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?
Hello! I’m Louise a long serving volunteer at the History Centre in Chippenham. I have worked on and off in a voluntary capacity since 2005. I first discovered the Wiltshire Buildings Record (WBR) when it was located within the Wiltshire Record Office at Trowbridge. Dorothy Treasure, who is responsible for the day to day running of the charity, recognised my real passion for old houses and recruited me to her keen band of volunteers. Over the years my contribution has varied due to the needs of my family but I have always been encouraged to continue. Dorothy is also our Principal Building Historian; she is a real expert in her field and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with her.
Volunteers at the History Centre come from all walks of life and work the hours of their choosing. In my case I had worked as an HR professional prior to having a family rather late. Some volunteers are still in paid employment and join us when they can. This is the case with some of our committee members. Some volunteers work with the WBR for a while in order to gain experience to advance their careers in the heritage sector. What we all have in common is an interest in our country’s heritage and a wish to rub shoulders with like-minded people and those working in professional roles. There are four strands to my voluntary work - documentary research into the history of individual buildings, building recording, data entry into the Historic Environment Record (HER) and committee work.
Typically I begin the week with the Archaeology Service, entering data from the WBR archive records onto the HER database. With 18,000 buildings records to work through, I think I’ve gained a job for life! Tom, the HER Manager is always nearby to guide me through the more complex aspects of the system. I am one of four volunteers he manages each week. We all do different things based on our interests and skill sets. I love the challenge of locating buildings particularly when building names have changed, buildings have been altered and only sketchy address details are given!
Tom the HER Manager and I at the History Centre and Martin one of the archaeologists in action at Avebury (photo taken by Terry Waldron)
Working alongside the Archaeology Service has given me a real insight into the challenging work the team undertakes, the county of Wiltshire not only has an important World Heritage Site, Stonehenge and Avebury, but also many other important historic assets to protect. I always enjoy listening to the office banter, the team are a lively and adventurous bunch. The team even has its own Morris dancer!
On a Tuesday, I work with Dorothy and spend my time researching the history of individual buildings. It is a day when I am able to catch up with other office-based volunteers over coffee or lunch. As a charity we need to generate an income and we do this mainly through commission work for individual house owners. Each report we produce includes a comprehensive recording of a building and some documentary history. Documentary research is my main area of expertise, built up over a number of years. It did help studying for an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Local History from Oxford University. All the study was done via the internet which was fantastic. The Archives team has always provided me with great support when I needed it, along with the WBR.
Studying maps in the Archive room to locate a particular cottage in the village of Netheravon. The building I am looking at is identified by No.90 on the 1790 Enclosure Award map for the parish
I thought it may be of interest to take a look on your behalf at the kinds of original documents visitors order out when they visit our search rooms, to give you an idea of the wide range of requests we receive for documents each day. I chose Tuesday 22nd October at random, and got peeking!
Many visitors pre-order material so that it is waiting for them when they arrive (a good idea if you have a lot to look through).
One such researcher was looking at some Great Western Railway plans for the stables next to Paddington Station.
They included a tenancy agreement for stalling dated 1905 (Ref: 2515/210 Box 128) and the elevation to London Street by the Engineers Works office in 1912 (2515/403/375).
Ordered out on the day was material from the Earl of Pembroke collection (Ref: 2057) including the account of H.M. Holdsworth with the Right Honorable George Robert Charles Earl of Pembroke for the estate of Wilts for one year as to rents to Michelmas 1880 (Ref: 2057/A1/99). Estate surveys (Ref: 2057/563) and a wages book (Ref: 2057/A5/32) were also of interest, and wages books may also give the name of an ancestor who worked on the estate.