Conservation and the Role of the Archaeologist

Jason Wood

Buildings are a major resource of archaeological and historical information, and the fabric of buildings surviving above ground is just as important and fragile a resource as those remains buried below the surface. Involvement in the recording and analysis of standing buildings has always formed a significant part of the archaeologists' activities and, due to increased awareness of the conservation of the historic built environment, the role of the archaeologist and the employment of modern archaeological techniques has been extended.

It is increasingly realised that the success of many conservation projects depends on thorough archaeological analysis and interpretation to identify and date constituent building periods and architectural details. This information will lead to greater understanding of the structural and material performance of the fabric, thus avoiding irrevocable loss or damage and allowing for more sympathetic and appropriate preservation of particular features.

Today, archaeologists are taking a leading role in the conservation and management of buildings. An integrated, multidisciplinary team approach is now required to ensure the success of major building conservation, repair, and maintenance programmes. It is only by working in close partnerships with other disciplines (such as architects, engineers, planners, quantity surveyors, building contractors etc) that the archaeological and historical value of buildings can be preserved and released.

Grant-aid and planning consent for alterations to historic buildings and structures can be conditional on thorough archaeological investigation
In the UK, statutory protection for the historic built environment is currently encompassed in a variety of different planning, ancient monument, and listed building legislation. Archaeological recording and analysis of standing fabric is recognised as a necessary and legitimate condition for the conservation and repair of listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments.

In the United Kingdom, an historic building may be 'listed' by the Government as a building of 'special, architectural or historic interest', and sites may be 'scheduled' as ancient monuments. Considered to be of national importance, scheduled ancient monuments, or 'SAMs', are statutorily protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, 1979. Works are only allowed on scheduled sites if the Secretary of State has granted Scheduled Monument Consent, and must be executed in accordance with SMC and any conditions attached to it. Grants to owners of SAMs are available from Cadw, English Heritage and Historic Scotland 'towards the costs of the preservation, maintenance, and management of any ancient monument' (Section 24). Archaeological recording and analysis are often a condition of SMC and Section 24 grant-aid approval.

Grants to applicants/owners towards the cost of repairing listed buildings are also available from Cadw, English Heritage and Historic Scotland. However, the range of works which will attract grant-aid is considerably less than for SAMs, and in practice financial assistance is only offered for buildings considered to be of 'outstanding' national interest (Grade I or II* in England & Wales, and Grade A in Scotland). In view of the importance of such buildings, archaeological recording and analysis may be a condition of LBC and grant-aid approval.

In England the Care of Cathedrals Measure, 1990, which came fully into force during 1991, requires cathedral authorities to appoint an archaeological consultant and to seek approval from an external body (either the cathedral's own Fabric Advisory Committee or the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England) in order to carry out works. With the Measure came the establishment of the English Heritage Cathedral Grants scheme which makes provision for archaeological recording and analysis within repair programmes.


Cooperation and communication between the archaeologist and other members of the multidisciplinary team is of fundamental importance, to ensure that the necessary archaeological considerations are fully integrated into the appropriate specifications and schedules of works. Depending on the size and nature of the project, the archaeologist may be required to play an extended role in the project design and management of the conservation scheme, and in the co-ordination of related specialist and consultancy services.

It is usual to carry out a preliminary 'desktop assessment' of all available documentary material (both written and pictorial). This can assist in assessing the extent of any earlier fabric interventions, and may also be particularly valuable in identifying the causes of specific structural failure or building defects. It may then be necessary to carry out a 'trial evaluation' of the building's constructional history based on preliminary visual inspection, non-destructive survey, or selective intervention.

Project formulation
Having agreed an approach, the archaeological response must take account of the degree of proposed intervention, such as the amount of repointing, fabric replacement, stitching, and underpinning required. Not all structures need to be recorded in the same detail and different levels of recording will be required in different circumstances, depending on the project's aims and objectives. Levels can range from comprehensive recording of complex buildings, to selective recording of structures of more regular and repetitive construction. In certain cases where repair work is targeted, detailed recording may be limited to those areas affected by proposed intervention.

The production of record drawings is dependent on careful preparation and selection of the basic survey requirement. A variety of different methodologies, equipment, and related software packages are available to capture, manipulate, and output survey data. The choice of the most appropriate and reliable methodology should be dictated by the scale, accuracy, and level of recording required. Data acquisition by means of photographic-based, instrument-based, and hand-measured survey techniques may be applied individually, or more commonly in combination, and are increasingly being linked to CAD systems for onward processing by digital means.

Project implementation
During the works, the archaeologist may be involved with the undertaking of a host of additional tasks integral with the conservation process and creation of the 'as built' survey (such as the detailed recording of areas to be rebuilt, recording of repair work or alterations in progress, monitoring of interventions to minimise damage to historic fabric, sampling for materials analyses, maintenance of the permanent works record etc).


Recommended Reading

  • Jason Wood et al (eds), Buildings Archaeology: Applications In Practice, Oxbow Books in association with the Institute of Field Archaeologists, Buildings Special Interest Group, Oxford, 1994

Useful Contacts

Members of the Institute for Archaeologists (formerly the Institute of Field Archaeologists) working in the field of buildings archaeology have formed a Buildings Special Interest Group within the IfA. The area of interest of the group is the use of archaeological techniques for the recording, study, presentation, and curatorial management of all built structures, irrespective of their date, function, material, or state of preservation.

The purpose of the group is to further awareness of the methods and practice of archaeological work on buildings, and to raise awareness of the value and importance of recording and analysis of buildings in advance of development, particularly within the construction industry and local government.

To have your name added to the group's mailing list please contact the Hon Secretary Jonathan Mullis, c/o Institute for Archaeologists, SHES, University of Reading, PO Box 227, Reading, RG6 6AU; Email: or Membership is free to IfA members, and £10 for non-members.



This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1994


JASON WOOD is the Assistant Director of Lancaster University Archaeological Unit.

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