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ABINGDON ARCHAEOLOGICAL GEOPHYSICS

 

 

 

Quality

One would have thought that Historic England would have monitored and controlled the quality of archaeological work, but they don't appear to be doing so.

The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists gives the impression that it controls the quality of work by its Registered Organisations. Again this appears only partially to be the case. They deal with about 20 complaints a year and do not have or allocate the resources to do enough random sampling or similar quality control. They are aware of the problem and are thinking what to do about it. They seem to prefer to require training rather than excluding organisations who produce defective work.

The scale of the problem has been exposed in the finds reporting aspect of the process, although it probably applies in other areas of the archaeological system as well. This is shown by Alice Cattermole in her Review of the Standard of Reporting on Archaeological Artefacts in England 2017. She found that half the reports contained about half of the things they should have done with none of the 1000 reports sampled fully complying with the relevant guidance - and this has been going on for the past 16 years.

To give them their due, Historic England funded that research, but it is long overdue and has yet to be applied to other parts of the archaeological system. The County archaeologists and professional bodies should also have prevented it from arising. One can only wonder at how many organisations have been able to offer low prices to beat the competition on the basis of claiming to do work of a standard which they have not then delivered on. See Fraud Act 2006.

One reason for the problem may be with the developer funding of commercial archaeology. There are some good ones, but often they have to keep costs down in order to compete for development sites and this affects the archaeology.

If a planning application is made and archaeological remains are anticipated in an area, an archaeological evaluation is often carried out to ascertain whether any remains should be left alone, excavated and recorded or whether there is nothing of importance there. The problem with this is that the developer, often advised by archaeological consultants to act on his behalf, pays and selects who does the work. In France the developer pays but the government archaeological service decides who does the work.

A successful evaluation therefore tends to be one where more business is given to archaeological contractors. If too much is found then the development may not be allowed, and the developer may decide to employ other people next time. If too little is found then no-one gets more archaeological work on that site. This may be why most find enough to enable planning permission to be granted, subject to some archaeological excavation being carried out. We are all then surprised when it appears that there was far more on the site after all, but by then it is too late as planning permission has been granted. Sometimes the excavators can get the developer to pay for more work, but screening around the site for health and safety may come in handy.

Modern housing developments appear to prefer to strip the topsoil down to the top of the subsoil and put it in a large pile at the corner of the field. The houses are then built and the earth pile spread over their gardens and other areas. In theory the stripping is often supposed to have an archaeologist seeing that nothing is being lost. The size of machines often means that they can't safely get close enough to see anything. It is rare to be able to see what is lost in this phase as fieldwalking and test pits appear to have been forgotten by the commercial archaeological community and curators. This is despite Hey and Lacey in Evaluation of Archaeological Decision-making Processes and Sampling Strategies 2001,54 advocating test pitting to test deposits which are being machined off. The Staffordshire Hoard, if it had been on a modern commercial archaeological site, would probably have gone onto the topsoil pile. We can be fairly sure that the prehistoric flint scatters go there.

Our comparison between hand dug test pits and normal machine trenching down to archaeological levels, followed by hand digging, indicated that at least 85% of the finds were not recovered by the latter method. These pits gave information about the site formation which was missed by machining. Others consider that the finds loss rate is typically over 90%. For some reason site reports don't appear to contain this information. Whether archaeologists are able to give the full story of a site when they haven't seen the vast majority of the finds is something for others to avoid addressing.