Shortage of archaeologists threatens construction industry

Archaeological requirements became a condition of planning permission for new developments 25 years ago; however a surge infrastructure projects has created a major shortage of trained archaeologists. May 16, 2016 / Isla MacFarlane
Shortage of archaeologists threatens construction industry

England has been around for a long, long time, and developers can’t stick a spade into the earth without hitting another chapter of her history. Development-led archaeology – archaeology which takes place ahead of new developments – has rewritten chapters of English history. It has contributed to the identity of local communities and shed new light on ancient and modern times.

Recently, a team of archaeologists rescued some Bronze Age pottery and a burial vessel, likely to have been associated with a prominent local figure, from Redrow’s new development Maple Gardens. An initial survey of the land in 2013 indicated its use as an orchard in the 20th century, before further investigations suggested the site could contain part of a much earlier Iron Age or Roman field system.

It wasn’t until the local planning authority’s archaeological advisor requested a survey of a larger area of land that the pottery and burial vessel, seeming to originate from the Bronze Age – around 1,000 years earlier than first expected – were recovered.

Laurence Hayes, principal archaeologist for RSK who carried out the investigations on behalf of Redrow, explained, “Similar burial goods were recorded at Aldington in the 19th century, however the work funded by Redrow provides a first look at understanding the wider context of ritual activity, domestic and agricultural practices using modern archaeological techniques in this location.”

Pauline Turnbull, sales director for Redrow Homes (Midlands), added, “The archaeological works carried out at our Maple Gardens site have uncovered a fascinating insight into the area’s past. It’s interesting to think that there were people living in this part of Evesham thousands of years ago.”

In January 2016, an Iron Age burial ground was brought to light at a housing development site in Yorkshire. The remains and personal effects of 150 ancient Britons were exhumed where property developer David Wilson Homes had planned to build 77 new houses. The discovery has been hailed as one of the most significant Iron Age discoveries of recent times which could help shape historians’ understanding of the period.

Archaeological requirements became a condition of planning permission for new developments 25 years ago. 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.

However, a new report from Historic England warns there will not be enough trained archaeologists to do exploratory excavations that must take place before any infrastructure and development project unless action is taken now. Three thousand people are currently employed in commercial archaeology in England. This will need to grow by a minimum of 25% over the next six years to meet demand.

Nick Shepherd, Chief Executive of Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers, said, “The delivery of new UK housing and infrastructure depends not only on engineers and bricklayers, but also on archaeologists. Archaeological investigation is now a core part of the development process.”

Major archaeological employers are working together to set up apprenticeships in key skills, and archaeological field schools to produce specifically trained graduates, especially as excavators on digs.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive at Historic England said, “The pool of trained archaeologists can’t grow fast enough to meet this upturn in demand without co-ordinated action from Historic England and partners in the heritage sector. We’re addressing the issues found in our foresight report by putting creative, practical and achievable actions in place well ahead of time to fill the gap. Put simply, more spadework is needed, and this calls for us to think hard about how we can offer a new generation routes into the profession.”

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