Recent Archaeological Research in English Towns

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John Schofield, D. M. Palliser, Charlotte Harding (1981)

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The destruction wrought in our historic cities in 36 years of continuous peace (1945-81) has been far greater than anything achieved by enemy action in World War II. The pressures of redevelopment were already intensifying when Professor Buchanan produced Traffic in Towns in 1963, and they reached a peak with the development boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since then the pace of change has never slackened. Cities and towns are not museum pieces, and redevelopment is both necessary and desirable. What has been particularly alarming to archaeologists and historians in the last twenty years has been the pace and scale of change, which have obliterated both standing buildings and buried foundations faster than they could be adequately recorded. It was naturally the threat to visible buildings and streetscapes above ground which first attracted public alarm; and though it would be wrong to be complacent, they have been much better protected since 1968, both by legislation and by voluntary action.

It was for such reasons that the Council for British Archaeology created an Urban Research Committee in 1967, with a membership drawn from archaeologists, historians, geographers and demographers. The Committee’s aims were, and remain, to urge more programmes of archaeological investigation in towns; to campaign for their support by both central and local government; and to equip the new discipline of urban archaeology with a theoretical framework for research by means of seminars, conferences and publications.

The Committee’s first major task was to commission a national survey of the extent of the destruction of archaeological layers in historic towns and the scale of work needed to meet the threat. Written by the Committee’s research assistant with the aid of its first secretary, the report was published by the CBA as The Erosion of History (Heighway, 1972). They argued cogently that most of the archaeological evidence was likely to be destroyed within twenty years, and that a major programme of investigation was needed to record it before it was too late. Largely as a result of the report, individual implication surveys were commissioned for many towns, and archaeological units were set up in some of the most important and threatened historic cities, such as York, Southampton, Lincoln and London.

By 1975 work was taking place in many towns; the resultswere summarized by the CBA (1976) and Hassall (l977). The results of the first phase of urban archaeology began to appear, both in final form and, because of the mountain of information generated, in interim and often popular form (eg Daniells, Hall & York, 1978; Schofield & Dyson, 1980). Some of the other recommendations of The Erosion of History eventually bore fruit, in the provisions of The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, 1979. Now at last, there is a chance that legislation will provide the tactical strength previously only precariously supplied by media interest, diplomacy or veiled threat.

Five years after the 1976 survey, it is appropriate that the Urban Research Committee should present a collection of new and almost totally updated summaries of recent work from 146 towns.

CBA Occasional Papers No. 12