Research Theme: #Understand

Much of England’s heritage remains to be discovered or recognised. Important terrestrial or maritime archaeological sites are still hidden or hard to reach; even familiar buildings and landscapes may be known about but poorly understood or undervalued. Our research includes identifying, defining and communicating the most significant aspects of the historic environment.

The main topics covered are:

See the links at the end of each section for more details about the scope of our research and for the research questions for each topic -if they are not already stated on this page.

A group of people cleaning an archaeological find of timbers on a foreshore.
Much remains to be discovered. Research makes new discoveries and assesses their significance. Preserved Bronze Age timbers on the foreshore at Mersea, Essex. © Historic England

Urban and public realm

More than 80% of the populationlive in urban areas. Towns and cities have extraordinary historical depth and associations. Their landscapes, buildings and archaeology are an invaluable source of evidence for how people have lived and worked for centuries.

Archaeologists working in advance of redevelopment have extensively investigated many towns. Heritage is a powerful force for the sustainable development and regenerationof towns and urban centres as places with authenticity and meaning.

Some urban places and public spaces deserve particular attention and support from Historic England, to gain a better understanding of heritage significance, or to help respond to change. We do this through our Heritage Action Zone programme, and application of our Constructive Conservation approach. However, the sheer scale of our urban centres, and the rate of change means that there is still much to understand and urgency to do so.

Find out more about our urban and public realm research

Rural landscape

Rural communities and places are crucial to an understanding of England. People’s harnessing of natural resources over millennia has created the character and beauty of today’s countryside. That character can be threatened or enhanced by our use and management of land. Rural places are changing at an accelerating rate, driven by demands for new housing and infrastructure; the opportunities of better IT connectivity; the redundancy, disposaland reuse of buildings; from changes to the climate, farming practice and rural development policy. Despite these changes, heritage assets in rural landscapes may be isolated and so more vulnerable to heritage crime.

Find out more about our research into rural heritage

Marine and maritime

England, as part of an island nation, has a rich marine heritage of historic wrecks and submerged prehistoric landscapes. The marine zone is being exploited with increasing intensity, yet our current knowledge reflects only a fraction of what lies beneath the waves. Our coastal heritage is fragile, and threatened by coastal erosion and flooding in many places. Although erosion presents a threat, and we need to  know what we may lose, it can also provide an opportunity since erosion often reveals unknown archaeological deposits on the coastline.

Research that draws together heritage surveys with information from other sources will create a more complete picture of our marine and maritime historic environment. This will have impact as it helps us put appropriate statutory protection in place, provide essential evidence for management, enriches the National Heritage List for England, and providea rich source of educational material and inspirationfor both local communities and  tourism. That inspiration can in turn lead to better reporting of discoveries, a resource for further research.

Find out more about our coastal, marine and maritime research

Water, wetlands and waterlogged

Wetlands and inland waterways make up as much as 3% of England’s land surface. Over 10% of this is internationally designated RAMSAR wetland. To these need to be added the ‘below-ground’ waterlogged environments (such as around Nantwich, Boston or York), or localised waterlogged deposits such asthosefound in river gravels.

Water and wetland heritage covers three categories:

  • First, waterlogged archaeological deposits -the challenges of detection, characterisation and preservation of heritage in these environments are intense, while the quality of the evidence found at sites such as Must Farm or Star Carr can be internationally important
  • Secondly, heritage associated with water bodies the structures and landscapes directly associated with the exploitation of floodplains, river valleys and lakesides
  • Finally, the heritage of water management and water use fords and crossing points, dams, weirs, mills, bridges,  meadows canals, and similar that have shaped our history from the earliest human occupation to their role in the Industrial Revolution

Each of these categories is under pressure from, for example,the need to exploit aggregate reserves,  actively manage catchment systems, preserve water and land quality and flood prevention.

Find out more about our research into water, wetland and waterlogged heritage

Industrial and infrastructure

Britain has outstanding international importance as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  Historic industriesdefine the character of many English cities and towns, landscapes and villages. Many industries have shaped particularly strong regional and local identities.  

The infrastructure and machinery built to support trade and communication roads, railways and canals is now a hugely valued heritage. Industrial sites are also visitor attractions, forming an important element of our tourist economy. They can be a catalyst for regeneration and renewal, often by new, creative industries, as new industrial infrastructure takes the place of the old. As industry and infrastructure sites change rapidlyin response to technological development and economic cycles, buildings, structures and whole landscapes are being put to new use, or are facing abandonment or destruction.

Find out more about our research into industrial and infrastructure heritage

Military and defence

The robust and functional architecture of castles and coastal forts dominate their surroundings. Dockyards, drill halls, barracks and airfieldsevoke vivid histories and a strong sense of place. Prisoner of war camps and poison gas factories provide a different perspective. In 1945, one fifth of the country was being used for military purposes.

Today, many historic facilities and training area sare being decommissioned by the armed forces, providing opportunities to create new and distinct places based on a military past. Former military sites of all periods act as a focus for the local tourist economy.

The First World War centenary commemoration has been a further catalyst for research.

Find out more about our research into military and defence heritage.  

Faith and commemoration

Places of worship and commemoration are at the heart of their communities.  They are created and maintained by and for those communities, and so their use and adaptation tells of social change at a local and national level. Many places of worship have already endured for a long time- they are often the places with the longest continuous use of any local building.

Burial grounds perhaps represent the diversity of our entire population more completely than any other single type of heritage.

They provide a rich and complex resource for communities, as places of peace, green open spaces, centres of biodiversity, evidence of past society and of family histories.

Some sites, especially those of minority faith groups, are under-recognised and poorly understood.

The day-to-day care of all these sites may be undertaken solely by dedicated volunteers and they face marked decline where they cannot find economic reasons to be sustained.

Find out more about our research into places of worship and commemoration

 A photographer using digital photography equipment in an ornate church.
Photographer Chris Redgrave using and Apple iPad tethered to a Nikon D800 digital camera to record the chancel of St Mary's Church, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire. © Historic England , Steven Baker, image reference DP184909

Archaeology of the deeper past

The archaeology of the deeper past in England – prehistory, the Romans and the early medieval periods - can be elusive and ephemeral, but it is all around us, and is the sole source of evidence for 99% of human history in England.

We rightly celebrate the exceptional discoveries like Must Farm or well-known sites like Hadrian’s Wall or Sutton Hoo. However, our understanding is inevitably partial and we need better information to manage future change, affecting less well-known sites. We support research to identify, understand and communicate the importance of these aspects of the deeper past of England. These early traces survive as cropmarks, scatters of artefacts in plough-soil, buried deposits, subtle earthworks or ruined buildings. Aerial survey over the last 50 years has resulted in the discovery of tremendous numbers of previously lost sites.

Developer funding in the last 25 years has supported a great expansion in archaeological excavation. However, this represents a tiny fraction of what is there.

Find out more about our research into archaeological sites and landscapes

See also our research into the specific challenges of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods 

Find out about our archaeological science research

Understanding the Historic England archive

The Historic England Archive is a unique national archive of the historic environment of England. It represents over 100 years of recording and collecting activity in different contexts and by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Not all the records were created with a documentary role in mind, but in gathering these records together and preserving them for the nation there has been a consistent focus on creating a record of our shared archaeological, architectural and landscape heritage.

The Historic England Archive holds over 12 million pieces of archive on 16 kilmometres of shelving in a dedicated archive store in Swindon. Our holdings include files, reports, drawings and plans, but 75% of our collections are photographic negatives, prints and transparencies.  We store our collections in environmentally controlled archive vaults which ensure that these records will be available for future generations. Research on the collection in its own right will have impact if it offers insights into the history of heritage documentation and recording of the historic environment. It will unlock new narratives of engagement with the past. It will also help inform our future collecting, documenting and access strategies.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • Can we better understand the creation and purpose of individual collections by researching the individuals and companies who created them? And how do their stories fit into the broader history of British photography, and record photography in particular?
  • Can we analyse collection data in new ways, for example to look at patterns of recording and commissioning geographically and over time?
  • What kinds of crowdsourcing project will be popular for online engagement and virtual volunteering?
  • How does use of our holdings and other historic environment archives by researchers inform and influence conservation of buildings and sites?

Find out more about the Historic England Archive


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