Can you dig it? Infrastructure and archaeology

In this series of blog posts Ellie Dewdney will be keeping you up to date with current issues that could affect Britain’s most special places and what the National Trust are doing to preserve these national treasures.

When it comes to archaeology it is an exciting time here at the Trust. To the delight of our team of archaeologists we have just purchased the vast Iron Age hill fort complex at Hambledon Hill, Dorset. It would probably be fair to describe this as the most important archaeological acquisition we have made in 30 years.

Part of the Hambledon Hill earthworks

Part of the Hambledon Hill earthworks

But is not all about purchasing power – our archaeologists like to get their hands dirty too. Earlier this year a team lead by the Trust’s Midland’s Archaeologist, Rachael Hall, found a hoard of 26 Roman and Late Iron Age coins in Reynard’s Kitchen Cave.

Reynard's Kitchen Cave

Reynard’s Kitchen Cave

Unsurprisingly, archaeology is important to the Trust and we firmly believe that excavation can play a big part in furthering our understanding of Britain’s most loved historic places. And via our Archaeological and Historic Landscape Survey Programme we are continuing to make exciting new discoveries about the landscapes we own.

However, it might surprise some of you out there to know that it isn’t always archaeological teams like ours that act as the catalyst for many discoveries. The creation of new infrastructure such as roads, tunnels and railway lines often has a part to play.

Meaning a project on the scale of HS2 throws up tantalising possibilities. Certainly, recent history is littered with examples of the influence infrastructure development can have over archaeology.


The creation of subway or tube networks has long proved a fruitful means of discovery. Countless cities have stumbled upon archaeological gems through this type of building work.

Athens is famous for its abundance of historical artefacts and buildings. But two new metro lines (that were intended to be opened in the run up to the 2004 Olympics) added 30,000 new objects to Athens collection, many of which are now on display in the cities metro stations.

Section of the ground on display at Dafni station of Athens Metro system, showing stratification from various historical periods.

Section of the ground on display at Dafni station of Athens Metro system, showing stratification from various historical periods.

Similarly, German archaeologists working on a light rail tunnel in Cologne between 2004 and 2010 got rather more than they bargained for. A team of well over 100 archaeologists spearheaded a massive archaeological project which unearthed a treasure trove of finds – the most impressive of which being a 2000 year old Roman freight ship.

The Channel Tunnel

If you are looking for an example a little bit closer to home, look no further than the Channel Tunnel Rail Project. Better access to the continent was not the only product of this mammoth (pardon the pun) 15 year project.

Inside the Channel Tunnel

Inside the Channel Tunnel

With the first 29 mile section of the line averaging almost 2 important digs per mile, archaeologists often described the excavations as ‘one long string of pearls’. The £5.2b link project uncovered finds from varied periods of Britain’s history including a Neolithic Long House, a Roman Villa, a Medieval Manor House and even mummified cats that were used to deter evil spirits.

This is what a mummified cat looks like.

This is what a mummified cat looks like.


What’s more is that this scale and rate of discovery is still going on elsewhere. London’s underground Crossrail project is by no means just the domain of engineers. Europe’s largest infrastructure project also claims the title of Britain’s largest archaeological scheme.

This work is still some way off completion but the tunnel has already thrown up, in particular, a huge number of osteological finds (or bones). The archeologists may have expected to find skeletal remains at a site which was once the burial ground of the notorious asylum Bedlam. However, a collection of Roman skulls was rather more surprising and it’s been suggested these could be victims of Boudicca’s 61AD revolution.

A snapshot of one of the crossrail excavations.

A snapshot of one of the crossrail excavations.

So history makes it clear that archaeological discoveries and big infrastructure often go hand in hand. However, the water is slightly muddied; while there are those who champion building projects as a driver for archaeological progress there are an equal number of sceptics who label big infrastructure as archaeologically undesirable ….


One thought on “Can you dig it? Infrastructure and archaeology

  1. Reblogged this on FragmeNTs and commented:
    Ellie Dewdney takes us on a journey from a Wessex hilltop via a Peak District cave, and tunnels far and wide into the sometimes unexpected places that archaeologists find evidence that reveals the story of our past

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