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Archaeological surveys: why you might need one and what they involve

One of the main reasons for carrying out an archaeological survey is to understand what lies beneath the ground in question. Archaeological surveys are particularly relevant to developers who must demonstrate the full details of any site they aim to get planning permission for.

Let’s find out more about archaeology surveys.

Significant archaeological finds were discovered among the ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort along the route of Hadrian’s Wall.

Archaeological surveys and development schemes

The links between archaeology and development have increased over the years as developers have been required to show that they have fully considered a site’s historical significance. To satisfy a local planning authority, a developer must look at the constraints of the site (reasons that could restrict development) and the impact of development on it.

Increasing legislation has been brought in to protect historical assets. In 1990, Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 was introduced to ensure that archaeology was considered by planning authorities when deciding on planning applications. This has been followed by further legislation within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to make the protection of historical assets part of sustainable development.

The law requires an archaeological survey to be undertaken whenever a development scheme could have an impact on the protection of the historic landscape and features. Completed archaeology surveys will contain information about many factors above and below the ground.

What does an archaeological consultant do?

Also known as archaeologists, archaeological surveyors, or heritage consultants, architectural consultants operate in a specialised consultancy area and are qualified to carry out architectural services. Much of their work is done on development sites, creating reports for clients that detail all the information needed to progress a site, providing the necessary mitigation if required, to the point where planning permission can be obtained.

Archaeological consultants at work detecting artifacts of historic importance.

Archaeological surveys and planning permission

An archaeological assessment on a development site is carried out to protect the site in terms of conservation and preserve the historic environment and assets. If a local authority has a robust structure in place, very few planning applications will be turned down because of their predicted impact on archaeological sites, saving developers money.

The system involves two sets of professional archaeologists. The first work for planning authorities, reviewing planning applications and proposing the changes needed to protect local historical assets to satisfy the law and the council’s requirements. The second are archaeological surveyors engaged by a developer to survey a site; these archaeologists investigate whether there are assets of historical value and present mitigation for the impacts of the proposed scheme.

Archaeological services

What is an archaeological survey?

It involves an archaeological surveyor assessing and recording information about a proposed development site in terms of the scheme envisioned for it. The site’s natural and man-made features above and below ground will be examined for potential hidden problems.

Desktop research will be conducted to identify any designated heritage assets on or close to the site and features such as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, while non-designated assets may include notable features in the area or finds from previous archaeological investigations.

This will be followed by a physical field survey when an archaeologist will inspect the proposed development site for archaeological remains on or adjacent to the site, or nearby sites.

The resulting archaeology report will contain details of the nature of the survey, findings, and recommendations to mitigate the effects of the planned development on historic assets.

 An archaeological assessment will include many different factors including:

  • Aerial photography which can reveal remains of buildings just below the topsoil.
  • National Grid connections.
  • Contour lines.
  • Earthworks.
  • Archaeological site observations.
  • Previous development plans.
  • Site evaluation.
  • Walkover survey report.
  • Detailed summary of relevant factors.
Archaeological material is examined at an archaeological survey carried out at a dig in Orkney.

When do you need an archaeological survey?

The need to satisfy planning requirements for a development scheme is one of the main reasons for an archaeology survey. Whenever a developer aims to build on historically significant land, an archaeological survey will be needed as part of the planning process. Unless this happens, applications for planning approval will be rejected until the applicant can demonstrate consideration of legislation relating to conservation, preservation and protection of the site’s historical assets.

The archaeology consultant’s report will outline the site’s historic features and explain what needs to be done to protect them during the development. As well as fulfilling a legal requirement, in many cases archaeology surveys can also give a developer useful information that could benefit the project. The completed report can be presented to the local planning department and plays an important role in achieving planning consent.

Undeveloped land where historical features have not been identified could still require a survey. Getting an archaeology survey carried out in the early stages of a development project can avoid problems later, such as drainage and subsidence. The level of archaeological work needed will vary according to the site and the project.

Archaeology and planning law

Anyone ignoring the requirement for an archaeological survey on a historically important site is in breach of English law. There are strict penalties for not complying with the law, ranging from fines to imprisonment and long delays or your scheme foundering completely. Relevant laws on planning and archaeology include the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, the National Heritage Act 1983, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the Treasure Act 1996, and the National Heritage Act 2002.

Archaeological surveys: the techniques used

Survey methods

As archaeological features can be found above and below ground, two survey methods are used.

Surface field survey

An archaeological consultant will conduct a physical archaeological field survey of the site at ground level, looking at visible archaeological features and those that may be semi-buried, suggesting that items of interest may lie under the ground. The results of this non-intrusive survey are recorded in a written report with photographs attached.

Geophysical surveys

To investigate features underground an archaeological consultant will use specialist surveying equipment. Geophysical surveys involve subsurface testing and exploration, using highly specialised equipment such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), technology that sends radio waves into the ground to identify buried archaeological materials. If the non-intrusive desk study data does not explain the results detected, the surveyor may decide that more detail is needed. An excavation of the area in question will then follow and a full below ground survey will be completed.

Archaeological survey equipment

While some exceptional sites require more specialist equipment, typical equipment includes a compass, a GPS global positioning system, GPR ground penetrating radar, a magnetometer, a mattock, a ranging pole, a resistivity meter and a theodolite.

How much do archaeology surveys cost?

The costs will depend on the services required, the number of archaeologists needed, timescales, the size and geographical location of the site. A trusted archaeology firm with significant archaeological resources will be able to provide specialised consultancy. They will give an excellent service, talk you through the process, offer expert advice and further information about the different kinds of survey.

You may want to select a firm with sufficiently knowledgeable, qualified archaeologists who are registered with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) and associated to relevant English heritage organisations.

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