You are here: What do Archaeologists really do, and why?

Been on Time Team, then? or: What do Archaeologists really do, and why?

by Graham D Keevill

This paper describes the background to professional archaeological practice in England today. In it I will try to give you an idea of when and where you might get involved with archaeologists, and what types of work they might have to do for you (or perhaps more pertinently for your client!).

1 Archaeology: some basic principles

Archaeology is the study of past cultures through the discovery and analysis of their material remains – sites, artefacts, environmental evidence etc. There is a widely-held impression that archaeology is confined to evidence below ground – this is not the case. It involves earthworks and standing buildings too, and all three may be involved on a single site. It is therefore important to have “joined-up thinking” when assessing a site. It is always inadvisable to ignore any area of interest/potential. A site may have

  • SIMPLE or COMPLEX below-ground remains – buildings, ditches, pits, floors etc – collectively known as stratigraphy,
  • EARTHWORKS visible at ground level or from aerial photographs – it is worth making the point that there may be earlier remains underneath earthworks, and/or buildings over them; and
  • a SIMPLE or COMPLEX building elevation/interior.

Or a combination of these.

Church of St Mary and St Hardulph
Church of St Mary and St Hardulph

The church of St Mary and St Hardulph, Breedon on the Hill, is monastic in origin with much below-ground archaeology. It is also set within the earthwork remains of an Iron Age hillfort and, of course, the church is a listed building (as are some of the tombs).

Sites range in date from earliest prehistory through to modern, encompassing (for instance) industrial archaeology, and WWII / Cold War defence sites. This year WWI is very much in our minds, and archaeologists are actively involved on sites associated with it. Again it is important to see the whole picture, especially in historic urban centres where there may be evidence for 2000 years (or more) of activity.

I would also like to make the point that archaeologists can make the(ir) greatest contribution if they are part of a development or design Project Team from the very beginning.

2   How archaeologists get involved

The National Planning Policy Framework, published in March 2012, replaced several previous government guidance notes in a wide variety of policy areas. Two of these (see below) were specific to archaeology and the historic environment. Though obviously much condensed and simplified, the NPPF (with its supporting papers and an increasing body of case law) continues to provide strong and robust support for the historic environment in development control. This is the most likely way you will come into contact with, or perhaps have need for, archaeologists. The NPPF states that “Local planning authorities should recognise that … heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance.” (Para 126). Note here that the NPPF refers to all heritage assets, not just designated (ie legally protected) ones.

The NPPF goes on to state that, as “heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss should require clear and convincing justification. Substantial harm to or loss of a grade II listed building, park or garden should be exceptional. Substantial harm to or loss of designated heritage assets of the highest significance, notably scheduled monuments, protected wreck sites, battlefields, grade I and II* listed buildings, grade I and II* registered parks and gardens, and World Heritage Sites, should be wholly exceptional.” (Para 132). The different weight given to grade II and grade I/II* assets is interesting, as English Heritage state quite clearly in guidance on their website that grade II listed buildings (92% of the total number) or registered parks and gardens are still of national importance. They must reach that criterion to be so designated. See the table below for more information regarding the three grades, and the date range of listed buildings in England, where there are approximately 374,081 listed building entries (an entry can sometimes include more than one building – such as a terrace).

Categories of listed buildings

  • Grade I buildings are of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important; only 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I
  • Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest; 5.5% of listed buildings are Grade II*
  • Grade II buildings are nationally important and of special interest; 92% of all listed buildings are in this class and it is the most likely grade of listing for a home owner.



Listed Buildings by age and Grade
Listed Buildings by age and Grade

Listed buildings by grade (above) and age (left). Source:



The NPPF advises that “in determining applications, local planning authorities should require an applicant to describe the significance of any heritage assets affected, including any contribution made by their setting. … (surveys and reports) As a minimum the relevant historic environment record should have been consulted and the heritage assets assessed using appropriate expertise where necessary. Where a site on which development is proposed includes or has the potential to include heritage assets with archaeological interest, local planning authorities should require developers to submit an appropriate desk-based assessment and, where necessary, a field evaluation.” (Para 128).

archaeology map
archaeology map

Extract from the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record map – a planning application here is likely to encounter archaeological requirements!

What does this mean in practice? Local planning authorities commonly request additional archaeological information with regard to a planning application, often at pre-determination stage. Either in consequence of the results of that work, or as an alternative where they have not required any pre-application surveys, the LPA will usually insert a Condition on the planning permission if there is reason to believe that it will or might adversely affect a heritage asset. It is vital to note that neither the permission nor any archaeological condition replaces any requirement to seek specific consent to carry out work on a designated heritage asset – particularly a Scheduled Monument (listed Building Consent is usually applied for in parallel with the planning process – Scheduled Monument Consent is wholly separate from it). The archaeological condition is highly formulaic, and much of it will be repeated with minor variations by LPAs across the length and breadth of the country. The LPA’s archaeological advisors (mostly at county or city level) will advise on and usually recommend the specific form of the archaeological condition. Here are two recent examples on projects I am involved in, one in Oxford and the other in Blackburn. As you can see they are very similar, and both refer to local plan policies. Reference is usually made to the NPPF as well, but in the permission letter or the preambles rather than in the archaeological condition per se.

No development shall take place until the applicant, or their agents or successors in title, have secured the implementation of a programme of archaeological work in accordance with a written scheme of investigation which has been submitted by the applicant and approved by the planning authority. Subject to the confirmation of foundation design the archaeological investigation should consist of a watching brief and should be undertaken by a professionally qualified archaeologist working to a brief issued by Oxford City Council Archaeologist.

Reason: Because the development may have a damaging effect on known or suspected elements of the historic environment of the people of Oxford and their visitors, including Late Saxon and medieval remains and in accordance with policy    HE2 of the Adopted Oxford Local Plan 2001-2016.

And:  No development shall take place pursuant to this planning permission until the applicant, their agent or successor in title has secured the implementation of a programme of archaeological work and historic building recording. This must be carried out in accordance with a written scheme of investigation, which shall first have been submitted to and approved in writing by the Local Planning Authority.

REASON: To ensure and safeguard the recording and inspection of matters of archaeological and historical importance associated with the buildings and site in accordance with saved Policy HD18 of the Blackburn with Darwen Borough Local Plan.

Building recording
Building recording

Building Recording

Archaeological Evaluation Trench
Archaeological Evaluation Trench

An Archaeological Evaluation Trench

As far as designated heritage assets are concerned, there is a separate and specific procedure for obtaining Scheduled Monument Consent. This is dealt with by English Heritage acting for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The EH website has useful guidance on what is required under the Consent procedure. As already noted, listed building consent may be applied for in parallel with a planning application – but equally may be required separately from it. Currently there is no consent procedure for registered parks and gardens. Procedures also apply for designated battlefield and wreck site, though these are rarer and more specialised areas.

Ecclesiastical exemption means that there are different planning mechanisms for work to the envelope and interior of cathedrals and churches. Planning permission and listed building consent may still be needed, especially if external works are involved (these will not usually be exempt). The church’s own planning system largely mirrors the civil one, but with some quirks and differences.

3 Archaeological methods

Whenever possible, the preference of government, English Heritage and the LPAs is to retain heritage assets intact, as and where they are. This is often described as “preservation in situ”. If there is a ‘greater good’ reason to allow the partial or total destruction of a heritage asset (or if this is inevitable due to natural causes such as site erosion), the accepted alternative is to make a full and comprehensive record of the site through excavation, survey, drawings, photography and any other appropriate means/media. This is generally known as “preservation by record”.

There can be many reasons for carrying out archaeological research, but the principal ones are

  • Development-led work (what used to be called “Rescue”) now under the auspices of the NPPF but previously bedded in the system through PPG16 (Planning Policy Guidance 16, 1990, Archaeology and Planning) and PPG15 (Planning Policy Guidance 15, 1994, Planning and the Historic Environment). Archaeology is usually flagged up early if it is an issue in the development control process, and there may well be a requirement for pre-determination work.
  • Research-led work – generally academically driven, but also may be a result of local initiative eg through local history/archaeology societies. In theory this sort of work is more proactive than ‘rescue’, though often with a practical benefit of enhanced understanding (and therefore better site conservation/management). This should apply to development-led work as well, if not for the site itself (which may be partly or wholly destroyed by the development) then for the area around it.
  • Conservation and management-based projects – Conservation Plans, PARIS-style projects (PARIS = Preservation of Archaeological Remains In Situ, for instance the Globe Theatre in London), characterisation, topic-based surveys (eg ridge and furrow earthworks, preservation of barrows, dovecotes, 20th-century defence sites etc). This sort of work can be wholly proactive or a response to perceived threats (eg plough damage to earthwork sites).
  • Education, access and outreach – becoming increasingly important themes, and likely to become even more so in future. Essentially proactive, but may imply a reactive element as well. For instance the need to encompass impact appraisals on the sensitivity of archaeological remains where they are to be opened up to greater access. Any kind of site – below ground, earthwork or building – is vulnerable to damage from increased access. At many (maybe all) sites there will be a delicate balance between preservation and presentation.

4  An archaeological approach

Archaeological projects tend to go through several stages, working systematically and progressively from desk-based research through different levels of fieldwork (eg from non-intrusive surveys into various levels of excavation). The work should always culminate in the preparation of a report detailing the results. Such reports may be required at each successive stage – eg desk-based assessment, evaluation, and excavation/building/earthwork survey.

4.1 Appraisal of existing sources – making sure we know what we know!

Desk-based study

  • Archaeological resources (there is likely to be some overlap between these, but it is still essential to use as many of them as apply).
  • National (EHA/NBR – the English Heritage Archive and National Buildings Record – note that this is now fully unified in Swindon since the move there of the Greater London Buildings Record). Equivalents for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland.
  • County/regional/Unitary Authority planning-based systems. HERs (Historic Environment Records) most of which are computerised to a greater or lesser degree – some are now online, , and equivalents.
  • Urban (eg UAD/EUSs – Urban Archaeological Databases/Extended Urban Surveys).
  • Specific (eg National Trust, Ministry of Defence, some statutory undertakers such as water utilities).
  • Statutory designations – Scheduled Monument and Listed Building files in particular are likely to have useful information and references.
  • Antiquarian sources.
  • Maps and surveys, principally 16th century onwards (but with some hugely valuable medieval surveys, such as that of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury). Increasingly accurate from the 18th century as survey and reproduction techniques improved. Map regression - importance of using multiple editions to demonstrate change, especially when one gets Ordnance Survey coverage from the early 19th century onwards.
Early ordanance survey map
Early ordanance survey map
  • Published and archival sources – much now available online.
  • So-called ‘grey literature’ – especially past archaeological reports prepared for clients but usually in the public domain and available in one or more of the resources listed immediately below. A desk-based appraisal may already have been carried out for a building just down the road from yours, or a field close by. If so it should give you a good idea of what to expect, and any maps reproduced in it should be very useful for you.
  • Miscellaneous other sources – eg geotechnical information from boreholes etc may be very informative on soil depths and characteristics (but beware the term ‘made ground’ – it often includes layers of archaeological interest).

4.2 Fieldwork – looking for new evidence

Methods, in groups:

  • Non-intrusive – topographical survey, geophysics, air photos, LiDAR etc.
Drone photo
Drone photo
  • Intrusive – ranging from spade-pits up to large open-area excavations, with everything in-between.
  • Building surveys (these may benefit significantly from “opening up”, as this will expose previously-hidden fabric that may contain evidence for blocked doors, windows, building breaks etc). Earlier photographs may also provide evidence for now-hidden fabric and features. Note also potential for lightly intrusive work, eg mortar analysis, dendrochronology, and “borrowed” techniques such as Ground-Probing Radar, thermal imaging, laser scanning etc).
  • Watching briefs – monitoring building works, whether at/below ground or on a building.
  • Again strong emphasis on the value of combining techniques, staged approaches, and use of an ascending scale of intervention where each previous step informs and refines the next level of intervention.

4.3       Dissemination – what’s the point if no-one knows?

Providing clear, concise, accurate and factual reports is crucial. There is little or no point in carrying out archaeological research if no-one ever gets to find out what you did, or just as bad can’t understand your description (and interpretation) of it. Investigations, Surveys and Reports can take many forms.

  • Client and published reports. These provide full descriptions and interpretations of the work carried out, with specialist input as necessary (eg Roman pottery, pollen, scientific dating etc). Copies are deposited with NMR/SMR etc as matter of public record, and to become reference material in those sources. Desk-top studies are rarely published in their own right, though they may be referred to where a project goes on into fieldwork (which usually implies some sort of published report even if the results are negative, ie nothing significant is found). Published reports of fieldwork may take several years to produce depending on the complexity of the project and the amount of analysis required, and/or the publication cycle of the publisher.
  • Annual summaries. Typically short and without the level of detail required for a full report, but published very quickly – usually within a year of the work having been carried out. Especially important for larger, ongoing projects whether research or development-led.
  • Popular publications – ‘guidebook’ style, leaflets, Current Archaeology and similar magazines. Other media – TV, radio, internet etc.
  • Conferences, seminars, lectures, poster sessions etc – there is a big audience out there hungry to hear about what archaeologists are doing. There is also strong potential for and value in cross-discipline seminars and interchange, eg between engineers, architects and archaeologists.
  • Archives and finds – these contain both the original site records, finds etc, and also the full record and reporting of the post-fieldwork analysis. Archives are usually deposited with museums or equivalent repositories.


Graham Keevill March 2014
Keevill Heritage Ltd
85 Kynaston Road
OX11 8HA

Tel: 01235 511263, or mobile 07951 530926.