The Past or the Future?

This post comes from the historian/archaeologist and Visiting Fellow at the University of Gloucestershire, Dr Tim Copeland.

We are often reminded of positive uses the past can have regarding the future: ‘You need to understand the past in order to build a bright future ‘, or how excerpts from the past can be used to appalling ends. This case is another way of looking at the relationship. What value does the past have, and should it influence the future?

The scenario is a common-place one: a national housing developer wishes to build a small estate, 40 houses, on land next to a medium-sized village within commuting distance of a major town. The advantages of the projected development, explains the developer, will ensure that the village school will have more pupils, and therefore be able to expand and have more facilities, the larger population will result in the post office and threatened pub remaining open, and as part of the contract, a new sports field and children’s playground will be provided and equipped. Of course, a major issue will be building more housing stock in an area which desperately needs it, and within the estate will be a number of low-cost houses for those young people who wish to remain in the village, but cannot afford to buy property.  The plans are submitted to the local district council which passes them to the county council and parish council for comments.

Part of the requirements for all new building projects is  that the proposals are referred to the County Archaeologist who will examine the Heritage and Environment Record to ascertain if there any features that need to be considered in the planning process, and if so what action must be taken. He decides that there needs to be an archaeological assessment of the site as it is close to a known Roman villa, and might contain the remains of agricultural buildings or lines of field boundaries. Also, a major late-Iron Age (c.50BC-AD43) or early Roman (AD43 -100) land boundary known as the Giant’s Dyke, which encloses 120 square kilometers (the largest enclosure of any period in the British Isles and therefore of national interest) may terminate very close to the development. The Giant’s Dyke takes the form of a large bank with an equally deep ditch in front of it (see Image 1).

Image 1

Image 1: ‘Giant’s Dyke’ in a close-by wood.

An archaeology company, Past-Future Limited, is commissioned to undertake a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) survey which uses laser beams fired from an aircraft which on return give a detail picture of the shape of the ground below. Past-Future was also required to sample the ground in the field by using a toothless bucket on a JCB, just taking off the surface (See Image 2).

image ii

Image 2: the JCB, taking off the topsoil in the field

The LIDAR indicated a deep ditch while the JCB located a wide, linear stretch of dark soil crossing much lighter earth and discovered some 14th century pottery just under the turf. This would have been it, except the archaeological report contained the words ‘Giant’s Dyke’, suggesting that it ‘might possibly’ be responsible for the darker band of soil.

At the other end of the political scale is the Parish Council which largely does not want the village extended. Most of the members have lived there most of their lives, and do not want incomers to buy the planned very up-market houses, and don’t believe that they will shop in the village, or use its pub. Some members only moved into a housing development twenty years ago, and they don’t want the village spoiled either! The Parish Council had been given a copy of the report by the County Archaeologist, and it appointed a sub-committee to deal with the issues, which wondered what the Giant’s Dyke was and whether it might be a useful tool in opposing the development. My name pops up. I haven’t lived in the area for 15 years, but gave lots of lectures to local history groups, Women’s Institutes, Rotary Clubs etc., and published a book on the archaeology of that part of the county. I have always thought that archaeologists and historians, whatever their period or area, should contribute in some way to their local history. I have published extensively on the Giant’s Dyke, and still retain an interest in it and features of the same type throughout Europe, generally known as ‘Opidda’. I actually suggested that the Giant’s Dyke might terminate near the proposed development by using aerial photographs from the 1930s and 1940s. So, I am contacted by the sub-committee and asked if I will give my opinion on what was found. I don’t want to get involved in the politics of the area, so I suggest a book that can be read (mine!). Meanwhile, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) publishes a report about the environmental damage to flora and fauna, the extra noise and pollution, the development might cause. The compiler is an old friend and gets in touch. Meanwhile, I have been given a 1993 image taken from aircraft by a local man of his new house. It showed a line of lighter, stony, soil which was probably the bank of a linear feature (See Image 3) in the field for the development. Anonymously, I add my views to the CPRE document.

Tim 3

Image 3: The field under plough in 1993. The light line is the possible remains of the bank of the ‘Giant’s Dyke’

In response to the arguments about the possible damage to the archaeological resource, the developer produces a new plan avoiding the ditch feature by putting a green area on top of it. It also commissions Alan Hardy Archaeological Research to undertake another survey of its property. This time a geophysical survey (sending electrical pulses through the soil to be returned by any solid object) reveals the ditch and its depth, and what might be the remains of a ploughed out bank, each the typical characteristics of the Giant’s Dyke found elsewhere. Only 15th century pottery is found when some trenches are dug through the feature. However, I was able to get hold of the results of both LIDAR and geophysics reports, overlay each and demonstrate that there was a linear feature from some date in the past (See Image 4).

image iv

Image 4: These images are a composite of the LIDAR and geophysics results. The line of the Giant’s Dyke is marked by the orange line in the left image. This indicates that it is extensive and in the same direction as known elements.

The news of the archaeological interest widens and an Oxford University Professor, an historian, living in the area wants to contribute. He produces some documentary evidence from before the Domesday Survey of 1086, which indicates that the boundary to extensive woodland was on the line of the bank and ditch feature. A charter-boundary itinerary of 1005 revealed the course of the margin of the land ‘thannon on haethfield on tha ealdan dic’. He then finds more from the 12th-14th century showing that the boundary of the ‘forest’ (a large hunting area owned by the king) was probably along the line of the Dyke. So the bank and ditch line was older than the 14th century. It is highly likely that the ‘ealdan dic’ was the Giant’s Dyke continuing to be used as a later boundary, providing continuity in the landscape. After 1500 the land went into agricultural use and the bank was probably ‘ploughed out’ with the ditch being filled in, as had happened elsewhere along its course. This would have been the source of the 14th century pottery.

The evidence was gathering, and was embraced by the parish council who voted against the developer’s proposals unanimously. There seems also to have been some networking with other parish councils on the boundaries of the old forest and the Giant’s Dyke, as many of them were facing similar development issues. The officers of the District Council, administrators and advisors, recommended that since the development might benefit the district as a whole it should be allowed to take place. However, they also suggested that further archaeological work should be undertaken. The developer wasn’t prepared to pay for an excavation of the land because it would take many months, and if anything of significance was found, even longer. It had experienced similar, expensive, problems elsewhere. As it turned out, the elected members of the District Council acted against the advice of their officers and voted by a considerable margin to reject the development.

So, it seems that the archaeological and historical evidence may have contributed to the decision to dismiss the housing development, and therefore to affect the future lives of a large number of people, including those who would have purchased the low-cost houses. Was all this consideration for the past worthwhile? The documentary evidence survives whether the houses were built or not. Archaeological excavation destroys evidence, and preserves sites only by ‘record’.  Is it worth preserving an old bank and ditch when we know what it looks like elsewhere in its course? With such a long boundary feature such as the Giant’s Dyke it would be unlikely that much dating evidence could be found. Of course I want to know if the Giant’s Dyke terminates above the river, but it isn’t essential that I do. It is not going to change my life, except put a smile on my face.

Anyway, we are about to find out about the value of evidence for the past against proposals for the future as the development company is going to appeal. They have hired a Queen’s Counsellor to lead the case for them. The archaeologist and historian are likely to called as witnesses…………

While this case is real, the names of companies and locations have been changed for obvious reasons.


Mike Taylor says:

The size of this oppidum shouldn’t be downplayed – the enclosed area seems to be somewhere in the order of 10,000ha, which would make it the biggest Iron Age enclosure known (if my memory is working), hence of world importance. Its location, at the edge of several Romano-british tribal areas, plus its relationship with Akeman Street and numerous villas and Iron Age forts would reinforce that.

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