Archeology in Britain

Have you ever read about an archeological dig and wondered how history’s layers get buried? Is the planet stealing soil from someplace and using it to hide the past? Do we keep the same amount of soil but does the wind blow all those layers of dirt over the past’s leavings? And if it does, why doesn’t it unbury an equal amount of history someplace else?

A book I stumbled across recently–Digging Up Britain: a new history in ten extraordinary discoveries, by Mike Pitts–finally answered the question for me, at least in part. A city, Pitts tells us, accumulates people–people who weren’t born there; people who don’t live there. While they’re there, they work, they trade, they eat, they drink, they sleep, and they do much of that within walls if they can. 

Most of those activities involve physical objects, so the city brings in wood and stone for its buildings, and tiles, slates, or reeds for its roofs. It brings in food for its, um, food. Okay, the rhetorical pattern’s breaking down here. We’ll sneak away without anyone noticing. It brings in leather and metal and fabric (or the raw materials to weave fabric) and everything else that you can think of and I haven’t.  

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast

“Goods are also exported and people leave, but with time and decay, the city gains more than it loses. One generation’s walls become the rubble foundations for another’s. Every leather offcut, rusted nail, broken cup and lost penny finds its way into the teeming earth. Slowly, imperceptibly, the ground rises, covering the traces of the past.”

Well, yes, now that he’s planted the picture in my head, it’s a screamingly obvious one. The cause isn’t space dust. It’s people moving stuff from one place to another and wandering off without it. 



Pitts goes on to talk about some of London’s biggest ground-lifting events. Roman London had two fires that can still be spotted in layers of red earth. One of those would’ve been set during Boudica’s rebellion, when she burned London and two other cities to the ground. Then, when 1666’s Great Fire of London finally burned itself out and it was time to rebuild, stone was hauled in and a new city rose on the leveled remains of the destruction.

The biggest leveling of walls, though, was the blitz–the bombing of London during World War II–and when Pitts reaches this point, he focuses on a small area where two excavations found particularly rich Roman artifacts: On the night of May 10, 1941, bombing “disrupted” 8,000 streets, killing more than 4,000 people and seriously injuring 1,800. It wiped out most of the block he’s interested in, where there’d been 350 businesses “crammed into a warren of high Victorian terraces and narrow alleys.” They included cafes, a bookseller, a tailor, a dentist, accountants, and a postage stamp perforator.

Who knew there even were postage stamp perforators? I assumed that got done by some sort of machinery working where and when the stamps were printed. Or that someone with pointy little teeth came along and–

Never mind. Not much was left of the street, and in 1952, when it was redeveloped, the area was opened to archeologists just before an office building went up on the site. The digging had uncovered an underground temple to Mithras, and it was taken apart, and reconstructed (badly) above ground and facing the wrong way. And then in 2012, when the 1952 building was torn down and something newer and shinier was about to be built, archeologists got in there again, only with more time to do their job. What they found was “like a library of random news from across Roman London.” The area had been used as a dump, and archeologists love dumps. It turned out to be “the most productive single excavation of a British Roman site in modern times,” and included a horde of wood-and-wax tablets recording, for the most part, business transactions. It gave them a glimpse into the city before it had the grand public buildings we associate with Roman towns. This was a town in its early stages. 

The success of that second dig was made possible by a change in the relationship of archeologists and developers.


Archeologists and the construction industry

One of the major ways the past gets uncovered in Britain is that someone comes along with heavy-duty construction equipment and starts digging. They’re not hoping to find, say, a Roman villa or a Bronze Age settlement. In fact, they’re hoping not to. They want to build a parking ramp or a shopping mall. 

Until 1990, archeologists were dependent on the goodwill of the developers for access to their sites. Before that, if a developer stumbled into something of archeological importance, and if they didn’t sweep it under the metaphorical rug fast enough, archeologists had to rely on a mix of diplomacy, goodwill, and the public pressure set off by media coverage to get access. Because archeologists mean delays, and delays cost money.

In a showdown between history and national heritage on one side and money on the other, it’s not often that history and heritage win, but they did win when the foundations of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre were discovered by accident. A media storm set off a celebrity storm, which in turn set off a wider public storm, and under that pressure a delay was organized and the new building eventually went up over the theater’s foundations, which are now covered in water to keep the ground from cracking.


Irrelevant but interesting bit of information 

Exploration of the theater’s foundations brought us the news that hazelnuts were the popcorn of Shakespeare’s day. The shells were everywhere. 


The relationship changes

After the battle to save the Rose, things changed, and it kills me to say anything good about Margaret Thatcher’s government but I’m going to have to: they’re the ones who introduced Planning Policy Guidance 16–Archaeology in Planning, called PPG16 by its friends and admirers. 

PPG16 is a guidance paper that requires anyone building anything that needs planning permission–and in Britain, that’s just about any building at all–to consider its  impact on archaeology. According to Heritage Daily, PPG16’s impact was unintentional, but lovely, so I don’t have to be particularly nice about Thatcher’s government: they didn’t mean to do something good; they were just trying to shut everybody up.

Heritage Daily  describes the events at the Rose as an omnishambles, with “leading actors, including Sir Ian Mckellen and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, facing down the developers’ bulldozers, standing alongside archaeologists, the general public and local children waving placards declaiming, ‘Don’t Doze the Rose.’

“Faced with this highly public demand that the historic site be protected, the Environment Department, under Secretary of State Nicholas Ridley, proved utterly incapable of formulating a coherent policy to dig the developer Imry Merchant and the Government out of the mire. “

In the end, they cobbled together a system that had local and national governments, developers, heritage professionals, and the public working together to preserve whatever could be preserved in place, and to record, and sometimes move, whatever couldn’t be. It didn’t make developers or free-market purists happy, but it did keep politically damaging incidents like the Rose from happening again. 


The impact on archeology

All this meant archeology had to change. The profession came into this period as a mix of local heritage organizations, professors, and museums. None of them were equipped to meet the schedules or use “the same language as the architects and developers whose plans the system was designed to facilitate,” Heritage Daily says. 

After PPG16, “Archaeology as a discipline found itself putting on a suit, becoming a profession and sitting down in planning meetings with architects and developers to discuss fitting in an excavation alongside the other building site preparation and ground works.”

“It’s not perfect, but . . . once PPG16 and the concept . . . was in place, pipeline surveys and large scale infrastructure projects like Heathrow Terminal 5 and HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, did offer the chance to develop practice and sample large transects of landscape to sometimes startling effect.”

Some years ago, not far from where I live, a new sewage line uncovered enough Cornish history that the archeologists involved organized a presentation in the village hall, and it was packed. That was my first hint of the working relationship between archeologists and the construction industry, and I was impressed.

One of the finds they talked about was a series of Christian and pre-Christian burials. You could tell them apart because the Christians were buried so that they’d be facing east when they rose on–what is it? Judgment day? Whichever. If it happens, I’m sure someone will have set an alarm clock, so I don’t need to worry. Anyway, they were supposed to rise from their graves and be facing east. The non-Christians, on the other hand, were buried with grave goods–things they’d used in life and would, presumably, want in the next one. Or maybe the goods were a way for the living to grieve and pay tribute. Who can know at this distance in time? Whatever the reason, that’s how they buried their dead. 

But the archeologists had found a few people who were hedging their bets–or at least whose descendants were. They were buried facing east but also with grave goods. Whichever way the afterlife played out, they’d be ready.

In Pitts’ last chapter, he mentions an enlargement of the A14 (that’s a road) near Cambridge that’s been a particular gift to archeology. They’ve uncovered ancient villages, industrial zones, religious monuments, 15 tones of bones and artifacts, pottery kilns, field layouts and more, all of which could so easily have been dug up, scattered, and lost to history.

21 thoughts on “Archeology in Britain

  1. That was all very interesting. My husband is a Roman history nerd, including traces of Roman Britain, which means I have been dragged to look at barely discernible lumps of stone and divots that might just about have once been a wheel rut. His parents live adjacent to a Roman road so they allow archaeology teams to dig trenches in their garden in search of bits and bobs.

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  2. Fascinating ! I have lived in the same place for 40+ years now so have contributed my own layers, and just digging to plant something or seeing where the dogs wore paths have turned up “history”. – broken bits of beer bottles (one of the former owners was quite a partier)- marbles – bits of plastic toys. When I was a kid living on a farm arrowheads would sometimes turn up… rarely a small fossil. In a place that has been lived in as long as Britain there must be countless layers underneath.
    Early “digs’ in the Ohio country opened some of the ancient mounds like layer cakes. A lot of them were just plowed under to make usable farmland. AT least some steps are being taken nowadays to preserve some of the “inconsequential” debris of everyday life (colonial privy pits are a big deal too.)
    Checking out the book now. Thanks !

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    • My partner grew up in Texas and as a kid had a collection of arrowheads she’d found. I grew up in New York City and the idea of finding things under the ground is still exotic to me. In fact, the idea of finding ground still seems glamorous. I remember the first time I noticed that where they’d dug up the street there was dirt underneath and I was fascinated. I don’t know what I’d thought they’d find under there. More pavement? Anyway, it wasn’t the best place to interest a kid in archeology. I’d have been in awe of the arrowheads you found.

      I’m glad to hear more works being done to preserve what’s under the ground. Without that sense of history, our lives seem so shallow.


  3. My youngest was fascinated with Egypt growing up and seriously started out college considering archaeology with her anthro major. She then realized it might be difficult to actually live and eat with that career, especially just starting out! Being enamored with science in general she chose geology as a double measure and now works for the government. She did go on a few digs though and I think she still has her tools somewhere. I think Europe in general would be the place for digging wonderful stuff ;)

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    • I think she probably made a smart choice there. I get the sense (and, mind you, I’ve done zero research) that it’s one of those careers where a few people can make a living and a lot of people run around chasing an opening. I hope I’m wrong about that.

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      • No, I think that’s a correct assessment. It is also a very “academic” career path- so multiple advanced degrees, research, teaching—she just wanted to dig but also know that she wasn’t facing a life living in her tent even when she wasn’t doing field work

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        • And these days, with the decrease in tenured teaching positions, people with all sorts of advanced degrees end up being academic nomads, drifting from one non-tenured position to the next. The gig economy at work.

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    • True–but not as many gazillions as they walked on land further south, because they had to keep clearing out of here when the glaciers got pushy. Not that I’m getting snobby about it, mind you. The depth of history here takes my breath away.

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  4. I HAVE wondered that. Many times. That book sounds really interesting – I’ll have to see if I can find it. I get the concept, and I can see where things get covered up in certain remote environments – the jungle, a desert with blowing sands, and wherever a natural disaster like a volcano eruption would depopulate a place. And I get how small things could get covered up really anywhere. But in places that I assume have been continuously populated, I still don’t understand how whole buildings and cities can be buried. Incidentally, one of my most memorable experiences with this concept was on a trip to England right before COVID. We were staying in Ludlow and one day the husband cycled outside the town to where a castle used to be/kinda still is. The archway used to be over 8 feet tall, but he took a photo of it now being 3 feet tall. Dirt had built up so you’d have to crawl under the archway now.

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    • Now, that is interesting, about the archway. A living demonstration.I guess anything that stands still for long enough will either get buried–or unburied if the winds happen to strip the soil away. But in an area that’s continuously occupied–well, I used to see the rubble from old buildings get carted away when they were tearing down and rebuilding the neighborhood I grew up in. The streets were at fixed levels, and that’s what they had to work with. But when you’re talking about major disasters–Boudica’s fire, the Great Fire of London, the blitz–where so much was leveled, then yes, I can see where they wouldn’t bother carting stuff off if they could manage not to, just level and call that the ground. And as you read about the early London dump I mentioned, then absolutely the level would rise.

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    • Since our cats are enthusiastic importers of mice, living and dead, I know more about mice than, in fact, I want to. We have two live traps out right now and are waiting for one to find its way in so we can give it a ride back to the great outdoors. You’re right, they do perforate things, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them work in a straight line. It’s more like–well, having little shredding machines around the house. I suppose I could ask Lord Google about the history of perforated postage stamps–I’m sure some corner of the internet is awash in information and it might even turn out to be fascinating–but I have an irrational fear that if I do there’ll be no turning back. I’ll be researching every bizarre bit of history and technology that wanders into my life.


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