A skull being excavated by the Operation Nightingale team during Exercise Magwitch in Portsmouth's 'Rat Island'.
A military veteran working on the Exercise Magwitch excavation at 'Rat Island', Gosport © Harvey Mills Photography
A military veteran working on the Exercise Magwitch excavation at 'Rat Island', Gosport © Harvey Mills Photography

MOD Archaeology and Coronavirus

By Richard Osgood, Senior Archaeologist, Defence Infrastructure Organisation

As one of the largest owners of archaeology in the UK, the Ministry of Defence has a team of archaeologists within the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) to safeguard the heritage on this estate while also enabling military training. As with every other curatorial body, the Covid-19 outbreak has presented serious challenges. Following Government advice, and as a governmental department, the DIO team have all been working from home for over a month.

One of the key focuses for the team is to minimise the department’s holding of ‘Heritage at Risk’ (HAR) – indeed this is one of the undertakings of the DCMS Protocol on the Care of the Government’s Historic Estate. To this end, in addition to standard maintenance tasks, we have a small budget called the ‘Conservation Stewardship Fund’ (CSF) which we can call upon for improvement works. These are focussed on monuments on the Heritage at Risk Register and also those which are deemed to be in poor and declining condition on our regular condition surveys (for scheduled assets). Although, thankfully, the survey work is up-to-date many of the improvement works were tasked to coincide with shutdown periods in the ranges which may now not be happening as military programmes change.

We have already had to postpone some geophysical surveys and evaluation programmes as we cannot permit access to the estate, audit works or commission commercial projects. Obviously, our ability to re-programme intended works will depend on the higher decisions on the removal of isolation requirements – we still hope that late summer and autumn 2020 may be an option but will require the companies commissioned to work to include Covid-19 aspects on their risk assessments. This is almost certainly going to include enhanced hand-washing facilities as well as social distancing.

One of our key programmes is the Operation Nightingale project which enables military veterans to volunteer for archaeological fieldwork as part of their recovery. It has been heart-breaking to have to postpone three excavations and a monument restoration activity so far with more in the future. We have so far tried to maintain enthusiasm and positivity over social media with announcements on future wok, digital tours of estates and re-caps on site results (with reports and links to online resources such as three-dimensional models and television programmes on the project). Some of them have been carrying out online research on a number of the digs that will still happen and the Facebook group (in particular) has proved a real boon for maintaining morale. It should be noted that a number of the veterans are part of the huge NHS effort as a volunteer force.

When we are able to start site work again, we will look to engage with the Historic England HAR staff and inspectors to ensure we are given more time to resolve HAR issues. It would also be excellent to explore the provision of other heritage opportunities for veterans and to see how the wider archaeology community can support this and where any future grants may come from.

I think without exception, all realise that postponements have been inevitable, and they hope for opportunities later in the year. The shame is that cancelled projects have coincided with a magnificent spring. Our colleagues at Breaking Ground Heritage (BGH) lost their main funding and so a JustGiving appeal has been set up to keep them going and enable their participation when lockdown ends.

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