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It’s a bit like the farmer with the fox, the hen and the bag of grain. Which are safe together? Conservation is sometimes about choices ….. rabbits do massive damage to bronze age barrows and Iron Age  hill forts, trees have often meant they have survived, but often the reverse…

Recently though, English Heritage has had to make an unusual choice: the removal of a beautiful stand of trees to protect a rabbit warren. The beech trees, on Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks are to be felled over a four-year period due to concerns their roots could start to damage an underground  medieval rabbit warren. A spokesman for English Heritage said they were working with the Quantock Hills AONB Service to manage the land, adding: “We agreed that the needs of this scheduled monument, which is at high risk, take precedence over the beautiful but relatively young trees.”

A local walker disagrees, saying he is “gobsmacked” and that it would leave the skyline bare for the next 20 years. He said: “I understand we need to preserve archaeological heritage but we should be thinking about protecting the areas millions of people recognise.”  EH and the AONB Service feel differently and say they intend to replace the trees. To add a final complication EH mention that “Unfortunately damage is already being caused due to erosion of the surface layers of the scheduled monument due to the herd of Exmoor ponies, which use the location for shelter.”

So should the ponies be shot?! ** Or the beautiful trees be cut down? Or the present-day rabbits be culled? Or should the fort and the warren be left to further deteriorate?

.

** No.

Exactly a year ago today we published this plea made by Heritage Action Founder Member Jamie Stone on a forum. We think it’s worth repeating – every year if necessary. How about saying something similar on your front page English Heritage?

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a digger destroying a stone row, a quarrying company destroying unique evidence of temporary camps around a henge, modern poems placed over a prehistoric landscape, a farmer allowing livestock to slowly destroy cairns or ploughing flat a round barrow, thousands of people stealing our heritage knowledge in the name of a hobby every weekend, landowners driving 4x4s across chambered tombs, tenant farmers flattening henges, 1000s of people denuding Avebury’s banks by not keeping to paths, unused roads being built over unique archaeology, 100s of people leaving tealights and garbage in barrows or one solitary person clambering to the top of a dolmen.

IT’S WRONG.

Don’t tell me it causes no damage. It doesn’t matter that in the greater scheme of things it’s practically irrelevant, because as the people that actually give a damn we should be setting the highest possible standard when we visit a site. We must do that because frankly, most people don’t know, they simply don’t realise.”

by Sandy Gerrard

It was reported earlier this year in the Heritage Journal that a ban on the use of asulam could have a serious impact on the control of destructive bracken on enormous numbers of archaeological sites. The Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) has recently announced that the application for an Emergency Authorisation has been approved.  This is good news and means that the chemical control of bracken will be possible in 2013.

The authorisation will allow restricted use of asulam (in Asulox) in the UK, during 2013, although the long-term aim is for asulam to be approved in the EU. However, additional data must be collected to support the application and it will not be until 2016, at the earliest, that approval may take place. In the meantime it should be emphasised that the Emergency Authorisation period is for a period of 120-days, from 20 May 2013. Full details of a press release issued by the Bracken Control Group can be found here.

This is an important issue for the management of upland archaeology in particular and a long term solution needs to be reached.

One of the lucky ones: Boscaswen Un stone circle, partly overwhelmed by bracken years ago but (now liberated thanks to painstaking clearance work by CASPN).

One of the lucky ones: Boscaswen Un stone circle years ago, mostly overwhelmed by bracken (now liberated thanks to painstaking clearance work by Cornwall Ancient Sites Protection Network).

by Sandy Gerrard

From 1st January 2013 it became illegal to possess, store or use Asulam products. So what? How will this affect our heritage? Asulam is the main weapon used to control bracken.  This is important because bracken rhizomes destroy archaeology and the plant itself smothers and conceals many incredibly important archaeological sites of all periods.

The Bracken Control Group set up and co-ordinated by The Heather Trust are working very hard with partners to get Emergency Authorisation to use Asulam in 2013. If unsuccessful the large-scale control of bracken on archaeological sites will cease and inevitably important deposits and remains will be damaged at the same time as our heritage disappears under a thick blanket of bracken plants.

Some people may welcome this development and see the inevitable “return to nature” as a good thing, especially as another obnoxious chemical will have been removed from the environment. The issues involved are complicated and if you would like to find out more please have a look at the Bracken Control Website  before making up your mind.

I have seen for myself the impact that bracken rhizomes have on archaeology and how many times has your enjoyment of a site been spoilt by the presence of bracken?

Only a single orthostat within this Bronze Age house can be seen

Only a single orthostat within this Bronze Age house can be seen
Bracken rhizomes adjacent to a Bronze Age wall

Bracken rhizomes adjacent to a Bronze Age wall

We’ve featured the London Stone a couple  of times previously, but it seems you can’t keep a good stone down! Let’s face it, anything that can withstand the constant building and rebuilding that goes on in the City of London for as long as it has, has to be admired and celebrated.

This time, it’s the turn of the Londonist web site to bring our attention once more to the plight of this remarkable symbol of London’s endurance. Whilst the article doesn’t bring much new to the debate, it does highlight just exactly what a mess the whole planning process is in.

As regular readers will guess when it comes to taking sides, our stance is that the stone has moved in the past, but enough is enough. It should remain part of the infrastructure of the City where it currently is, and not be exhibited and gawped at like one of Britain’s Secret Treasures in a museum display.

While there is precedent for moving the relic, critics say Minerva’s plans would remove the Stone from the fabric of the City streets and make it little more than a lobby decoration. “Minerva’s grand design finally removes London Stone from the built environment,” blogger Diamond Geezer wrote when the plan was announced. “It’ll become a showcased exhibit — an ancient relic in a glass cage — rather than part of the everyday fabric of the city.”

English Heritage are inclined to agree. “We would question the concept of displaying the Stone at a new location and in a raised position within a modern glass case,” EH told us. “In our view, this would harm the significance of the Grade II* listed object, and there are no public benefits to the proposal that outweigh this harm.”

“Our preference would be for the setting and presentation of the Stone to be enhanced once the current building at No. 111 Cannon Street is redeveloped. At present, we are not convinced of the justification to remove the Stone to its proposed position in the Walbrook Building.”

Many of our ancient sites are in plain view close to roads, others lie hidden in the depths of the countryside and require significant effort to visit. Those that are easy to reach often suffer from wear and tear. The erosion on the banks at Avebury come to mind, as do measures to prevent erosion such as the less than seemly fences and path at Stonehenge – which are a constant reminder of the cleft stick the authorities are in when sites get too popular. Should they be disfigured by footfall or disfigured by measures to prevent them being disfigured?

Some years ago, when working on a voluntary basis for the Pagan Federation I had an idea for a small booklet that could be used to raise some funds. The booklet was to be a collaborative effort called ‘A Guide to Ancient Sacred Sites’ and was to take the form of a gazetteer. The Pagan Federation is formed into Districts and Regions, and I contacted various people around the Districts to get some information about the sites in their areas.

To my astonishment, although many thought it was a good idea – several said it would be a good help to Pagans on their travels – most did not want their own local sites included, and said they could not support the project if such-and-such a site were listed. They were largely happy for the sites already overrun by tourists to be included, but not the ones they considered ‘special’. This was against my concept of the project, which thus never got off the ground, and the booklet outline lies unused, hidden in the depths of my hard drive backups.

Now leaving aside the lay view that our ancient heritage sites cannot be considered ‘sacred’ as in many cases we have no definitive proof of how they were used, the question arises of how much should the sites be advertised to the general public?

There is no doubt that one of our chief remits here at Heritage Action is to bring ancient sites to the attention of the public so that an awareness of our past heritage can enrich our lives. But there is a delicate balance for many sites between neglect and over-use. For instance, I was surprised to note on a recent visit to Boscawen-Un that tramlines are starting to appear around the circle, from the number of visitors permabulating both inside and outside the circle. I have noticed a similar problem at the nearby Merry Maidens. Many years ago, when I first visited Boscaswen Un circle, the stones were barely visible above the gorse:

Largely thanks to the ground clearance efforts of CASPN the picture is much different now, the circle is festooned with bluebells in the summer, but note the ‘tracking’ in the grass which is starting to appear:

I visit this circle several times a year, and it is now rare that I have the place to myself unless the weather is inclement – a major factor being that a signpost is now visible on the nearby A30, and paths have been cleared through the gorse and bracken to the north, making access that much easier.

Is this a good thing? In some ways yes, in that many more people can enjoy the genus loci of this wonderful circle, but the impending issue of erosion is a worrying one. The tenet “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” is becoming a potentially damaging one, and maybe it’s time to come up with something new? “Visit, but leave as few footprints as possible“? Or do we just stop telling people that such places exist?

…but then society would be the loser, as a knowledge of our past affects us all in more ways than we can imagine – but that’s a topic for a future post.

The Malverns from The Cotswolds
(C) Heritage Action

A reminder that the controversy surrounding tree-felling work on the Iron Age fort at Midsummer Hill, Malvern remains unresolved. Two very different views have come to our attention.

One of our readers Mike Harwood has left a comment on the Heritage Journal saying

“Having just returned from a visit to Midsummer Hill I have to voice my horror, shock and grief as to what has been done there. This is vandalism of the worst kind. What has been a place of inspiration and beauty all my life is now a site of ugliness. A curse on those who orchestrated the tree slaying. No more please. Leave it be. Stop the felling immediately.”

On the other hand, in this recent press report Iain Carter, National Trust’s countryside manager for Herefordshire is quoted as saying:

“I have to say it looks fantastic. The ramparts are now clearly visible and all of a sudden you can understand the shape of the hillfort.”

Now, I know that headline sounds like something out of Monty Python:

Alan: Well, last week we showed you how to become a gynaecologist. And this week on ‘How to do it’ we’re going to show you how to play the flute, how to split an atom, how to construct a box girder bridge, how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, but first, here’s Jackie to tell you all how to rid the world of all known diseases.

Jackie: Hello, Alan.

Alan: Hello, Jackie.

Jackie: Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvelous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there’ll never be any diseases ever again.

Alan: Thanks, Jackie. Great idea.

Well, our idea isn’t quite that simplistic, there’s no substitute for years of studying and sheer hard work in the trenches. In fact, it’s not even our idea, but it will allow people who have always wanted to know how it feels to go on a dig to have that opportunity, with plenty of guidance and advice from experts on hand throughout the project. In the process, you’ll be doing it all in the knowledge that information will be saved every step of the way for a site that’s in danger of being lost forever. But first, a bit of background.

Many people with an interest in prehistory will have heard of Star Carr in Yorkshire, a Mesolithic site first excavated in 1949, and which has provided many rare discoveries, mainly due to the anaerobic conditions on the site, which allowed 11,000 year old wood to be excavated, still with the bark intact! However, in 2007, British Archaeology magazine reported that “Less than 5% of the site has been excavated and there is still much to learn…but time is running out. Although Star Carr has been studied for over 50 years, we may have less than five years before much of the waterlogged remains deteriorate completely.” Now whilst that prophecy has not come completely true, the situation at Star Carr remains grim.

What many people may not realise is that further south, on the outskirts of Peterborough, a much later Bronze Age site is in a very similar situation; only a small part has been excavated to date, anaerobic conditions have allowed a remarkable state of preservation teaching us much about the period, but the site is also in danger of drying out and being lost due to similar factors of modern farming and drainage techniques. This site is Flag Fen, first identified in 1982 by Dr Francis Pryor.

Now, given the importance and significance of the site, and the general lack of funding for non-development driven archaeology, a new idea has been put forward by DigVentures to:

  • raise funding for a much larger scale excavation.
  • project manage the excavation itself.

This idea involves Crowd-Sourcing and Crowd-Funding, where many people donate small (or not so small!) amounts toward the project. Everyone who donates becomes a part of the project, their involvement depending upon the level of donation.

So for instance, a £10 donation provides access to an online website for insights, news and updates throughout the project, plus a PDF version of the final excavation report and an invite to the wrap party at the end! £25 gets the above plus a printed copy of the report, and so on.

Where it gets interesting, and the reason for the headline above, is the £125 and above donation levels. At these levels, access to the actual site is available, with the chance to dig alongside the experts for a day or more. So, a real chance, at an affordable level, to try your hand on a real exvacation.

Work is scheduled to begin on site in July 2012. Some of us here in Heritage Action have already donated, although personally I’m not sure my knees are up to the rigours of actually excavating these days! If you’d like to become involved with this wonderful project, then visit the DigVentures site and sign up today, it takes less than 5 minutes to make a difference.

The eyes of the archaeology world will be on Peterborough, as if this idea proves popular (and they reached nearly 30% of their target funding within a week of project launch, which suggests it is) then there’s no telling how many more excavations could potentially be funded this way in future!

Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West is a prolific question-asker in the Commons (610 written questions in the past year!) but he hasn’t previously seemed particularly interested in archaeology. He did ask last week about funding for (a.) the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission and (b.) English Heritage and was gently informed by Ed Vaisey that the two were the same body, but that’s about it.

Yet he has just posed an intriguing question to Culture Minister John Penrose:

How many Roman archaeological sites there are in (a) each region and (b) each nation?”

Mr Penrose has dutifully answered (there are 36,263 such sites in England alone) but the far more fascinating question is WHY Mr Thomas, who hasn’t previously displayed much interest or knowledge regarding archaeology, should ask such a thing (that is readily available on English Heritage’s National database anyway)? What use would it be to him or any of his constituents or the taxpayer? And why Roman sites in particular? They aren’t (so far) financed or protected in a different way to other archaeological sites and there are presumably no Romans in Harrow West pressing him to speak for them. You’d have to hope, wouldn’t you, that he didn’t want to show that Roman sites were two a penny and that development was OK on one of the ones at Harrow (of which there are several ) So if anyone has any ideas about this parliamentary mystery we’d be glad to hear.

In the meantime, we have a message for Mr Thomas: there are huge numbers of pre-Roman sites that are worthy of just as much attention but get less. How about giving those a bit of publicity in the House?!

[Thanks to the BAJR forum for first noticing this]

You may recall English Heritage recently issued a tender document with a view to assessing those scheduled monuments that may be at risk from arable cultivation. We suggested amateur enthusiasts could perhaps have a useful role to play.  Unfortunately we’ve heard nothing to indicate our suggestion might be being considered so in order to stir the pot we thought we’d be more specific about what amateurs could do. In particular it looks as if the effectiveness of Tasks 4 and 5 might well be greatly increased by public involvement: 

Task 4: Contact landowners and enter data – The owners of those `at risk’ monuments not under an existing English Heritage or Environmental Stewardship management agreement will be sent a letter explaining the survey together with a brief questionnaire based on that used for COSMIC 2 Stage 2. The questionnaire will elicit responses on past and future management regimes and will be used to fill in the Site Management Factors part of the COSMIC model.
Task 5: Interrogation of aerial photographs and LiDAR data – For those monuments where no response was obtained from the questionnaire or there is little relevant data from English Heritage, information on past and current management will be obtained by interrogating aerial photographs and LiDAR data held in the National Monuments Record at Swindon.

It seems from the above that the assessment of the condition of many “at risk” monuments will be ascertained by sending a questionnaire to the owners and/or looking at aerial photographs and LiDAR data -and there will be no eyewitness accounts from people that are both impartial AND visiting the sites! So surely, amateurs would be helpful in filling that very obvious gap, thereby providing useful, extra, up-to-date background information – and all for free? Isn’t this a golden opportunity for English Heritage to demonstrate that “Public Engagement” is more than just a slogan?

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