An aerial photograph showing archaeological excavations and surrounding countryside along the road improvement scheme for the A14 in Cambridgeshire, where it crosses over the Great Ouse river.
The A14 improvement scheme as it crosses the Great Ouse near Buckden, Cambridgeshire. A completed excavation can be seen in the foreground. 2018 © Historic England. Photographed by Damian Grady
The A14 improvement scheme as it crosses the Great Ouse near Buckden, Cambridgeshire. A completed excavation can be seen in the foreground. 2018 © Historic England. Photographed by Damian Grady

Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Evolution of Development-Led Archaeology in England

By Roger Thomas, School of Archaeology, University of Oxford

At the start of a new decade, it’s good to look both back and forward – especially as 2020 will see the 30th anniversary of our current arrangements for development-led archaeology.

Archaeology as an academic discipline has long been closely tied up with attempts to preserve or record archaeological remains in the face of destructive development. Today’s arrangements are simply the latest manifestation of society’s evolving response to the threat which new development can pose to the archaeological heritage.

The Second World War saw government-funded ‘rescue archaeology’ on sites threatened by activities such as airfield construction. After the war came small-scale work, for example, on bomb-damaged sites in historic cities. The discovery of a temple to the Roman god Mithras, on a site in the City of London, led to great public controversy.

In the early 1970s, public pressure led to a dramatic increase in government funding. New local or regional archaeological organisations were set up to respond to planned development. A network of local authority advisory services and record systems (today’s Historic Environment Records) was also created. In the 1980s, ‘professionalisation’ increased: what is now the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) was formed, and rigorous project management was emphasised. Even under this system, though, much archaeology was lost to development for lack of sufficient funding.

In 1989, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre was unexpectedly found on a development site in London. The ensuing controversy led to 'Planning Policy Guidance 16' (PPG 16) on archaeology and planning being published in 1990. This embedded archaeology into land-use planning. All planning applications were to be screened for archaeological implications, the emphasis was on preservation rather than excavation, and developers – not the public purse – were made responsible for any archaeological costs.

This marked the start of today’s arrangements. Local authority archaeologists advise on planning requirements; developers commission any archaeological work needed, on a commercial (and sometimes competitive) basis. Policy for archaeology (now contained in the National Planning Policy Framework, NPPF) has changed somewhat, but the fundamentals of the PPG 16 approach remain in place.

On many measures, ‘PPG 16 archaeology’ has been a huge success. Developments risks to archaeological remains are well-managed, meaning that crises are fairly rare. Resources have expanded hugely, and the archaeological profession is now highly skilled, capable of executing very large projects on time and to budget. An enormous amount of new archaeological knowledge has been obtained.

Of course, not everything is perfect. Concerns exist about standards, the ability of hard-pressed local authorities to oversee the system adequately, and the value of some of the work done. Access to information generated by this work can be problematic, and there is concern about whether the public benefit produced is commensurate with the cost. Constant changes to the wider planning system also pose a challenge. The archaeological profession is actively trying to deal with many of these issues.

Looking ahead, with nearly 30 years’ experience of development-led archaeology through the statutory planning system behind us, what may the future hold?

We’ll look at the challenges and areas where improvement is needed in a moment. First, though, it’s worth reminding ourselves of how much better things are now than they were before PPG16 appeared in 1990. Even in the 1980s, many important sites were lost to development, for lack of the right planning processes and adequate funding. Things are immeasurably improved now.

That's no reason for complacency, though – and, in any system, improvements will only occur if areas of weakness have first been identified.

There will undoubtedly be further changes to the planning system. Some of these will pose challenges, and effective lobbying will be important. That said, it seems unlikely that the fundamentals of the present system – archaeology being integral to planning, and developers being responsible for dealing with it – will change in the foreseeable future.

More problematic may be the capacity of straitened local authorities to operate the system. Stronger and more effective self-regulation (involving CIfA and the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers (FAME)) may be needed to fill this gap.

Other challenges arise from the very success of the present system. Thanks to the past 30 years’ work, we now know that remains of all periods of the past are far more abundant than anyone had previously imagined. How do we respond? Should we continue to investigate everything in the same way and at the same level of detail? We badly need new ways of assessing archaeological significance, especially that of individual examples of site types which are now seen to be very common in some areas (small Roman farmsteads, for example).

We need to develop better ways of making our fast-growing accumulation of site-based data more usable. Recent research projects have amply demonstrated the scope for producing new national historical narratives from development-led results, but we need to collect and store data in ways that make synthesis easier and cheaper. Digital technologies such as GIS and data-mining offer huge potential, but our data need to be fit for purposes like these.

We need to innovate more, both technically and intellectually. Can we automate some processes? Can we develop new excavation strategies, extracting new kinds of information? Can we forge stronger links between development-led work and recent extraordinary advances in archaeological science? Studies of ancient DNA, and isotope analyses of human and animal bone, and even of plant material, are transforming views of the past and creating exciting new stories. Development-led work, which collects samples on a huge scale, should be part of this.

Development-led archaeology in the 2020s (and beyond) should try to do three things. First, it should respond reasonably and creatively to our vastly increased knowledge of England’s archaeological resource. Second, it should be structured and conducted in ways which provide rewarding careers (intellectually, professionally and financially). Without good people, the subject will not prosper. Third, and most importantly, we must produce demonstrable public benefit (perhaps in novel forms) commensurate with the costs of our work. There is a great public interest in archaeology, and it is up to us to make sure that our development-led work satisfies and nurtures that interest. These are our biggest challenges for years ahead.

Please share and comment

What’s your view of the main planning issues facing archaeology today?

Please share this article on social media.