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Historic England and Development-Led Archaeology

Historic England’s current review of its role in the conduct of archaeology recognises the research value of developer-funded investigation.

Historic England’s creation in 2015 brought with it an opportunity to reflect on future directions in a number of key policy areas. This includes a reappraisal of our role in the current practice of archaeology, which has changed dramatically since our predecessor English Heritage was created in 1984.

Archaeologists working in a deep excavation in London.
The excavation at Bloomberg Place (in the City of London in 2013) is arguably the most important investigation of Roman London ever, illustrating the importance of development-led archaeological research. © MOLA.

Most significant amongst the factors driving these changes was the publication, in 1990, of Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG 16). This ostensibly low-key piece of guidance (and its successors) embedded archaeological investigation firmly in the planning process and, for the first time, placed on developers the responsibility to record the archaeological remains impacted by their projects. The resulting close relationship with the construction industry has, over the last quarter-century, contributed significantly to the professionalisation of archaeology and to the creation of a buoyant commercial sector providing archaeological services. PPG 16 applied to England, but subsequently influenced practice across the rest of the UK and beyond, with many other countries now operating variants on its approach.

Before 1990, English Heritage was the principal funder of archaeological fieldwork in England, directing most of its resources at the rescue recording of archaeological sites threatened by development. The funding available was, however, always inadequate to address the scale of the problem. After 1990, the funding provided by developers rapidly overtook and displaced state grant-aid. It increased steadily thereafter, in step with the scale of development. Recent work by Bournemouth University suggests that over 75,000 archaeological interventions, ranging from trial trenching to full-scale excavation, have taken place since PPG 16 was published. This represents a dramatic increase on the number carried out before 1990.

Archaeologists excavating a mas grave of human remains.
Developer-funded archaeological investigation is providing profound new insights into aspects of our past, such as this mass grave of decapitated Viking men, found on the Weymouth Relief Road. © Oxford Archaeology.

It would be difficult to see PPG 16 as anything other than successful. When adjusted for inflation, developer funding of archaeology in England now outstrips the previous maximum level of public sector funding by a factor of nearly ten. Far more threatened sites have been recorded than would ever have been feasible through a state-funded system. This allowed the remaining, albeit reducing, public spending on archaeology to be redirected towards a range of processes other than development that continue to erode the archaeological resource (such as agriculture, the drying-out of wetlands, and coastal erosion). Although it has had to respond to the highs and lows of a market driven by the vagaries of the economic cycle, the commercial archaeological sector has been broadly insulated from the cuts to public expenditure that followed the financial crisis of 2007.

Any consideration of Historic England’s future strategic role in archaeology must respond to the important changes that have resulted from PPG 16. It is axiomatic that whatever the source of its funding, all archaeological investigation is essentially research, undertaken in the common interest. It follows that there is a clear public benefit in the continued effectiveness of archaeology’s commercial sector. Alongside its statutory advisory duties, therefore, Historic England needs to define its role in relation to this sector. Given that public expenditure is likely only to decline in the foreseeable future, Historic England’s role needs to be focused tightly on those issues the commercial sector cannot resolve for itself (economists would term these ‘market failures’).

An aerial view of an excavation at a new housing development.
The anticipated increase in housing development will lead to yet more important discoveries. Here, excavation on a housing site in the East Riding of Yorkshire reveals an Iron Age cemetery. © Historic England Archive, reference 28706_032

Below are sketched out some of the functions Historic England sees itself as playing in support of commercial archaeology. They have a particular emphasis on securing the public benefit of its research. This is an area in which we also see the higher education sector making an increasingly important contribution. As one of the Government’s Public Sector Research Establishments, Historic England is particularly well-placed to build bridges between the academic and commercial sectors, to the mutual benefit of both.

Agent of last-resort funding

Historic England and its predecessor have often acted as the ‘funder of last resort’ in cases where nationally important archaeological sites are threatened. Relevant threats include natural erosion, or development cases where the requirements of a site outstrip what could reasonably have been anticipated. The spectacular Bronze Age site at Must Farm (see Historic England Research 3, Winter 2015‒16, 33‒7)  provides an example of this: here, Historic England assisted Forterra Ltd with the cost of recording a site of unanticipated importance and complexity. No other organization seems likely to adopt this role, and Historic England will continue to fulfill it.

Research frameworks

Over the last two decades, Historic England, and English Heritage before it, have grant-aided the production, by consortiums of interested parties, of a series of regional, period, and thematic research strategies. These are intended to help those investigating or analysing archaeology to more effectively focus on what is most significant, as well as to ensure the best and most cost-effective research considerations are built into investigations from the outset. The recent publication of a research framework for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site illustrates this approach.

We have now reviewed how these documents are used. As a result we propose to make a limited additional investment in the development of research frameworks, but to adopt a collaborative on-line approach to their publication, in order to improve their adaptability over time and reduce costs. We do not see it as Historic England’s long-term responsibility to continue to lead all these initiatives, and hope that universities and others will become increasingly active in the creation and support of research frameworks.

The cover of a research framework for Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.
The first generation of research frameworks has already strengthened the research focus of developer-funded archaeology. A second generation of collaborative on-line publications will provide further impetus. © Wessex Archaeology

Synthesis and access to information

Arguably, the full research potential of developer-funded archaeological recording work can be fulfilled only when its results are incorporated into syntheses of the outcomes of multiple excavations and surveys. This is particularly important now, as the scale of development-led fieldwork has the potential to radically change our understanding of the past.

While planning policy requires developers to bear the reasonable costs of the analysis and publication of the archaeological work they commission, retrospective synthetic studies require other sources of funding. In the last ten years or so, following the lead set by the pioneering work of Professor Richard Bradley, university sector academics have begun to draw together this enormous body of archaeological investigation. Far more remains to be done but the initial results are compelling in their significance. Historic England has been a contributory funder to two of these trailblazing projects, one addressing the evidence for the Mesolithic and one examining the settlement patterns of rural Roman Britain (see Historic England Research 2, Winter 2015‒16, 24‒7).

We will continue to encourage and contribute to such studies where appropriate, but have been delighted to see the UK and European research councils, together with other research funding bodies, also supporting such synthetic studies. We believe that these organisations are the most appropriate main funders of work of this type and hope that their commitment will continue into the long term.

We are also addressing the challenge of ensuring ready access to the mass of ‘grey literature’ publications, which are often the final output of developer-funded recording work. In the past we improved access by funding periodic retrospective surveys and gazetteers of such material through the Bournemouth University Archaeological Investigations Project. However, the establishment (with our support) of the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) at the University of York, combined with our own diminishing resources, mean that this approach is no longer sustainable. Instead, a central feature of the Heritage Information Access Strategy, which we are leading with a consortium of interested parties is to seek a commitment from all archaeological practitioners that they will directly upload records to the ADS and its online fieldwork index. If successful ‒ and the enforcement of compliance through the standards of professional institutes will be critical in this regard ‒ the ability of academics to access the results of commercial fieldwork will be greatly improved.

The cover image of a publication entitled
New work by the higher education sector, such as the University of Reading’s Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project is creating important new historical narratives from the mass of developer funded investigation. © Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

Publications and backlogs

In an age of digital dissemination and open access, we will contribute to the debate on future approaches to publication. We do not believe that current approaches provide best value for money or secure maximum engagement by the public, and while we are only one of many stakeholders in this discussion, we are also a major funder of archaeological publications and intend to lead by example.

Despite the overall success of development-led archaeology and the good publication track record of many of our commercial practices, a large number of excavations remain unpublished. In particular, over the last two decades, Historic England and its predecessor have provided a significant amount of funding in order to reduce the backlog of unpublished work predating 1990. Many important sites have been published as a result.

Whilst Historic England recognises the scale of the remaining problem, our reduced funding no longer makes it possible for us to fund a large-scale programme of backlog analysis and publication. Instead, our emphasis will switch to securing and signposting the most important and vulnerable archives, so that others can work on publishing them. As funding for post-excavation analysis was extremely limited before 1990, Historic England’s emphasis will remain on the pre-PPG 16 backlog, but we may undertake limited work aimed at developing a better understanding of the scale of the post-1990 problem.

Museum archives

Excavation is an unrepeatable experiment and methods of analysis continue to improve. It is therefore an article of faith amongst archaeologists that the artefactual, documentary and digital archives arising from excavations must be retained to allow future research and reinterpretation, albeit with a degree of selectivity. There is no doubt that these archives are a valuable research resource as well as an important asset in public engagement work.

Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the archives generated by developer-funded archaeology over the last 25 years has outstripped the capacity of museums to curate them, particularly as they too are adjusting to reductions in public expenditure. We hope that the current DCMS review of museums will promote a more strategic approach to the storage challenges that result. But we also think that archaeologists will need to review future selection and retention policies and be more acute about what is kept and why. We aim to play a constructive part in this debate, alongside those with responsibility for museums policy. We also see an important role for universities in rethinking approaches to retention and the role that technology could play in addressing the challenge.

While this article has focused on the issue of research, Historic England’s current reassessment of its future role in archaeology is more wide ranging than that. In taking this thinking forward, we are grateful for the continuing advice of our statutory advisory committee.

During 2017 we intend to continue this discussion with a wider group of stakeholders so that we can determine how our changing approach fits with their roles, responsibilities and ambitions of other organisations, as they too adapt to a changing world. We are, therefore, sponsoring a series of round-tables, ‘21st-Century Challenges for Archaeology’, co-hosted with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.


Portrait photograph of Historic England's Research Director, Steve Trow.

Steve Trow

Steve Trow, BSc, MCIfA, FSA is Director of Research at Historic England and a member of its Executive Team. Since joining English Heritage in 1987, Steve has worked in its designation department, as an Inspector of Ancient Monuments and as its Head of Rural and Environmental Policy. He is an archaeologist with research interests in the Roman period and has previously worked for the Museum of London and The British Museum.

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