By Mike Heyworth Published 11 February, 2013
Dr Mike Heyworth is the Director of the Council for British Archaeology. He has worked for the CBA in various roles since 1990 and was awarded an MBE for services to heritage in 2007.
Archaeology can be defined as the study of the human past through material remains (the latter is an extremely broad concept and includes evidence in the current landscape, from buildings and monuments to ephemeral traces of activity; buried material, such as artefacts, biological remains, and structures; and written sources).
As such, an archaeological site can be thought of as a place where relevant material remains have been identified, although the scale of the remains will vary considerably from the findspot of a single artefact to an entire landscape which includes a range of interlinked individual monuments and findspots. Sites can be below ground, above ground, or a mixture of both, or a variety of material types.
Archaeological sites in the UK can be of any date, from the distant past over 750,000 years ago to the present day. In recent years, the techniques of archaeology have increasingly been applied to modern twentieth century, and now twenty-first century material remains.
The limits of a site are always difficult to define, and even for a site containing apparently clear boundaries, eg a building or structure, it is important to see the site in its context, ie the landscape in which it sits, and the extent of the relevant context will vary depending on the nature of the site. In some cases there are single archaeological sites which cover large areas of the country, eg Hadrian’s Wall or Offa’s Dyke.
Not all archaeological sites are capable of formal protection through Scheduling or Listing, as early prehistoric flint scatters or the scattered remains of early humans with no structural evidence fall outside the legal definitions currently applied to protected sites in the UK. The only way that Historic England was able to protect the find spot for Boxgrove Man, the earliest human remains yet found in the UK, which was found in a Sussex gravel quarry, was to purchase the site.
Find spots as archaeological sites
Many traces of past human activity are found as isolated finds by members of the public. In England and Wales the public are encouraged to report these to Finds Liaison Officers from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk) so that the information about the finds can be recorded. It is often through a number of finds being reported from a restricted geographical area that new archaeological sites are identified. In Scotland and Northern Ireland there are similar systems for the reporting of finds, though the legal situation is different and there are more widespread legal duties to report all types of historic materials found, whereas in England and Wales the finds which have to be legally reported are more restricted to those defined as Treasure.
Historic Environment Records
For planning control purposes, it is important that all archaeological sites are incorporated into a local Historic Environment Record (in places these are called Sites & Monuments Records). These databases, often linked to Geographic Information Systems, are maintained by specialist staff, often but not always, within local authorities. They are a crucial knowledge base for assessing the potential archaeological implications of any proposed development, as well being a research and educational resource which can be utilised by anyone with an interest in the historic environment of a particular place or area.
In England most HERs are now available online either in their own right, or through the Heritage Gateway (http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/gateway/), which also includes national datasets maintained by Historic England. In Wales, the HERs are maintained by the Welsh Archaeological Trusts and made available collectively via Archwilio (http://www.archwilio.org.uk/). This complements the information about archaeological sites held within the National Monuments Record for Wales (http://www.coflein.gov.uk/) curated by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales. In Scotland a comparable online database is available (http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/) curated by the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Sites which contain environmental evidence about past human activity can also be considered to be archaeological sites. This evidence can take the form of pollen or seeds which indicate, for example, the agricultural regime practised by humans in the area at a particular time in the past. Evidence for changes in the landscape, for example, widespread deforestation at the onset of agriculture, can be particularly important in understanding and reconstructing past human activity.
Protection of sites
Sites of national archaeological importance are mostly protected through Scheduling or Listing, though this is not always the case, and it is the planning system that provides the only protection for the vast majority of archaeological sites in the UK.