More than 150 digs in Greece this year – more than 3,000 in the UK

Kenneth Aitchison of Landward Research Ltd has contributed to a piece by Mike Pitts in SALON, the Society of Antiquaries of London‘s online newsletter.


How Many Digs?

In August the Greek Ministry of Culture announced that excavations underway near Sparta since 2009 had uncovered a Mycenaean palace. This, said a press statement, was just one indication of ‘the importance of the archaeological wealth and cultural heritage of the country’: already in 2015 ‘more than 150 archaeological excavations have been carried out in Greece’.

I was reminded of a notice in Orkney Museum: ‘The following is a list of Orkney 2012 archaeological excavations that the Orkney Archaeological Society has been made aware of.’ All those islands, all those archaeologists. How can you keep up? And then I thought, 150 doesn’t sound like a large number. How many excavations have there been in the UK this year? Surely more than that? I asked people who should know. Their answers, gratefully received, are interesting beyond the mere number.

Peter Hinton FSA is Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. ‘That’s a very good question’, he replied, when I said there’d been 150 excavations in Greece. ‘The rather imprecise answer is “a lot more than that”.’ There has been no formal count ‘for a few years,’ he added, ‘but based on numbers of staff employed in fieldwork, their average salaries and some on costs, the estimated expenditure is in the order of £150m p.a. So unless UK fieldwork exercises are averaging £1m a shot – which would be a development! – there’s quite a difference with the cited figures from Greece.’

Stewart Bryant FSA, former chair of ALGAO (Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers) England and for nearly 30 years County Archaeologist for Hertfordshire, noted that until recently Bournemouth University’s English Heritage-fundedArchaeological Investigations Project (AIP) was the best source for this type of information – ‘not complete’, he says, ‘but c. 90%. Now it’s almost impossible to get an accurate figure without a lot of work. The ALGAO statistics give the input stage and are consistently 12–14,000 planning recommendations for England. Around 2007 the AIP figure was c. 6,000 interventions via the planning system. The lack of a simple counting system is a strategic problem for the sector.’

‘If you want a headline figure,’ he concludes, ‘you would be safe with 5,000+.’

Kenneth Aitchison FSA (Executive Director, Landward Research Ltd) backed this estimate. He recently published his doctoral thesis on Kindle (Breaking New Ground: How Professional Archaeology Works, Landward Research 2012). He found that there were over 5,000 archaeological investigations in England in 2007, with 174,000 applications for planning permission in the quarter April–June; by October–December 2008, this had fallen by 36% to 110,000, with the same number being reported a year later in October–December 2009.

‘So’, he says. ‘If we work out a best guess using number of planning applications as proxy, 5,000 investigations in 2007 falling by 36% in 2009 gives 3,200. That’s a useful year, because (to use another proxy indicator), Heritage Market Survey 2015 (forthcoming) is about to say the number of people in work in March 2015 was back to 2009 levels. So maybe in 2014–15 there were 3,200 fieldwork investigations in England. 2015–16 is definitely busier than 2014–15, so I would expect that number to be rising. In 2015 there will already have been more than 2,000.’

Bryant wondered if there might already have been over 3,200 investigations in 2014–15. ALGAO planning casework returns for the preceding year indicate a small rise, with 11,010 planning application with archaeological implications. There were 3,299 WSIs (written schemes of investigation, the action documents that follow desk-based assessments) from less than half the ALGAO members. The WSI figure, says Bryant, ‘is a good measure of current activity and intention (if not actual archaeological events)’. Those 3,299 projects consisted of 1,455 evaluations, 541 excavations, 282 historic building recordings and 1,021 other (‘mainly watching briefs’).

Even this, he says, may be systematically under-representing full-scale excavation – ‘it’s an irony of the current planning system that evaluations are more visible in the literature than excavations’. Excavations, he says, are more likely ‘to slip under the radar until the final publication is produced which may be five to ten years later. There may also be multiple phases of excavation (e.g. on large housing projects) that are monitored by the local authority but which don’t produce reports for many years.’ Watching briefs have also been under-reported, he adds – and sometimes these can ‘produce some of the best archaeology’.

Tim Darvill FSA, Director of the Centre For Archaeology at Bournemouth University, supports Aitchison’s calculations, which as he says are mostly based on AIP data. A full report on the AIP analysis for 1990–2010 (what Darvill calls ‘the PPG16 Era’, the life of the original planning policy guidance that resulted in developers paying for necessary excavation on their sites) is under peer review at Historic England (HE); Darvill hopes for publication later this year or early next. How we record archaeological activity since 2010, he adds, ‘remains an issue that HE are, I believe, still grappling with’.

Meanwhile, thanks to digitisation, finding out what all this work has achieved is becoming increasingly easier. The OASIS project, based at the University of York, links the resources of the Archaeology Data Service, Historic England, Historic Scotland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. The result is an ‘online index to the mass of archaeological grey literature that has been produced as a result of the advent of large-scale developer funded fieldwork and a similar increase in fieldwork undertaken by volunteers’.

‘With a degree of pride and a statement of interest,’ Darvill recommends Cotswold Archaeology’s online archive as ‘one of the best and the biggest. It contains pretty much every available report, and can easily be searched by map or queries.’

So, thanks to a system of developer-led excavation that has run well for 25 years, the UK can boast an enormous number of excavations and (eventually) publicly and freely accessible reports. Those excavations have transformed how we think about our past, but that’s for another time. For now, if excavations are a measure of ‘the importance of the archaeological wealth and cultural heritage of the country’, as the Greek Culture ministry put it, Britain is riding high – thousands to Greece’s hundreds.

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