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Protecting the Archaeological Record

Forms of Protection

Legal Mechanisms of Protection Protection through the Planning Process Historical Summary: changes in the nature of protection offered to archaeological remains through time Archaeological Protection in a European Context
Library Resources


We know that the archaeological record is at risk from a number of factors, and so the question that arises is whether we should attempt to protect the archaeological remains, and if so, how should we protect them?

Since 1882, there has been some form of protection of archaeological remains in the UK. In 1882, the first Ancient Monuments Act was passed under the aegis of John Lubbock (Lord Avebury). The importance of the Ancient Monuments Act was that it introduced the principle of legal protection for the most important Ancient Monuments: sites that were recommended and whose names were appended to the Act itself in the form of a list (or 'schedule'). Protection was offered to these sites in that it became a criminal offence to damage these sites. Inspectors of Ancient Monuments were appointed to 'keep an eye' on these sites. Lord Avebury became the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and the first schedule of monuments contained the names of 22 monuments all situated close to Lord Avebury's residence in Wiltshire.

Since this time, there has never been any real disagreement with the belief that some archaeological sites and some historic buildings need protection. People have consistently argued that the archaeological record and the historic environment help us to forge our identity and to understand where we come from. More recently it has also been argued that the heritage makes a vital contribution to the economic success of the UK: people pay to come and see the historic sites, and in so doing also spend their money on a whole range of other things from accommodation to food and to souvenirs and other material goods.

The question of what we should protect and how much we need to protect has been more difficult to clarify. Since 1882, the Ancient Monuments legislation has been updated a number of times, and historic buildings have been added to the list of heritage to keep. A number of key questions have arisen out of this process.

How do we decide whether an ancient monument is worthy of protection by the law?

Can we protect all ancient monuments in this way, and if not, how many should we protect?

What are we protecting monuments against?

How should we protect monuments that are not legally protected (scheduled or listed - in the case of houses)?

Do we need to protect the archaeological record form archaeologists?

Forms of Protection

There are a number of different forms of protection that may be offered to archaeological remains, These forms of protection vary in terms of the nature of the interaction involved. In simple terms we may split these forms of protection into the following types; active protection, passive protection and reactive protection

Active Protection

- includes number of physical processes of intervention in the 'life' of an archaeological site. These process of intervention range from full or partial reconstruction through to a process of consolidation of the current form. Reconstruction, so that a site is made to look like it once did at some time in its life (from the time when it was made to a specific time after this), is the most dramatic form of protection. There are considerable debates about the period / or state to which a monument / building or object should be restored, and the extent to which the public is made aware of this reconstruction. In a slightly less obvious manner, active intervention may be used to arrest the decay of a site or a building, leaving it in a stable but unreconstructed condition. For active protection to occur, a site must usually be in the ownership (or guardianship) of a heritage organisation or willing landowner - whether government-funded or private. Active protection is usually expensive and is, therefore, most usually applied when a monument is under immediate threat, or where there may be some definite gain (economic, educational, etc) to be had from this form of protection.

Passive Protection

- ensures that a site is not wilfully damaged (or at least not without some form of retribution / punishment), but no specific steps are take to protect the site even from the natural processes of decay. This is a form of protection because it prevents the instigation of new significant actions that would be detrimental to the monument (such as criminal damage or a change of farming regime). This is the form of protection offered to most scheduled sites and listed buildings in the UK, where passive protection is ensured through the law.

Reactive Protection

- relates to a form of protection that may be offered to a site / building when it is noticed that there is a plan for some form of redevelopment of the location in which the site or building is situated, and which may damage the site. For this form of protection to occur there needs to be a mechanism by which it is known that some site or 'potential site' is likely to be damaged. In the UK this process of protection is the most common, and usually occurs in the context of planned development.

The exact form of protection offered to a site depends upon the economic climate (is there money to do anything?), the nature of the threat to a site, and the knowledge of the potential damage to sites that may be unknown. Scheduled ancient monuments usually receive active or passive protection, whilst it is most common for other sites to be initially protected in a reactive manner. For effective active or passive protection, it is necessary that there is a clear knowledge of the nature of the archaeological resources in a country and the threats to it. The most appropriate form of protection can then be applied as part of an overall management process towards the archaeological heritage and built environment.

Managing the Archaeological Resource under Threat

In 1985 English Heritage commissioned a report to consider the nature of threats to archaeological sites and the best approach to their protection. The report, published as Ancient Monuments in the Countryside (Darvill 1987), suggested that the threat posed to sites and the potential information that might be provided by sites was related to; the nature of the landscape in which a site was situated; the history of past activities in that landscape; and the nature of present activities. The most effective protection of a site resulted from looking at the site in its countryside context, and choosing the most effective means of protection available and / or necessary, form the range of options available. The key principle of this report is to recognise that the likely threats to an archaeological site, and the potential offered by archaeological sites are primarily determined by the landscape setting in which a site is located.

Types of countryside, the Archaeology and its Associated Threats

Darvill divides the types of landscape setting for archaeological sites in England into three broad types and 10 specific types, as illustrated below.

Broad Type of Countryside






Specific Type of Countryside


(% figures relate to the percentage of this type of countryside in England)
1 %



2.5 %
Rivers, Lakes and Estuaries




Arable Land
39.9 %
Pasture Land - with more than 5 years use as pasture
24.3 %


7.2 %
Upland Moor
9.9 %
Lowland Heath
1.7 %
Parkland and Gardens
1 %
9.8 %

On the basis of the landscape type, there is a clear understanding of archaeological potential as well as the likley threat posed to the archaeological resource.

Types of Landscape

Threats to the Archaeology

Semi-Natural Landscapes

wetlands, rivers and some coasts -
drainage and desiccation - destruction of organics;

Generalised Landscapes

arable - ploughing out of deposits, fertiliser damage;

pasture - no great threats;

Specialised Man-Made Landscapes

woodland - deep ploughing.

uplands - neglect;

parkland - neglect and change of use

Legal Means of Protection

Scheduling - makes it a criminal offence to damage (dig into, build on, apply chemicals, etc.) a monument without Scheduled Monument Consent (SMC) to be signed by Secretary of State. Archaeologists also need to get SMC for excavation work or any other invasive procedure on scheduled monuments. (See below)
Where the monument is scheduled, but is on private (esp.) farmland, there are management agreements that can be made which provide financial compensation for the farmer to 'farm' the land in a way which is non destructive (i.e. using it for grazing land). Co-organised with Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Examples of the Management Approach

An early example of the management approach to a whole class of anceint monuments can be seen in the Southern Rivers Project 1991-94 and The English Rivers Project 1994 - 1997. The SRP was started by English Heritage to consider specificallly the case of Palaeolithic sites that are threatened by mineral extraction (gravel and sand). All sites on SMRs were visited and assessed - sometimes by archaeological means such as trial trenching. The end result of these two projects is a series of maps locating Palaeolithic sites to modern geography, as wwell as a series of specifically recommended courses of action should development be planned in any of these areas (i.e. excavation, watching briefs, do nothing, etc.).

Other Related Projects

Other smilar projects now include the English Battlefield Project (now 43 battlefields scheduled) and the assessment of 20th century, post WWII buildings for listing, the Garden Register and even the Cold War legacy.

Library Resources

Darvill, T. 1987. Ancient Monuments in the Countryside. English Heritage, London
Hunter, J. and I. Ralston, 1993. Archaeological Resource Management in the UK: an introduction. Alan Sutton/I.F.A. Stroud

Link to the ALGY 399 Sydney Jones Library Reading List.

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