A photograph of a group of 15 archaeologists working on an excavation site, surrounded by tools and equipment.
Excavations in progress on the Bexhill to Hastings Link Road © Oxford Archaeology
Excavations in progress on the Bexhill to Hastings Link Road © Oxford Archaeology

Transforming Our Understanding of the Human Past – the Results of Development-Led Archaeological Investigation

By Gill Hey, Chief Executive, Oxford Archaeology

Given the resources that have been devoted to archaeological endeavour over the last 20 years – way more than ever before – it is reasonable to ask whether all the money spent has resulted in a better understanding of our past?

The short answer is that it has been transformative. Discoveries have been made that have confounded previous expectations. Landscapes that we thought were not settled in the past turn out to be as densely populated as better-known topographies and new types of sites have been discovered.

To some extent this is an outcome that might have been expected. Since the assessment and the mitigation of the impact of development on archaeological sites became a requirement of the planning system, we are doing far more work.

Also, over this same period, advances have been made in scientific techniques. We have more precise radiocarbon dating, ancient DNA studies and other techniques which enable us to, for example, trace the origins of the people we find in cemeteries and as individual burials.

But we are also looking in places that previously wouldn’t have been investigated. Under Guildford Fire Station, for example, a 15,000-year old late Upper Palaeolithic hunting site was discovered in deposits that might not be expected to survive.

The main discoveries, however, have been made because of the extensive areas that are now stripped down to archaeological levels in advance of many developments, particularly infrastructure projects and mineral extraction quarries, but also large housing schemes. This has given us the opportunity to investigate landscapes on an unprecedented scale, and make unexpected discoveries, including of unique sites that would have been too ephemeral to have been traced by remote methods.

A very good example is our increase in knowledge about the Mesolithic hunter gatherers who lived in these islands before farming was established around 6,000 years ago, and about whom very little was known. A number of recent excavations undertaken by Oxford Archaeology have shone a light on this early period.

Chance has played a part. The first Mesolithic cremation burial to be identified in Britain, found on a pipeline in Essex, was thought to be Bronze Age until it was radiocarbon dated. 

But being able to examine extensive areas in advance of development has been vital. The Bexhill to Hastings Link Road (the excavation shown below) fortuitously follows a contour which 10,000–6,000 years ago lay along the edge of a tidal inlet which developed into wetland.

Hunter gatherers came here over many generations in order to exploit the rich natural resources, and their encampments have been found stretching along the 5.6-kilometre road line as evidenced by more than 200 individual flint scatters. Their flint tools and debris from their manufacture were found next to hearths. The associated charcoal and burnt food remains have enabled us to understand and date this activity and the way in which technologies changed through time with far greater precision than ever before.

A 10,000 year-old house was discovered during the construction of a new runway at Ronaldsway Airport. Excavations for a bridge over the River Eden just north of Carlisle revealed traces of dwellings and evidence for a wide range of activities, from hide preparation to boat building, which took place up to 8,000 years ago.

People probably congregated here annually to take advantage of the seasonal migration of salmon up the river. They brought with them, or exchanged, objects of stone and flint that derived from a remarkably wide area – pitchstone from the Isle of Arran, chert from the southern Scottish Uplands, flint from the Yorkshire coast as well as volcanic tuff from the Langdale Valley in the Central Lake District. Their practices and exchange networks anticipated the strategies of Neolithic farmers.

One of the most well-known recent archaeological projects in advance of development – in this case gravel quarrying – is probably the discovery by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit of the extraordinarily well-preserved Bronze Age house at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire. The detail of Bronze Age life revealed – the possessions and how this home was furnished – is truly astonishing. But we can also place the inhabitants within their wider landscape, as their surrounding fields and contemporary settlements can be seen over an extensive area.

Work on many different developments, by different archaeological companies, can be pieced together to understand how these landscapes were transformed by Bronze Age and then Iron Age farmers in the 1st millennium BC, in the East of England but also South Oxfordshire and Somerset, and many other parts of the country.

Through these discoveries and the many other projects in progress we can demonstrate how current archaeological investigation is transforming our understanding of the human past.

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