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Urban Characterisation

Since the early 1990s, Historic England (and its predecessor English Heritage) has been supporting a wide range of survey work in historic towns, cities and suburbs. This page describes three approaches, all of which involve historic characterisation.

The results of these projects can be used for a wide range of purposes, including strategic planning, development management, Conservation Area designation, appraisal and management, and research.

Extensive Urban Survey (EUS)

These are county-by-county surveys of the smaller towns of England. They are carried out by local authority historic environment services, with funding from Historic England. The early surveys focussed mainly on below-ground archaeological remains and the earlier periods. Since about 2000, projects have included a strong characterisation element, drawing on the methodology of Historic Characterisation but adapting it to a level of detail suitable for urban areas.

For the towns selected for study, each project results in improved coverage in the Historic Environment Record, and in an ‘assessment report’ which sets out a summary of the town’s archaeology, historical development and historic environment. This includes the definition of character areas covering the whole town. These reports are available online through the Archaeology Data Service.

‘Metropolitan’ Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC)

The major conurbations of England (those formerly covered by ‘metropolitan’ county councils) have been covered by a form of Historic Landscape Characterisation. The methods is exactly the same as for rural landscapes, but the projects use character types which are appropriate to the urban character of the area, and are at a larger scale that reflects the complexity of urban development.

Most of the major conurbations (such as Birmingham, South Yorkshire and Tyne & Wear) have now been covered by such projects, and reports and data are available on-line through the Archaeology Data Service.

Urban Archaeological Databases (UADs)

Urban Archaeological Databases are a form of detailed Historic Environment Record coverage, carried out in about 30 selected historic towns and cities which have rich and complex below-ground archaeology. Most UADs now form part of the Historic Environment Record which covers the town or city in question. UADs provide a record (and maps) of all the individual pieces of archaeological work (‘events’) which have taken place, along with a summary of all the ‘monuments’ which have been identified in this work.

In some cases, such as Chester the UAD has been used to define archaeological character areas. For these, the general principles of historic characterisation are used, but applied to complex below-ground archaeological remains.

Most UADs can be searched through the Heritage Gateway.

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