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25 Years of Archaeological Discovery That Have Rewritten England’s Story

  • An extinct species of elephant in Kent, beheaded Vikings buried in Dorset and an Iron Age chariot in Yorkshire are among finds from building sites that have transformed our understanding of the past
  • New report celebrates anniversary of a watershed in England's archaeology. Archaeological requirements became a condition of planning permission for new developments in 1990, following the discovery of the Rose Theatre on the site of a new Bankside office block
  • The 'Amesbury Archer' was subsequently found during construction of new homes in Wiltshire. The only known circus (chariot racing stadium) from Roman Britain was unearthed during construction in Colchester
  • Potential for further exciting discoveries as England speeds up house building and infrastructure renewal

Excavation of the remains of an extinct elephant
The remains of an extinct elephant butchered with flint knives 420,000 years ago by pre-Neanderthals. This was a very rare find in Ebbsfleet, Kent discovered during works for HS1. © Oxford Archaeology

Historic England (formerly English Heritage) has today published a new report illustrating how development-led archaeological discoveries have shed new light on our ancient and recent past. We now know that ancient England was more heavily populated, better connected internationally and more sophisticated than was previously thought. The evidence for this has come as a direct result of archaeological investigations for new developments. The report celebrates 25 years since archaeology was made part of the system for granting planning permission.

This new policy marked a watershed in England's archaeology, and prevented the loss of the sort of archaeological remains that happened before its implementation.

Archaeology lost

In 1954 work on a new office block in the City of London unearthed the foundations of a Roman temple of the god Mithras which were then dismantled. Post-war renewal in the 1950s and 60s saw similar losses. In places such as Chester, York and Winchester, many precious archaeological remains were lost without being recorded.

Public outcry

There was increasing concern about the losses until the foundations of Shakespeare's Rose Theatre were discovered in 1989 during the construction of a new office block in London's Bankside. Following public outcry, the building was redesigned to allow the Rose's remains to stay intact.

In November 1990, the Government issued a new policy on archaeology and planning. This allowed for archaeological surveys to be carried out before planning permission is granted.

Policy successes

The policy, now built into the National Planning Policy Framework has been a great success. The report reveals that:

  • Spectacular finds have been saved and recorded
  • Archaeologists are excavating in places not previously known to have been historically important
  • The discoveries that have come from them have changed the way we see the past
  • The policy revolutionised archaeological practice, and has prevented confrontations between developers and archaeologists, which were more frequent before it became law.

A Roman Circus used for chariot racing
A Roman Circus used for chariot racing, the only one found so far in England was unearthed in Colchester during the building of a housing development © Peter Frost Colchester Archaeological Trust

The report also shows that:

Prehistoric communities were not isolated - people connected all over Europe

Archaeology from developments has provided evidence that people and communities were widely connected across Europe. A find from Wiltshire illustrates this perfectly.

Archaeologists found the grave of the 'Amesbury Archer' during the construction of new homes. It contained more than 100 objects from Dorset, France, Wales and Switzerland. Chemical analysis even showed that he probably spent his early years outside England, probably in central Europe.

During archaeological work in advance of roadworks on the A1 in Holmfield, Yorkshire, a man's body dating from 200 BC was discovered in a pit large enough to take his complete chariot equipped with sophisticated iron tyres. Chemical analysis suggested he came from Scotland and the remains of 200 sacrificed cattle from different areas suggested he was widely influential.

Some of the finds have been quite unsettling. When a new road scheme was being constructed in Weymouth for the Olympic sailing events nearby, a mass grave of men who had been beheaded around 1000 AD was found. Isotope analysis suggests that the men were Vikings, not locals.

England was heavily populated in the distant past

Finds from every period have been discovered all over England. This suggests that at every stage the population was higher and settlement was more widespread than we previously thought.

Before 1990 excavation was more likely to have focussed on the high status settlements such as hill forts and Roman villas. Since then, developments have unearthed the farms, fields and burial places of ordinary people who would have made up the bulk of the population.

Bronze Age wickerwork eel trap
At Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, twelve Bronze Age wickerwork eel traps were found in preserved wet silt. The traps are very similar to ones still used in the Fens today. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

A sophisticated society

People were more sophisticated and innovative in the past than previously thought. At Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, twelve Bronze Age wickerwork eel traps were found preserved in wet silt. The traps are very similar to ones still used in the Fens today.

Excavation ahead of a quarry expansion in Sharpstone Hill, Shropshire uncovered a length of carefully-built road dating from the Iron Age. This prehistoric route had side drains, was cambered and had been resurfaced at least three times.

Other unusual finds include:

  • The remains of an elephant whose species is now extinct, butchered with flint knives 420,000 years ago by pre-Neanderthals. This was a very rare find in Ebbsfleet Kent, discovered during the works for HS1.
  • The only Roman Circus (chariot racing stadium) found so far in England was unearthed in Colchester during the building of a housing development.
  • In the City of London on the site of a new hotel, a fine statue of an eagle holding a serpent in its mouth was discovered. Once part of a tomb, it is one of the finest pieces of sculpture from Roman Britain.

Roman sculpture of an eagle holding a serpent in its mouth
Roman sculpture of an eagle holding a serpent in its mouth. Found in the City of London on the site of a new hotel. It is one of the finest pieces of sculpture from Roman Britain ever found. © Andy Chopping MOLA

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive at Historic England, said:

"The policy, which makes archaeology part of the planning and development process, greatly reduces the risks of disruption from unexpected discoveries. It also ensures that remarkable finds and what they reveal about our past, are saved from destruction; it is chastening to think what might have been lost in the last 25 years without it. As England starts to build new roads, houses and infrastructure, it's likely that we are about to enter a new and exciting era of archaeological discovery. "

Melanie Leech, Chief Executive of the British Property Federation, said:

"It is perhaps not often that the development industry is told it has made a major contribution to the cultural life of the nation. I am proud and delighted that this publication says exactly that - developers of every type, big and small, are adding daily to our knowledge of England's past."

The report can be downloaded below.

Next steps

Browse Historic England books about archaeology

More about the secrets of the Staffordshire Hoard

Find out about our Greater London Archaeology Advisory Service

Building the Future, Transforming our Past

Building the Future, Transforming our Past

Published 23 November 2015

Highlights from 25 years of development-led archaeology.

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