When and when not to dig

‘Excavation is merely methodical destruction’ – Mortimer Wheeler

There is often a belief (outside the archaeology world) that if an archaeological discovery is made it will or should, be automatically excavated. This is not the case. Excavation is, in a sense, a last resort. It will take place only if a sequence of criteria are met:

■ Threat: The site faces certain destruction, either by natural erosion processes or some planned development, civil engineering work or other activity.

Natural landscape processes can simultaneously reveal and threaten sites. The option of stopping Nature will usually not be practicable, so that rescue excavation or abandonment is the simple choice in this situation.

If Man, rather than Nature, is responsible for the threat more options are available. It may be possible to change the location or extent of the projected works or leave the site surrounded, but undisturbed, in a ‘reservation’ within. A variant of this last approach is foundations which raft over or protect the archaeological features, while still doing their job. Controlled cultivation methods can limit the adverse effects of agriculture. Thus the threat is diverted or modified. Only if none of these mitigation approaches is feasible does excavation become more certain. The compromise of part-excavation plus part-preservation is always a possibility, of course.

■ Gain. It is likely that significant new knowledge will be gained.

There is little point in excavating a site which is similar to others already investigated and well-understood. Excavation should increase the amount of accumulated knowledge, not just the quantity of facts. Hence there must be a real prospect of learning something new to justify the effort involved. Admittedly, by its very nature, excavation is a journey into the unknown, but well-executed trial trenching and prospecting should give a good indication of what might be found. There is certainly a presumption that limited, exploratory excavation may be appropriate, but not necessarily more than that.

■ Cost: The cost of excavation and consequent work can be met from some source.

Like so many things in life, excavation costs money – it certainly will if it is done thoroughly and properly. And it is often not appreciated by the layman that a great deal of work takes place off- site, after the basic business of digging is finished. This may cost as much as the excavation – quite possibly more.

■ The Posterity Factor: Are we being greedy?

A fourth consideration is more difficult to quantify. It concerns our readiness to leave a part of what we are aware of for investigation in the future, in all probability by improved methods, notwithstanding the sophistication of those developed up to now. And equally importantly we do not want to bequeath a bare cupboard to future generations.

■ The Emotional Factor: Are people getting too worked up?

What may be an exciting and seemingly important discovery on a local level may be less so in the wider scale of things. Similarly, commonly-held, but incorrect beliefs about the past may attach an unwarranted significance to a discovery in the public mind. Suffice to say that this can be ‘a tricky one’ to take account of in the decision process.

Present planning law and guidance places responsibility for ascertaining the presence of archaeology and making provision for either its preservation or controlled destruction (excavation) on those responsible for the threat. Note the order of choices in ‘either/or’.

Unexpected archaeology encountered in the course of a development could have significant financial and delaying implications for the project. Larger organisations may well be able to bear the costs thrown upon them, but those at the lower end of the scale may have difficulty meeting their obligations. And note that lawful development cannot simply be barred, whatever popular feeling may be. Archaeological discovery ranges from the trivial to the nationally significant and fortunately public funding can ultimately be called upon where judged appropriate. But still a cost/benefit analysis will form the basis of that judgement – and could well be contentious!

Roger Miles

[Extract from article by Roger Miles in Newsletter 166, October 2007]