Why You Might Need an Archaeologist Before You Can Build

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Florence Laino is an Associate Partner at L – P : Archaeology, where she oversees everything from small archaeological assessments for private residential projects like ours to the discovery of a previously unknown Medieval kitchen beneath Hampton Court Palace.

Our clients are often surprised to discover how much archaeology can impact their projects – especially during planning – so we asked Florence to share how the hidden world beneath your property could make or break your planning approval.

When and why you need archaeological assessments for residential developments

Many local planning authorities designate areas with a known archaeological interest with potential for new discoveries as Archaeological Priority Areas. Planning approval for any construction works that involve excavation in these zones is conditional on the completion of some form of archaeological survey. This will also likely be the case if your home is located within the boundary of a Scheduled Monument, Registered Park and Garden, on a Registered Battlefield, or even sometimes if it is a Listed Building.

An example of an Archaeological Priority Area; the Holland Park, Campden Hill and Kensington APA, where there is evidence of complex Prehistoric, Roman and Saxon settlements.

Many private residential projects only discover that they have to carry out an archaeological assessment after submitting their planning application, when the local authority informs them of their requirement.

Ideally, archaeological assessments will be carried out prior to the planning application being submitted. This ensures that the design and schedule of works can take any findings into account in order to minimise delays and ensure compliance with the National Planning Policy Framework, in respect of our clients’ duty of care for the historic environment.

We begin with a Desk Based Assessment where we use planning policies, data and archival research to determine the potential for archaeology on the site and what the significance of the potential archaeology is likely to be. Based on our findings, we can recommend whether the planning application is likely to go through without any need for archaeological works or if the client will be required to commission an archaeological evaluation.

Completing a Desk Based Assessment for one of our clients. Image Jane Maxwell Hyslop: copyright L – P : Archaeology.

An archaeological evaluation is where we get hands-on with the site. Using either a mechanical digger or hand-excavation – depending on which is most appropriate for the site – we excavate trial pits or trenches typically equating to about a 5% sample of the impact area (which is any area where ground reduction is planned).

Usually this can go one of two ways:

1. Evidence of archaeology is not found on the site, we produce a report for the local planning authority to discharge the condition, and our involvement is brought to a close.

2. Archaeology is found and further excavation works may be required to determine the extent and significance of the discoveries.

Most of the time, especially for private domestic projects, the second outcome is far from the end of the world. Very few sites reveal archaeology of national significance; we simply proceed by recording and removing the archaeology for the client, discharging their condition and enabling them to progress smoothly onto the construction phase of their project.

One of our archaeologists producing drawn records of archaeology, before excavation. Image copyright L – P : Archaeology.

It is very rare indeed, that we will discover something exceptional on a domestic project which would require the archaeology to be preserved in its place in situ. The likelihood for a Roman temple or a Medieval burial ground to be found on your site usually becomes clear after completion of the Desk Based Assessment, which underlines why it is extremely important to get our archaeological consultants involved at the earliest stages.

Whilst the prospect of finding archaeology on your site may feel quite daunting initially, often our clients are excited to discover the unique remains buried just below the surface. Both small and large development projects have the ability to contribute positively to the heritage of our local places and the appreciation of our shared historic environment.

Our in-house archaeological specialists enable our clients to identify the significance of findings quickly. Image Jane Maxwell-Hyslop: copyright L – P : Archaeology.

On the other end of the scale, we have been working closely with High Speed 2 Limited on several sites throughout Buckinghamshire, including one burial ground in Stoke Mandeville in use of 800 years. The project is generating a huge volume of artefacts and nationally significant material, which will require much specialist analysis and will result in a major publication.

Case study: DGA’s Richmond Riverside Victorian restoration

DGA contacted us to carry out an archaeological evaluation for their Richmond Riverside project, which is a locally listed Victorian building in an Archaeological Priority Area. The Royal Borough of Richmond Upon Thames (RBRUT) are known for their very conservative and heritage-focused approach to planning, so DGA wisely contacted us very early in the process after having completed a Desk Based Assessment.

It turned out that our early involvement was vital because our hand-dug test pit revealed buried building remains on the site. Had this been discovered only after construction started, the project may have had to be paused so that archaeological works could be carried out.

A small part of the remains of the Richmond Water Works uncovered on the Richmond Riverside project. Image copyright L – P : Archaeology.

The area occupied by the house was known to be the site of an early waterworks, established in the 1680s. As technology advanced, this was gradually converted into more organised pumping houses in the 18th century, before being demolished in the late Victorian era and replaced with the villas which line the riverside today.

These pumping stations were vital to the infrastructure of Victorian London as they supplied clean water from Richmond to the inner parts of London, where the water was foetid. Thankfully, as water quality improved, they become obsolete.

Plan and Section of the 19th century Richmond Water Works, Surrey. Image copyright Richmond-Upon-Thames Studio Library and Archive PLA/12258

We don’t know much about the development of early water management industries, it would have been quite special to have found any evidence from the 1680s – however our archaeologists quickly identified that the remains uncovered were of a much later date. As such the walls were able to be recorded and swiftly removed within the scope of the two day evaluation.

Specialist analysis of the bricks confirmed the dating of the bricks between 1784 – 1835 AD, which was compiled into a report containing measured drawings and photographs, issued to the RBRUT in order to fully discharge the condition. These results will be entered into a national database of excavation evidence, which will allow future researchers, archaeologists and historians to use our findings – all made possible because of the development work.

This project went smoothly, even with the discovery of archaeology, because DGA knew to involve us early in the project. It is crucial that you are aware of the archaeological potential of your site before you consider building works so that you can make similar preparations.

To learn more about the work we do at L – P : Archaeology, click here to visit our website or get in touch at [email protected]

Florence Laino MSc ACIfA