Can you dig it? Infrastructure and past archaeological mistakes

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.

As discussed in the previous post ‘Can you dig it? Infrastructure and archaeology’ it is difficult to deny the fact that infrastructure projects can help reveal unexpected archaeological finds. But excavation is essentially a destructive process. Although objects and artefacts can often be removed from the ground they are still isolated from their original context.

The HS2 line has already proved a highly controversial prospect and this post looks into why, archaeologically, it could be considered as detrimental.

What a HS2 train could look like.

What a HS2 train could look like.

Past Mistakes

Hindsight is a powerful tool in this discussion. Certain other projects have failed to handle archaeological discoveries in an appropriate way.

If we return to the Channel Tunnel Project (if you are drawing a blank at this reference go back and read the earlier post), many would suggest its archaeological practice was not always up to code.

This is how events unfolded:

  • A large cemetery near to St Pancras had to be removed in order to accommodate a new rail terminal.
  • Archaeologist were given two months to attempt to contact any relatives of the deceased (many of whom were French emigres seeking refuge from the French Revolution) but ran out of time to complete this task.
  • So under a parliamentary act the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Company legally moved the bodies.
  • However, groups such as English Heritage were highly critical of the way this was handled, saying that the some 4,000 bodies were effectively tipped into a mass grave. Hardly the embodiment of the idea rest in peace or, arguably, in accordance with the directive to move bodies with ‘respect and dignity’.
Maybe not the nicest thing to find digging.

Maybe not the nicest thing to find digging.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to HS2 considering it is estimated the line could disturb up to 50,000 graves. The Anglican Church has voiced its concerns over the impacts HS2 is likely to have on burials and has called for greater ‘ecclesiastical safeguards’.

At present it is thought that HS2 will affect several graveyards including:

  • An 18th Century Euston Graveyard with roughly 30,000 deceased.
  • A 12th Century graveyard at Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire.

And it isn’t just the handling of human remains that might prove problematic. Archaeological sites with immobile features and earthworks are likely to be sacrificed to this train of destruction (sorry couldn’t resist). Although features such as roads and temples will be archaeologically recorded the possibility of further study by future archaeologists is effectively wiped out.

Places at risk

Village at Doddershall: The Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society have voiced their fears over a buried historic village in the fields near to Doddershall House – which evidence suggests could be over 500 years old. The track itself is set to destroy a half mile section of the village, with access roads likely to cause more damage.

Farmland near Doddershall House.

Farmland near Doddershall House.

Historic Battlefield of Edgcote: This site in Northamptonshire, which played host to the battle of Edgcote on the 26th July in 1469 (when the forces of a leading noble, Richard Neville, defeated those of King Edward IV’s – something that might be familiar to any of you who watched the BBC’s The White Queen!), is likely to be sliced in two.

And as an English Heritage representative commented a ‘high order of archaeological potential can be anticipated here’ though what exactly lies beneath the soil is relatively unknown. Although this site was granted listed status soon after its discovery, HS2 is one of the only current projects that has the power to effectively ignore this designation.

Unexpected Discoveries

This latter example also touches on a potentially bigger problem. HS2 has been designed to minimise the potential for making unexpected discoveries but the construction of the line and accompanying buildings is still likely to unveil archaeological sites and features that are, as yet, unidentified. What we can currently see may be the top of the archaeological iceberg. It is difficult to predict either the scale/importance of the discoveries that could take place or the additional opposition significant finds could generate.

This might seem like a rather pessimistic post but it finishes on a more optimistic note. Although we cannot really guess what hand archaeologists will be dealt when it comes to HS2 and there are probably going to be many opportunities to make mistakes, its creation could also mark a golden opportunity …

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