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Archaeology is regarded as a finite resource that has to be preserved at every opportunity, especially when there is a chance of modern development affecting it. For many archaeological sites, this can take the form of preserving under new developments, something called preservation in situ.

In instances where archaeological sites are discovered before development begins, there are various options available to deal with them. These include finding a new location for the development, excavating the site before construction work commences, or even finding a way to leave the archaeological remains either adjacent or beneath the new development. The decision taken depends on the site’s importance as well as the practicalities of engineering.

In the UK, the preservation of archaeological sites is part of the country’s planning systems and is contained in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The policy makes it clear that archaeological interest is vested in a heritage asset if it holds, or potentially holds, evidence of previous human activity that warrants expert investigation. The NPPF regards these heritage assets as an important source of evidence that can speak to the evolution of cultures, places and people.

Construction work around and on the site of archaeological remains can put the latter at risk of direct impact (if a new foundation is laid, for example) or from changes around the site that can cause various materials to decay and lead to loss of vital information. This is a key concern for sites that are waterlogged, since the presence of water means no oxygen would potentially degrade organic materials, thus the site remains preserved.

With this in mind, it’s up to the designers of projects (new buildings or refurbishment projects) that are within areas where a local planning authority (LPA) believes there is archaeological interest to work within the framework of the NPPF. Guidance on how to navigate such occurrences can be found in guides produced by bodies such as the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB).

The topic of preserving sites is one that John Hiscocks, lead architect for Hill International, takes very seriously, and he ensures that the requirements of planning permissions where antiquities are referred to are adhered to in the strictest of terms.

The Process

When a new development must contend with the presence of archaeological remains, the professionals involved in the planning have to demonstrate that they are aware of the archaeological assets that can be potentially affected by the construction and understand their ‘significance’, and that their designs won’t affect this ‘significance’. Planning and building consent applications have to include a ‘heritage statement’ that assures authorities that no known or likely assets are going to be affected by the building plans.

There are instances where it’s very likely that construction will impact the heritage asset. Such cases are typically where the public benefit of the proposed development is much greater than the value of the archaeological site. In such instances, the developer has to commission work that mitigates the loss of the asset. If excavation is a necessary step to preserve the remains, analysis and dissemination of the results is expected. Such results can be published in an archaeological journal.

As with any planning work, the key to ensuring archaeological remains are successfully integrated into a development is by making sure engagement between planners, developers and archaeologists is established early on and sustained. Doing this ensures that information is gathered at all phases of the development. The guides published by the previously mentioned bodies and local planning authorities are crucial in outlining the steps to be taken in preserving the remains.