Shepherd Offshore Ltd
Much of the workload of a commercial archaeological company results from conditions attached to planning consents. These are recommended by county council archaeologists, usually based on the results of initial, pre-application phases of work including a desk-based assessment of the site and programmes of evaluation such as geophysical survey or trial trenching. Conditions reflect the likely expectation of archaeological deposits being present on a site, based on the available information, and they present a programme of work which the developer (through their archaeological contractor) is expected to carry out in order to fulfil the planning consent. One of the roles of the archaeological contractor is to mediate between the planning archaeologist and the developer, carrying out the work in such a way as to satisfy both parties.
Although such planning conditions are normally applied only where there is a reasonable expectation for archaeological remains to be present, that’s no guarantee that they will indeed be found. Many projects result in what is known in the trade as a ‘Negative Watching Brief Report’ – i.e. nothing was found – and, unsurprisingly, few of these projects catch the public attention! Under these circumstances, one of roles of the archaeological contractor is to satisfy the planning archaeologist that the work has been carried out correctly and explain why nothing was found. Usually this is because either there was nothing there in the first place or any remains had been lost in the past due to agriculture or other invasive activities. Sometimes the reasons are more complex.
NAA recently carried out a programme of monitoring (a ‘watching brief’) during groundworks associated with a small residential development at Craster on the Northumberland coast. The site lies within a narrow valley just inland from Craster harbour, in a location which was considered likely, on the basis of a desk-based assessment, to contain remains of both early prehistoric activity and medieval or post-medieval mills. More recently, parts of the site had been occupied by buildings associated with a whinstone (a dark, fine grained hard rock) quarry, a lorry depot and a café.
On-site discussions with the construction contractor rapidly established that the varying foundation designs meant that at one end of the site the building work would be so shallow that it would have no impact on any archaeological deposits that might be present, and it was possible to omit this area from the watching brief. In addition, during excavation of some of the new building foundations, it became clear that the central part of the site had suffered modern disturbance to a depth below that required for the development, but still above any possible archaeological deposits, meaning that monitoring in that area could also be abandoned. At the lowest end of the site, furthest down the valley towards the harbour, it was apparent that previous uses of the site had resulted in considerable dumping of material, initially for disposal of ‘finings’ (small unusable fragments of rock) from the whinstone quarry. Following this, when the site was converted to a lorry depot, the land was levelled with soil, rubble and modern refuse. Excavation of building footings was archaeologically monitored but, in general, the trenches were excavated only to a level above the pre-modern ground surface.
The overall result of these findings was that any significant archaeological deposits that might be present within the site have remained undisturbed by the development; and the report had to clarify why this was the case. As a result, the archaeological planning condition for the development was fulfilled and signed-off by the planning authority without significant disruption or delay to the construction works, while minimising the expense to the developer.
This full Negative Watching Brief Report for the project can be found on the Archaeology Data Service website (click here for a link)