As an archaeology student it is beyond useful to have a resource like the History Centre so easily accessible, so when I was offered the chance to undertake a work placement with the Archaeology Service I jumped at the opportunity to get a better understanding of the full range of what the Archaeology Service does and what the History Centre has to offer.
Over my time at the Archaeology Service I was given a number of duties to complete from research to cataloging and many other things in between.
One of my main roles during my time here was to research the Iron Age Hillforts of Wiltshire. This is a topic I am particularly interested in and I have been studying Iron Age communities for the last year. While at the History Centre I was asked to create some information boards about the hillforts of Wiltshire as well as a map showing where they all were in the county. Having access to the local studies library was a huge help with this research, having over 25,000 books in the collection it wasn’t difficult to find a lot on the Hillforts in Wiltshire. Even better the library also had every volume of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine so I could look at excavation and research reports on Hillforts going as far back as 1853!
A lot of the work I was doing during my placement involved using the HER or Historic Environment Record. The HER is a detailed record of local archaeological sites and finds, historic buildings and historic landscapes which is regularly updated. In my research into Wiltshire’s hillforts the HER was incredibly useful as an information source but also there were some records that I found that needed to be added showing just how the HER is constantly being improved and added to.
As well as the wealth of knowledge contained in the HER and Local Studies library, the Archaeology Service also has hundreds if not thousands of aerial photographs and files on each of OS map square in the county containing pieces of unpublished information, maps, letters and photographs of archaeology around the county, part of my job was to catalogue what was in these map square files which was incredibly interesting as there were all manner of amazing maps and hand drawn sketches going back to the 1960s.
Although my time with the archaeology service was ultimately cut short because of the Coronavirus Pandemic I still got an invaluable insight into what the Archaeology Service do, from assisting the County Archaeologists with determining archaeological potential for planning applications to going out on site visits to building projects where archaeological work had uncovered Roman and Medieval features in an unsuspecting field.
The Archaeology Service also works closely with other areas of the History Centre which I was lucky enough to be introduced to, such as the conservation labs who were working on conserving a large hoard of Roman coins, the archives who have thousands of records about Wiltshire going back hundreds of years and containing amazing maps, photographs and even Henry VIII marriage settlement to Jane Seymour. The Wiltshire Building Record also works closely with the Archaeology Service, they work to record the buildings of Wiltshire collecting a wide range of documents, plans and photographs on thousands of buildings across Wiltshire, during my time at the Archaeology Service I was actually able to assist the WBR by identifying a number of buildings in the Parish of Southwick which had yet to be identified.
The History Centre is an invaluable resource for research into local history (and for me also Pre-history) and it was a brilliant placement that has significantly widened my knowledge in the work of County Archaeologists and the HER. Having worked on archaeological sites in Wiltshire, working in the Archaeology Service was almost like getting a behind the scenes tour of the work that goes into protecting and educating people on the county’s archaeology. I have no doubt that I will be back to the Centre in the near future for my own research and taking full advantage of the amazing resources housed there.
Exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries show how no evaluation process for sites is fool proof. What happens next shows how important cooperation and communication is, particularly for the County Archaeology Service, who are tasked with supporting development AND safeguarding heritage. The critical concept is “significance” – how important are the remains; what is their potential to inform us about the past? Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist reports:
In 2017 Wessex Archaeology excavated a new housing development north of Bitham Park in Westbury. I had requested this work as a condition of planning permission, based on limited evaluation results. Unexpected discoveries demonstrated the challenges faced by Planning Archaeologists in understanding the significance of archaeological sites based on the results of trial trench evaluation.
The 2018 National Planning Policy Framework states that local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any “heritage asset” that may be affected by a proposal. In line with this advice, we often ask for sites to be investigated before the determination of a planning application, so that we have that information. Evaluation usually this consists of geophysical survey followed by trial trench evaluation. The Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record which contains detail on archaeological sites, buildings and finds, informs our decision making.
Archaeological evaluation can feel like a game of battleships. When geophysical survey goes well, and reveals features that look like potential archaeology, we ask for trenches to be dug and the features investigated by commercial archaeologists. The aim is to understand the significance of the site by investigating features within the trenches, which is not always so easy: if geophysical survey has not been carried out or is unsuccessful, then trenches are placed either systematically or randomly across a site and there is potential to miss remains. Today, the trenching is usually a 3-5% sample of the development site but in exceptional circumstances, up to 10% may be carried out. That sample of trenching should find archaeological remains within a site and provide enough information to understand the importance, extent and significance of any remains. Results of evaluation will then inform our advice to the planning officer on the impact of the development on archaeological remains. Remains considered to be of national significance are likely to be preserved in situ and not developed, but other remains are likely to be investigate. Early knowledge about archaeology and its potential effect helps the developers manage their risk and adequately budget for excavation costs, as well as post-excavation work and publication.
The geophysical survey results at Bitham Park didn’t show much other than a few lines representing ridge and furrow remains across parts of the site and a few other possible linear features. This image gives an example of the greyscale plot of the geophysical survey results (magnetromotry).
Geophysical survey isn’t always reliable, so I asked for trial trench evaluation prior to determination of the planning application: in some cases, later ridge and furrow can hide earlier remains. As the geophysical survey indicated, there were remains of medieval/post-medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; however, my assessment that there might be more archaeology was correct. Archaeological features were discovered across several trenches, mostly concentrated in the western part of the site. They included ditches, gullies and pits containing small, worn pottery fragments from the early/middle Iron Age and Romano-British periods (150BC onwards). Nevertheless, the significance and extent of the remains could not be fully understood, so I asked for a second stage of evaluation to provide more data. The extra information would help me define an area for archaeological mitigation – the full excavation of important features. The results confirmed prolonged and intensive agricultural use from the medieval period (1066- 1540). This had truncated and displaced features and artefacts from the earlier Iron Age and Romano-British periods; however, theses features included and arrangement of post holes representing a possible structure (see trench locations of two evaluation stages below).
On the basis of the two evaluations I asked for an area of excavation within the vicinty of where the most significant archaeological features were recorded, in the western part of the site and along a north-south trajectory.
In advance of the housing development an initial area was stripped with contingency and here’s an aerial view of the site below, can you spot anything interesting?
In April 2012 the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) Project was launched. The intention of the project was to study the whole county and to identify the historic and archaeological processes which have influenced the modern landscape.
This work should help in understanding the evolution of the settlements and countryside and to identify what we can see that is typical and what is unusual.
Now, two years into the project, real progress is being made in analysing the areas where we live, work and visit within Wiltshire. Currently, an area of c.194,000 ha (1940 km2) has been characterised. This includes many of the well-known urban and rural landscapes that we all know and enjoy – such as Salisbury Plain and Swindon. Data exists for many of the parishes, and the coverage is expanding all the time!