The Changing Face of Buildings Archaeology in Britain 2011 to 2017

WythenshaweScannedSection

Modern buildings archaeology often requires multiple data gathering technique. Here at Wythenshawe Hall in Manchester laser-scanning, photogrammetry and hand-drawn recording have all been used to record one elevation of the building

Being Chair of any of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists’ (CIfA) special interest groups is a privilege. In my time as Chair of their Buildings Archaeology Group (2011 to 2017) I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some great professionals, visit some intriguing buildings, and also try to contribute in a small way to the development of buildings archaeology within CIfA. So having stepped down after six years at the helm I thought that I would provide a personal view on some of the changes seen in our branch of archaeology during that period. In particular, I would like to highlight what I see as four important developments.

The first is a methodological change, in the emergence of the Historic Building Assessment as part of the planning process. In the last six years’ this form of rapid assessment has become very common, especially for pre-planning historic building applications. Methodologically, Historic Building Assessment is a partner to the archaeological desk-based assessment, and perhaps owes something of its origin to the approach to buildings taken in many environmental impact assessments. Since the approach is so new it is not, as yet, included in the CIFA standards and guidance for buildings archaeology, which is one of the reasons why BAG has started the process of revising these guidelines.

WythenshaweScannedSectionB

Interpreting the Wythenshawe section: work by Salford Archaeology at the University of Salford

The second development is the continuing impact of electronic methods of data recovery. Laser scanning has been with us for several decades. In the last six years, though, we have seen the rise of cheap and powerful drone technology and the availability of photogrammetry programmes that can even be used on you mobile phone to create 3D images. As ever, the technological advances in software and hardware are eye-catching, yet this represents merely the data-gathering stage of the buildings archaeology process. Surveys that would have taken weeks can now be undertaken in just a few hours. Yet, the core skill of the buildings archaeologist lies in interpreting that data, and for that individuals still need appropriate training in architectural styles, fabrics, forms, and chronology. Without interpretation the data is meaningless, which is why BAG continues to offer training days and advertises a variety of courses.

Thirdly, and most worryingly, there has been a further decline in local authority conservation officers and planning archaeologists. This has a number of consequences, the most common being the lack of local authority oversight of planning applications affecting historic buildings. This has led to missed recording or conservation opportunities and, sometimes, inadequate historic building planning conditions.

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Recent building guidance from HE produced with the help of local authority archaeology and conservation specialists

Lastly, and more positively, I’d like to highlight the start of the development of a national (at least for England) research framework for buildings. Funded by Historic England as part of their research framework update initiative, and undertaken by the University of Liverpool, this will be the first time that a national perspective has been compiled for the research themes in historic buildings. Such a research approach is embedded in archaeological practice, though less so on the conservation side of the profession. This initiative thus provides an opportunity to bring the conservation and archaeology sides of historic building analysis closer together by forging some common aims and dialogue. As such it’s possibly the most important development in the buildings archaeology field of the last six years and I look forward to seeing how CIfA BAG engage and promote this new framework.

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