winning planning permission. There is often a requirement that an archaeological assessment be carried out before work starts.
From the point of view of the client, the archaeologist has tended to be seen as, at best, a necessary evil. But, as John Dillon of Wessex Archaeology points out: “The problem is already there; the archaeologist is here to solve it. “
The importance of being early
The overwhelming message from all the archaeological contractors we spoke to was:
“Get the archaeology consultant on board as soon as possible.”
The reason for the rush is to allow the experts to assess the degree of risk involved. As Dillon points out, the impact of archaeology on sites can translate into huge extensions to cost and time. Archaeologists can make cost estimates and carry out preliminary desk-top studies, based on local knowledge and archaeological records, to give some indication of what might be lurking in the subsoil.
Often, however, the degree of risk is less than clients fear. Experienced, well-informed clients understand that the new planning guidelines call not for the preservation of all archaeological remains at all costs, but a representative sample of relevant items. The extent of that sample depends on the location of the project, the amount of previous development and adjacent archaeological assessments or reports. In the City of London, for example, detailed proposals of how the archaeology will be dealt with are required with the planning application.
What’s the worst that can happen?
The involvement of archaeologists in the formative stages of a construction contract may allow a risk assessment to ascertain not only the extent, but also the importance, of any archaeological finds that may exist on the site.
Archaeological projects now take place only if they address valid research questions – meaning that some sites may be looked at in detail, others not at all. Often, the archaeologist’s task will be simply to preserve finds in situ. The presumption here is that it is better to preserve the artefacts for future generations rather than to remove them now, given our imperfect knowledge. One of the first stages of any archaeological involvement on a site is therefore to determine whether any historical questions are at stake, thereby allowing the archaeologist to maximise the relevant information within a given time and budget. In many cases, only 10% of the site may need to be excavated to gather sufficient information to write the archaeological report. There is, however, always the possibility of coming across a significant find and, in rare cases, the area could become a “scheduled ancient monument”.
Without exception, archaeologists would encourage clients to think early, and enable any archaeological involvement to be fully integrated into the planning aspects of the project. Taryn Nixon of the Museum of London Archaeology Service says: “All the experienced clients we have worked with in the past approach the archaeological matters in the right way.” It is only when less experienced clients come across archaeological requirements on a site that they have a tendency to “put it off” – often even if risk assessment highlights that it is a relevant risk.