Saturday, 25 July 2015

Archaeology, Austerity and Why Historic Environment Records Matter

Open area excavations for the Alcester to Evesham Bypass, Warwickshire, September 1993 (photo: Dan Hicks)

Last week I was one of the studio guests for an edition of BBC Radio 4’s weekly Making History programme, which will be broadcast on Tuesday 28 July, and will then be available to 'listen again' on the BBC iPlayer

Part of the programme explores the potential implications for Local Archaeology Services of the Government's Spending Review this autumn. In doing so, it touched on several themes that we have been exploring through our ESRC research project From Museums to the Historic Environment (in partnership with the Portable Antiquities Scheme).

This blog post expands on the discussion that Mike Heyworth from the Council for British Archaeology and I had on the show, and some of the excellent points made by John Lewis (General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London) during the broadcast. 

In this post, I want to underline the broader significance of local authority Historic Environment Records (HERs) as unique, often neglected or overlooked, and highly fragile cultural resources. I also argue that we need to improve HERs' national coherence, their public accessibility and profile, and the stability of their future funding. One important part of the way forward may be to build new connections and re-connections between Historic Environment Records and local authority museums.

What are England’s ‘Historic Environment Records’?
The archaeological sector in the UK is tremendously fragmented, and is going through a period of radical change. There are more than 5,000 professional archaeologists, employed by a range of private companies and government agencies, in the UK today. The work of the majority of these is paid for by developers in advance of building projects like housing estates, offices or shopping centres, or infrastructure projects like roads, railways or pipelines. But archaeologists working in local authorities play a crucial role in the planning process – advising on the potential impact of development on archaeological remains, and on how such impacts, and the hold-ups and costs for developers that can result from them, can be avoided. To inform these decisions, over the past 40 years archaeologists based in local authorities have developed geographical databases, known as Historic Environment Records (HERs).[1]

In England, there are more than eighty Historic Environment Records (HERs) and equivalent bodies. The range from large County Councils who provide data to District and Borough Councils for a fee, to databases managed by National Parks and City Council’s ‘urban archaeological databases’. Information is offered free of charge to members of the public and academic researchers, or charged for private companies. But England’s HERs are very exposed to the effects of austerity on local government budgets. This is because under the National Planning Policy Framework (introduced in 2012) there is no statutory requirement for councils to provide an archaeological advisory service.

HERs and the Planning Process
The potential for cuts to Historic Environment Records is real, and this is a matter for considerable concern for all those involved in the planning process, from developers to local communities to national government departments. For England to deliver the scale of housing developments that are planned over the next decade, and major infrastructure projects like High Speed 2, it is essential that developers can receive accurate advice at all stages of the planning process, without delays. Since the 1970s, the expertise of local authority planning archaeologists has put an end to the prospect of developments running into unexpected archaeological discoveries, and thus into long, costly delays - progress that could be reversed if cuts in planning archaeology budgets go ahead.

Mitigating the effects of future development on the preserved material remains of the past is a central function of British archaeology today. Maintaining the funding for the specialist archaeologists who work in planning departments across the UK will be crucial if the planning processes are to cope locally as the scale of house-, road- and railway-building increases. But the implications of potential cuts to HERs would reach much further than just the planning process.

Why Historic Environment Records Matter
We often imagine the past as located at sites that we can visit as members of the public. The idea of locating the past at special places – historic houses, ancient monuments, parks and gardens – to which a visit could be made was one very powerful way of thinking about the past which emerged in the late 19th century. The idea lives on through the work of a wealth of local museums and garden trusts, through the work of the National Trust, and was updated in April 2015 when English Heritage was restructured to form a ‘national collection’ of 400 historic places.

Sites like Stonehenge or Hampton Court Palace form part of their local Historic Environment Record – but only one tiny part. HERs hold entries for all such visitor attractions, and also for designated sites – scheduled ancient monuments or listed buildings – that are not open to the public. But they also record a whole range of sites that fall inbetween such places – earthworks in fields, the lines of Roman Roads, Civil War battlefields, antiquarian find-spots, or the sites of modern excavations the artefacts from which are now in the local museum. They are the one place where these small traces - those traces that make places what they are today -  are recorded together. So HERs record not the just past that you can visit – but the ordinary past that we live alongside every day. 

This diverse range of local knowledge means that HERs are much more than the inheritors of records of the surveys undertaken made by the Royal Commissions on (Ancient and) Historical Monuments in England, Scotland and Wales, which were established in 1908. Their focus on local detail is perhaps best described as a continuation of a tradition begun by the first antiquaries and county historians in the 17th century – the ‘chorographers’ (land writers) like William Dugdale, Robert Plot and John Aubrey, whose pioneering work informed the later surveys of ancient monuments undertaken by the Ordnance Survey from the 1790s, the debates leading to the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882, and the early 20th century geographical approaches of archaeologists like OGS Crawford.

In the post-war period, HERs built on this antiquarian attention to local detail in two distinct ways, which have formed much of their wider cultural significance today.

First, HERs and local museums were the places where post-war Britain recorded what was being destroyed through modern development. Taken together, the objects and archives in museums and the maps and data in the HERs represent the traces of how our society marked transformation, change and loss in our cities and countryside through construction. They are the archival negative of the motorways, ring roads and towerblocks that we built – a form of collective memory made as British landscapes were transformed through building projects. 

Second, HERs were built at a time when the emerging fields of landscape archaeology and local history put started to value the ordinary, everyday, commonplace traces of the past. In practice, they came to translate into a geographical database an idea from the historian WG Hoskins - that the English landscape is ‘the richest historical document we possess’. The result was not only a uniquely significant resource for academic research and local history – but also for a particular kind of history. We have to make the case for these kinds of sites - what Patrick Wright once nicely described as "scarcely visible ridges in the English grass" - clearly and carefully. The ubiquity, ordinariness and fragmented nature of the material traces of the human past recorded in HERs is an antiquarian counterbalance to the more usual focus in "heritage" on the special, the complete, the elite. In this way, HERs contain materials with which we can imagine, write and celebrate the ordinary histories of the landscapes and cityscapes in which we live and work.

Could we claim the development of Historic Environment Records as one of the major achievements of British modernism? What is certain is that a way of thinking about the past – a kind of modern antiquarianism that located fragments of our national past, and built databases and maps with them – came to be bound up with the planning process. 

In making these future-oriented pasts post-war archaeologists created uniquely significant resources. Today, the 21st-century archaeologist finds herself or himself in that future. There are at least three challenges.

First, the patchiness of HER data on a national scale is a challenge, despite much excellent collaboration on data standards and common terminology. The problem here is the fragmentation of HERs across eighty differently-funded databases.

Second, public accessibility to, and understanding of, HER data remains limited. The Heritage Gateway is an important national resource for archaeological research, but HERs are potentially tremendously significant outside the archaeological community, as resources for education, tourism, and local history. Some HERs have pioneered projects showing how this can work very well. But public awareness, understanding and use of HERs will never develop as long as they remain principally a planning database.

Third, HERs have gradually become, since the 1960s, increasingly distant from other parts of the local authority that deal with the past - local museums and county record offices. Archaeology’s relationship with the planning process remains an important one, but HERs have grown into something that is too important as a cultural resource to leave only to county council planning departments to manage and maintain. A central element here is the knowledge and expertise of the local authority archaeologist. Connections between HERs and museum archaeology are often very limited - but both are dealing with archives and collections that relate to understanding the past landscapes of their regions.

What kind of national past do we want to have? The Historic Environment is about recording the ordinary, ubiquitous, fragmentary nature of the material remains of the human past. Alongside the past we can visit is the past that we live. Valuing the historic environment is not just about valuing the kind of history that focuses on the minority who are visible in the documentary record – it is mainly about the majority who are visible only in the traces of their lives, fragments of which survive all around us. 

Towards a Resilient HER and Local Museums Sector
Who is going to stick up for this kind of past - the past under your back yard, or in the field that you walk in, or the street that you work on? National museums and famous sites can ask the visitor to put a tenner in the box – but what about these records of our ordinary national past? Local authority museums could have an important role to play here.

Archaeologists have previously relied on developers to pay for this kind of archaeology, and the planning use of HERs continues to be a central role for them. But HERs are now too valuable to risk their future solely in the hands of eighty cash-strapped planning departments, or of the private sector.

A strong, resilient, more integrated HER sector is important not only for archaeologists, but as a national cultural resource that is grounded in the histories of local communities. This resource is the expertise of archaeologists as well as the datasets themselves. If HERs are run down and diminished, this will not just be a loss of technical knowledge but a national cultural loss.

One part of achieving resilience and stability for HERs, I believe, is for the connections with local authority museums to be re-established. Of course, local authority museums face their own challenges in terms of potential cuts. But fewer HERs serving larger areas, based in museums, might provide places for local archaeology and history to be reimagined. HERs would encourage museums to look beyond their walls and to rethink the value of their collections, while museums would bring to HERs expertise in public engagement. Connections already made through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and starting to be made through the CBA's Local Heritage Engagement Network project provide links that can be built on in new ways, and wider collaborations – especially with Higher Education – could further reinforce local networks.

Antiquarianism 2.0
Historic Environment Records are unique, sometimes neglected, always fragile cultural resources. Their creation is one of the major achievements of modern British archaeology, but we need to improve their national coherence, to enhance their public accessibility and profile, and to secure their future funding. Connections with the planning process have been central to the development of HERs, but newly strengthened relationships with local authority museums, and a new funding model that recognizes their role as crucial regional cultural resources, will be important elements in their  future development - as we reinvent antiquarianism for the 21st century.

[1] My focus here is on Historic Environment Records in England. In Scotland provision for the historic environment will change this autumn, with the merger of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) to form a new body – Historic Environment Scotland. There are seventeen local Historic Environment Records in Scotland which are facing many of the same challenges as those in England. Meanwhile in Wales and Northern Ireland, Historic Environment Records are funded directly by the devolved national assemblies, through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts.


  1. " In Scotland provision for the historic environment will change this autumn, with the merger of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) to form a new body – Historic Environment Scotland." This is true, but please note that this sentence relates only to the national records.

    There are seventeen local Historic Environment Records in Scotland which are facing many of the same challenges as described in the article above: see

  2. Many thanks for your comment - I've expanded the note on Scotland a little further, for clarity.

  3. A useful post, thanks Dan. I am looking forward to the broadcast. The situation in Wales offers a potential solution elsewhere in the UK. The HERs of the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts are very consistent in terms of software and content, and offer good public access online. We in Wales hope that the current provisions in the new Historic Environment (Wales) Bill - which will place a statutory obligation on LPAs to maintain HERs - will survive when the Bill comes before the Senedd in spring 2016. A regionalised model in England would enable many of the resourcing and harmonisation issues which you note to be addressed.

  4. Dan,
    Thanks for a very honest, mildly emotive, article on the dangers facing local heritage today. What must be stressed though is the need for local community groups to engage with their local authorities proactively to help to save their local HERs before the cuts are imposed.
    My group has become involved with the CBA LHEN and also engaged in a positive way locally with the local authority to work jointly both physically and also suggesting possible future models.
    You correctly mention engagement between local museums and the HER. I think however that a potential model must involve a combined, joined up, local heritage service that brings together, County Archives, museums, PAS and importantly artifact archives. This service must be fully digitized and made available through open access to all. There may also be a way forward in developing approved external sources directly inputting and updating local records.
    I am open minded about merging of HERs, this will be fine when they are fully digitized but practically difficult for local users until then.