Archaeology at Risk
The archaeological sites currently on the Schedule of Monuments are recognised as being amongst the most significant archaeological remains in England.
They range from prehistoric burial mounds and hillforts to 20th-century industrial and military sites. They provide immense historical depth to the places and landscapes in which we live. However, they are often fragile and easily damaged. Once gone, they can never be replaced.
The prehistoric round barrow known as Willy Howe, East Yorkshire, was at risk owing to dense scrub growth. It was removed from the register in 2019 thanks to the efforts of the landowner, firstly under a Countryside Stewardship Agreement and then helped by a grant from Historic England.
Partnership and collaboration are often key to the future of scheduled sites. The partners involved include owners and land managers, Historic England and a wide range of external stakeholders, local authorities and local amenity groups, with volunteer involvement an increasingly positive trend.
Historic England's primary role is to establish a dialogue with those who look after protected archaeology. This is provided through practical advice, guidance on funding, and – where appropriate – our own grant aid.
The diversity of archaeology on the Register
Often when we consider what ‘archaeology’ traditionally means to us, the first picture that comes to mind is that of excavations taking place in open fields or urban developments.
Many archaeological sites are discovered, investigated by surveys and limited excavations, and protected on land.
Others are based at more challenging locations, such as in areas of water; including inlets, rivers, intertidal coastal zones and deep under water on the seabed, having been discovered during diving or geophysical survey or by chance find.
Wheathampstead earthwork incorporating Devils Dyke and the Slad has been removed from the Heritage at Risk Register following a Countryside Stewardship funded change in agricultural practice which will see a reduced depth of cultivation introduced across the interior and a programme of tree and scrub works on the ditch and banks.
Managing the differing needs of these sites in their variety of wetland and dryland environments is challenging but very rewarding. There are many innovative and well-developed methods for managing dry and wet archaeological sites which you can find out more about on the guidance and reports pages of our website.
Most archaeological sites need simple care or maintenance to make sure that they survive in good condition for future generations to enjoy. The work and goodwill of thousands of owners who help this to happen play a vital part in securing our heritage.
In some cases however, more extensive repair work may be needed, and in these circumstances Historic England can help with feasibility studies, specifications and advice.
Please note that structural scheduled monuments (in other words those with above-ground structural remains) are assessed separately – see our Buildings and Structures at Risk page. Scheduled monuments with both above-ground and below-ground remains will have two assessments – one as Archaeology and one as Building and Structures.
Threats to archaeology
Damage from ploughing and arable clipping continue to pose the most significant threat to scheduled monuments. The Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation (COSMIC) project provides a framework to assess the impact of arable cultivation and avoid further damage, whilst enabling cultivation to continue wherever possible.
Its application has led to the removal of significant numbers of scheduled monuments from the Register, as well as informing the management of monuments being considered for inclusion in Countryside Stewardship schemes.
Although generally more long term and gradual in their effects, degradation and decay as a result of natural processes, such as scrub and tree growth, erosion and burrowing animals, remain the second greatest threat.
Finding solutions for archaeology on the Register
Because they are likely to have few practical economic uses, scheduled monuments may be more at risk from neglect and decay than buildings or landscapes, particularly where owners already face difficult economic choices.
However, in many cases the steps needed to stabilise the condition of scheduled monuments can be relatively simple and inexpensive.
We believe that the majority of rural sites at risk can be restored to good condition in ways that deliver other environmental objectives, or contribute to rural economies.
Some monuments do require significant investment and in these cases close co-operation is needed between owners, land managers and Historic England to discuss potential sources of grant aid.
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme – run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), managed by Natural England – targets archaeological sites at risk, helping with their conservation and management. The scheme (and its predecessor Environmental Stewardship) has been very successful in improving the condition of many hundreds of monuments, and resulted in the removal of well over 800 scheduled monuments from the Register since 2009.
We therefore welcomed the recognition given to the value and importance of heritage within DEFRA's 25 Year Environment Plan. Inclusion in future environmental schemes, such as the new environmental land management schemes currently in development by DEFRA, are essential for the sustainable management of scheduled monuments in the future.
Historic England Management Agreements, Monument Management Schemes and Heritage Partnership Agreements can also play a key role in helping improve the condition of many archaeological sites and monuments.
Grants from other public sources, notably Natural England (which along with the Rural Payments Agency administers the Countryside Stewardship Scheme) and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, also have a vital role to play in helping to preserve our most precious monuments for future generations.