HL Deb 16 December 1971 vol 326 cc1320-35

5.7 p.m.

VISCOUNT HANWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware of the rate of destruction of archaeological evidence of cultural value to the community caused by the construction of motorways; and whether, in view of the small funds available to Her Majesty's Inspector of Ancient Monuments for rescue work, they will consider financing archaeological observation and rescue work in advance of and during the construction of motorways as one of the charges in the total cost of the motorway.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name. A little earlier to-day the noble Lord, Lord Citrine, made the remark that in his opinion speeches should not be read, and although I agree to a great extent with that view, I nevertheless think there are occasions when it is difficult to avoid reading a speech. When one is asking a Question or introducing a Motion one wants to be absolutely clear on the points, and the quickest way of doing so is to speak from what I believe are sometimes referred to as "very full notes". I think it is important this evening to be as short as possible, and therefore I do not propose to depart from my notes to any great extent. For that reason I can assure your Lordships that it should not take me more than about 12 minutes, at the most, to introduce this subject, and I believe that most other speakers will be even more brief.

The value of archaeological sites and the evidence of our past which they can provide has been recognised increasingly in the laws of this country since the first Ancient Monuments Act was passed in 1882. There should be no need to-day, in 1971, to argue the case for the cultural importance of the work of archaeologists or the discoveries which they make. There is, however, a need to spell out some of the difficulties under which their researches are carried on. In the first place, there is often no sign on the surface that an archaeological site is there. It may be found, for example, only by the laying of pipes, construction work or farming. Where major works of this nature are not observed as a matter of routine by competent archaeologists, amateur or professional, many archaeological sites are being destroyed unrecorded and the evidence which they would provide is being lost to us for ever. It was in this way that the Roman place of Fishboume, now one of the major tourist attractions of the South Coast, was discovered through the perspicacity of local archaeologists who recognised the importance of what they were shown in a water main trench.

The second major difficulty is the fact that even when it is known that there is a site it is rarely, if ever, possible to predict confidently its potential before it has been investigated. In fact the true value of a discovery, or of a site, may not emerge until several years have passed and the discovery has been put into a better perspective by related evidence from other sites. Here I would mention the case of Durrington Walls, a henge monument lying astride the main road from Amesbury to Devizes. Faint traces of a ploughed-out ditch had long ago been recognised here, but when it was excavated in 1966–67 in advance of road-straightening operations, it was found to be larger than Avebury, and more than four times the size of Stonehenge. It is radically altering nearly every aspect of the study of these monuments. Once archaeological evidence is destroyed it can never be recreated, of course, and there can be no certainty that an uninvestigated site does not contain important or even crucial evidence.

The third difficulty—and this is worth underlining—is the fact that the value of any archaeological discovery, from a stone implement to the remains of a mediaeval palace, lies in its relationship to its surroundings. An object recovered during an archaeological excavation, or even recovered by a trained person from a contractor's excavation, will tell an expert, and through him ourselves, far more than the same object would if found on the contractor's spoilheap. In fact objects may well provide useful evidence only if they have been recovered by a trained archaeologist.

If I may turn to the problems of archaeological sites on the lines of motorways, it is worth noting that the first motorways to be subjected to anything approximating systematic archaeological search before and during their construction were the M.4 and the M.5, where they pass through Wiltshire. Gloucestershire and Somerset. This was financed by ad hoc methods—by grants from archaeological societies, trusts, local authorities and so on plus finance for specific excavations from the then Ministry of Works and the loan of personnel from a sympathetic university extra-mural department and a city museum. The work was carried out by mixed amateur and professional teams operating on minimal budgets, but with the physical cooperation from day to day of the motorway construction unit and their contractors. No finance was available from motorway funds. The results of this effort were startling. An average of two sites every motorway mile were identified, and, wherever possible, examined. Few of these sites were known beforehand, and so most of them were discovered only as a result of continuous observation—and I stress that word "continuous". As a result, a completely new picture of the pattern on settlement in the past in that part of Gloucestershire and Somerset has emerged.

I do not want to suggest that a major site, of tourist potential, lies under the scoop of every contractor's bulldozer, for archaeological information comes from a totality of small sites and not just from one major discovery. Motorways are being built at an increasing rate over the remainder of the country. It is impossible to expect the same superhuman efforts from people in these new areas. Additional finance is essential. In a few areas, small ad hoc groups are being set up to try to cope with the challenge—for example, in Oxfordshire on the route of the M.40, in Cambridgeshire on the route of the M.11, and in Surrey on the lines of the M.23 and M.25. However, only by tile employment of sufficient professional archaeologists will they make certain that all the important sites are discovered. People in full-time employment in other walks of life, who volunteer to do this work in their spare time, cannot guarantee the daily vigil which is needed.

The Ancient Monuments Inspectorate of the Department of the Environment is powerless to help in this vital work, because the Inspectorate has an annual vote of only £150,000 for rescue excavation work. The West German Government has in recent years spent more than this on a single site, the Viking trading town of Haitabu, in Schleswig-Holstein, while the Dutch Government are currently spending some £150,000 on the single site of Dorestad at the mouth of the Rhine, and at the same time they use this project for unemployment relief. Our Inspectorate has to spread its vote over sixty to seventy sites a year throughout Great Britain. A major excavation here can absorb £10, 000, and minor ones with a minimum of paid labour and the use of no earth-moving equipment at all could cost £100 to £200. The Inspectorate just does not have the resources within its present Treasury vote, or the personnel to cope with the continuous observation of any major motorway construction.

Motorway costs have been stated to lie between three-quarters and one and a half million pounds per mile. The sum needed to finance adequate archaeological investigation is, by comparison, infinitesimal. One thousand pounds per mile for this purpose would probably finance a thorough archaeological surveillance; and there would still be considerable scope for participation by enthusiastic volunteers. They are to-day carrying the great archaeological burden virtually unaided by the State. All of the ad hoc groups I have mentioned operate on very slender funds indeed, and this must restrict the quantity of the work.

In brief, my Lords, and finally, what I am asking is that archaeological observation and rescue work should be financed from the motorway Vote. This I should have thought was equitable, and other nations have thought so, too.

Although I am fully aware that the cost of each mile of motorway is carefully scrutinised by the Treasury, and although this may be a problem to the Department concerned, it is, logically and sensibly, to my way of thinking, no reason whatever for turning down this proposal, which amounts at the most to one part in a thousand of the cost of the motorways. The motorways are being built for our benefit. Their construction inevitably destroys evidence which is the tool of archaeologists and historians. It is up to us to see that as much as possible is saved.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Viscount and to thank him for having raised this very important Question, because it vitally affects far more than the purely archaeological culture to which he referred. I think that so far as that is concerned all of us are bound to argue from the particular to the general. In my own part of the world I happen to know of a Roman site of about 20 acres or so through which a main road is shortly to be driven, and where it is absolutely essential that money should be forthcoming to pay for the excavation before the damage is done and so that we can learn the maximum possible before the new road is driven through.

I want to draw the Government's attention to that area where archaeology and biology cross in these sort of sites. I am not referring to the discovery in archaeological sites of early domestic animals, how the earlier tools show when the people ceased to tear the wool off sheep and started to cut it with shears like we do to-day; I refer to the sort of things which very few people notice, but which some of your Lordships may have noticed walking on Scottish hills—where you suddenly see the remains of a croft from which the people were taken during the clearances, where the vegetation is entirely different. There you see such things as clovers and docks, and the like, on a site which was otherwise unremarkable from the rest of the hill perhaps a hundred or a couple of hundred years ago. But also in places you can find evidence of mesolithic middens where the phosphate added at that time is still being turned over by the plants, and you can identify sites not hundreds but thousands of years old.

There are other places where the same sort of thing is going on but it is completely hidden from all eyes, and is not likely to be noticed by the person who is planning the site of a motorway. That happens particularly when you get what we are going to have quite shortly on the M.25, along the North Downs, where a very large number of underground workings are to be filled in with cement in order to support the new motorway. These are underground workings which are not only of interest to the archaeologist proper but to the biologist as well. These workings go into total darkness. Your Lordships will know that all life depends on sunlight and green plants, and that life in total darkness can only be supported if there is some connection with the outside world—perhaps by animals which enter the place. I recollect seeing a hen pheasant at the end of a long dark cave. If I had not happened to come across it, it would have died there, and by dying it would have set up a cycle of successive living creatures, plants and the like, which would have been of the greatest interest to a biologist in a dark cave. In these workings you find the remains of primitive man's food, primitive man's ordure when he obeyed the demands of nature thousands of years ago, still being turned over by living creatures which ought to be investigated before they are utterly destroyed.

The noble Viscount referred to the pittance which is given to the Ancient Monuments Department, and I think it is worth contrasting that with the very large sum of £100, 000 which I.C.I. produced for the investigation of the reservoir which was about to be made at Cow Green in Teesdale. This enabled botanists and zoologists to investigate what was about to be flooded and which was of extreme interest. That is what the Government ought to be prepared to do. That is what the noble Viscount is asking the Government to do, and I wish strongly to support him.

I cannot resist, before I sit down, referring to one other thing about these caves which are about to be covered up along the North Downs, because it will be expected from me. It is a site where bats in large numbers go to roost, and in particular a site which might be occupied by a particularly rare bat called the mouse-eared bat, which has very recently come across from the Continent to this country and is found only in underground workings. Underground workings are disappearing right and left. They are being used by local authorities for filling up with rubbish, and these unfortunate creatures, to which I am so devoted, are finding their homes rapidly destroyed. I hope that perhaps the Government will bear them in mind when they answer this Question.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome the opportunity of saying a few words in support of the Question asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. I suppose I ought to begin by declaring an interest. I speak as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and also as a Member of the Council for British Archeology, to whose honorary secretary I am indebted for a good deal of information which, if time permitted, I should have liked to put before the House. I realise the circumstances in which the time for this debate is circumscribed, and I shall therefore try to be as brief as possible.

The point I should like to urge chiefly upon the Government and, through the Government, the public in general, is the very widespread concern that is felt by all who are interested in archaeology and our island history at the very rapid destruction of sites of archaeological interest. This is due not only to the construction of motorways, but also to urban development, the building of new towns, the formation of city centres, the excavation of very large quantities of sand and gravel, and, in addition, to the deep ploughing which has resulted in the destruction, in recent years, of a great many ancient monuments. There is a great and growing interest in this subject. Our knowledge of archaeological sites of interest and their potentialities has been increased very considerably in recent years as a result of the revelations produced by aerial photography. It is therefore particularly sad that those developments have coincided with the very rapid destruction of sites, which could otherwise have been excavated with profit to this and future generations.

There is no need for me to emphasise the growing interest in archaeology in this country. It is evidenced, for example, by the increasing number of chairs in archaeology which are being established in British universities, and by the increasing number of students who are taking degree courses and undergraduate courses in archaeology; and also, as the noble Viscount has said, by the large number of amateurs up and down the country who undertake incessant and invaluable voluntary work in this field. Nevertheless, the position is very serious, as the following figures will indicate. I am told that 50,000 acres of land are being submerged under development every year. This is the equivalent of one medium-sized county every seven years. I am told that of 100 recorded Romano-British settlements in Wiltshire alone, only 10 were still well preserved in 1964. I am told again that in Wiltshire, out of 640 scheduled sites, 250 were completely destroyed, and a further 150 damaged, by 1964. I am told that in Gloucestershire, of 360 round barrows half have already been destroyed, and only one barrow cemetery now survives intact. I am told that sand and gravel areas, which have very often been occupied for thousands of years, are being removed at the rate of about 200 million cubic yards a year.

Your Lordships will appreciate that this not only means an alarming diminution of invaluable archaeological evidence, but it also seriously affects the availability of sites for study by archaeological students of this and future generations. Notwithstanding the voluntary work which has taken place, I am convinced that, unless the Minister is convinced of the need to give further financial help in this direction, this alarming tendency will continue. Having said that, I would of course be among the first to pay my tribute to the excellent work which is being done by the Ancient Monuments Division within their limited resources. I gratefully acknowledge also the innumerable cases in which, thanks to the public spirit, sometimes of Government Departments, sometimes of local authorities, and sometimes of private contractors, work which otherwise would have destroyed important sites is being delayed to enable investigation and preservation to take place. A notable instance of this occurred recently at Dover, where, as a result of the intervention of those interested in the subject and, if I may say so, local pressure on the Minister, road construction was delayed to allow more time for excavation; indeed, the road level was raised to limit the amount of destruction to the Roman structures and levels. This is an instance in which co-operation between the archaeological societies and the Minister can save some of these valuable sites from destruction. Other instances of local co-operation where town planning is in progress occur at Winchester and Oxted. These indicate what could be done if good will exist, and illustrate how much more could be done if public attention were concentrated on the opportunities that exist and the possibilities of rescue work. I hope that sufficient public attention will be given to the alarming prospect of this widespread destruction if nothing occurs to stimulate the Minister to respond to the suggestions of my noble friend Viscount Hanworth.

May I add that there is one other aspect of this matter which I think should be drawn to the attention of the Minister and, I hope, to a wider public. There has been introduced in recent months an additional and novel menace in this field. I refer to the development of metal detectors and the use by misguided persons of metal detectors for the purpose of seeking out treasure trove. I am well aware that a good deal of the law of treasure trove is archaic and will, I hope, in the near future be brought up to date. But I venture to draw attention to the fact that, as I understand it, it has been the law of England, at any rate since the time of Bracton, to go out and search for treasure trove is a criminal offence, and to go out and take treasure trove by the use of metal detectors is equally a criminal offence; namely, the criminal offence of stealing, the reason being that it is just as much stealing to steal the property of the Crown, which is what treasure trove is, as it would be to steal any of your Lordships' private property. Therefore, I hope that some publicity will be given to the fact that if people are sufficiently misguided as to go around the countryside with metal detectors seeking for treasure that does not belong to them but as treasure trove belongs to the Crown, they may be inviting serious consequences.

There was a significant instance of this which occurred only recently at Aston Bromley. I do not make any reflection on the two persons who happened—I think it happened quite spontaneously—to come across a valuable hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins. The British Museum, in accordance with what has been the tradition for a long time, acquired the coins at market prices in the interests of the Crown and in the interests of preventing valuable articles from leaving the country. If the use of metal detectors is allowed to go on on any scale without being stopped by some measure or other, it will aggravate seriously the problems with which those interested in archaeology are concerned at the present time, and will lead to the further erosion of sites and the contents of sites which should be scientifically excavated and which lead to a growing interest in the study of this subject. I apologise for detaining your Lordships longer than I intended, but I hope that my remarks and this debate in general will draw attention to what I regard as a very pressing problem.

5.33 p.m.


My Lords, I have my back to the only clock we have at present, but I think I can guarantee that I shall not be responsible for any delay in the festivities which will follow our proceedings this evening. I shall be brief, and that particularly because I am not an archaeologist like the noble Lord, Lord Fletcher, nor even the husband of one like the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth. But I should like to support what the noble Viscount and the noble Lord have said and to emphasise briefly what seem to me to be the most important aspects of this matter.

Speaking as an ordinary citizen with enough interest in the subject of archeology in general to be a member of a Surrey archæological society, may I say first that those responsible for the planning and building of motorways are naturally fearful of the difficulties that may arise if archeological discoveries are made on the line of their route. But those difficulties will be minimised if an expert survey is carried out before work begins. In this way, requests for delay will be avoided, and if any really important site is discovered it will be possible to make orderly and considered arrangements for preserving it.

Secondly, it is not always understood that archeologists will only ask for the most significant discoveries to be preserved. For the most part, the essential thing is to have time to record the details of any discovery before it is destroyed and so add to the sum of our knowledge of the life and works of our remote ancestors. It is a matter of recording the exact position in which objects are found, the methods and materials used in the construction of buildings, the strata which indicate the periods of time in which the site has been occupied and so on. Once this work has been done, the destruction of the great majority of archeological sites can be accepted as inevitable.

Lastly, the sums of money involved are large in relation to the resources available to the Inspector of Ancient Monuments—very large indeed in relation to the resources of local archeological societies but, as the noble Viscount said, infinitesimal if considered as part of the enormous overall cost of building a motorway.

Therefore, I hope that the Government will agree that there is a good case here; that they will be prepared to make it possible for archeological surveys of motorway routes to be carried out in good time and that they will accept this as a proper charge against the total cost of a motorway. I understand that the present Government make a point of looking at the overall effect of their policies and seek to get away from the piecemeal and departmentalised approach which has caused difficulties in the past. There seems to me to be a good opportunity to apply that principle here.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, may I also support the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, in his admirable speech. I have one reason for detaining your Lordships and others at this late hour; that is, that this issue is arising in a critical manner in an area which I know very well where the M.23 and the M.25 will intersect. This is the area which was my constituency and which I represented for twenty years in another place. I know the area well. My Lords, I knew that at that time I represented 61,000 constituents and 120,000 inhabitants, in a beautiful part of the world, with many historic houses, and a historic borough, hut never, until the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, spoke, did I realise that I also represented a large number of bats. I sometimes thought that my constituents were a little fractious and I now realise what might have been part of the reason.

The area is traversed by the A.22, the London-Eastbourne Road, the A.23, the I_ondon-Brighton Road and the A.25 which is that appalling West-East highway along which I am sure many of your Lordships travelling from Hampshire to Kent have suffered traffic congestion. We are now also going to have the M.23 and the M.25 all concentrated in this very small area. And even in this area, the area that lies between the North Downs and the Southern boundary of Surrey between Redhill and Godstone, we are going to have 17 miles of motorway and the intersection of the M.23 and the M.25 alone is to involve the destruction of 88 acres and virtually the obliteration of a hamlet. It includes the area of the fascinating quarries and mineworkings to which the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, referred. I would plead that we should get a sympathetic hearing from the Government on this cause, because I doubt whether the need for this research has ever arisen in so concentrated a form in any one area.

As was said by the noble Lord who preceded me, the Surrey Archaeological Society are doing their best. They have already identified 10 worthwhile antiquarian sites that should be worked on. It cannot be left only to volunteers. We all hope that the Surrey County Council will help; but Her Majesty's Government should help as well. In conclusion, I would repeat that the Department of the Environment now encompasses a very wide range of responsibilities from the building of roads to the preservation of ancient monuments. Surely, now that it is under one Ministry, it would be a chance to prove that the amalgamation was worth while and that at last we have a Government Department which cares for the environment in its totality.

5.42 p.m.


My Lords, we ate all grateful to the noble Viscount for the stimulus which this debate has provided for all those who are concerned about, or work in, this field. I am grateful for the opportunity it gives me to say what the Government are doing and what they intend to do about the problem he raised. I am also grateful to all other noble Lords who have taken part in the debate for their various contributions. As the noble Viscount said, archaeological sites can be affected by modern development of all kinds: housing, mineral working, agriculture (ploughing, in particular) and industrial schemes, as well as by road construction, of which the M.23–25 complex is as good a case as any.

In some cases the importance of the monument justifies amending the proposals to keep them clear of the monument and to protect it. Recent instances of this in relation to highway schemes are those at Dover (mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Fletcher) where the road level is being raised to avoid damage to the buried remains of two Roman forts; Dicket Mead, near Welwyn, where the road is being raised over the ruins of a Roman bath-house; and one in Hertfordshire when the line of the road has been altered in the interests of a Roman and Iron Age settlement site. In all these cases, the extra cost of construction of the highway which has been moved for these purposes is being borne on road funds. Where, however, archaeological sites have to make way for modern development, of whatever kind, our practice is to arrange for them to be investigated or surveyed beforehand—the whole line of a road if necessary—sometimes by observation and frequently by excavation, thus increasing in the process the fund of archaeological knowledge. My Department itself conducts some of these investigations and arranges for others to be undertaken by local archaeological groups and societies, with the help of grants provided by the Department. In all, there were some 160 such excavations and surveys in 1970. Recent instances of excavation in advance of road schemes are: Durrington Walls, in Wiltshire (a Neolithic site); on the M.5 route (Iron Age settlements at Dibbles Farm in Somerset) and on an Essex section of the M.11 (prehistoric and Roman sites and a Roman villa complex at Hutton's Ambo).

In general, rescue work can he planned well in advance but there are occasions, as noble Lords will recogise, when finds are made after the roadworks have started. In principle, once again the cost of any unavoidable delay occasioned by rescue work would be met from road funds; but in practice this more often than not can be avoided and prevented by making suitable arrangements ad hoc with the highway authority and the contractor in a spirit of give-and-take. I should like to pay tribute to the contractors, in particular, for their very helpful co-operation in enabling last-minute rescue digs to proceed. Instances of this arc on the M.5 at Crandon Bridge, in Somerset, where Roman structures, possibly warehouses, were investigated and on the A.66, in Westmorland, where a Roman cemetery was unexpectedly encountered.

In all types of rescue work our aim is to maintain close links with archaeologists outside the Department. In the liaison between the Department, which is responsible for trunk road schemes, and the archaeologists, who are concerned that the sites affected should be fittingly recorded, the key central role is played by our Ancient Monuments Division. They are consulted by the highways planners at the earliest planning stages. In cases where archaeological sites are expected to be affected, the Division enter into discussions with outside archaeologists; they encourage the setting up of local excavation committees on which they are normally represented; they allocate Government financial help towards the rescue work; and they help to ensure the close co-operation between highways authorities and contractors once the roadworks start. But, as all who have spoken will recognise, whatever the degree of liaison and whatever the degree of skill and enthusiasm shown by archaeologists within and outside the Department, the central issue before us is the adequacy of the financial resources at the Department's disposal. As the noble Lord, Lord Fletcher, said, this is a matter which is a test of our earnestness.

Let me say at once that these resources are considerably greater than has so far been suggested in our debate. For rescue work in advance of modern developments of all kinds—not just highways—the direct annual allocation has increased over the past ten years from around £35,000 to £210,000. But this is only the direct expenditure. In addition, quite substantial amounts are spent on excavation supervisors' fees—something like £70,000 this year—to say nothing of the Department's own staff costs. We must continue to be selective to ensure full value for what is, after all, taxpayers' money. For instance, although highway works reveal previously unknown sites, by no means all of them warrant the expense of full excavation. We must also relate allocations to the availability of experienced archaeological skill. Nevertheless, and subject to Parliamentary approval of our Estimates, we propose next year to increase the direct allocation for rescue work of all kinds—not just highways—from £210,000 to some £310,000, an increase of nearly 50 per cent.

As Parliamentary procedure requires, the extra money will be an addition to the Ancient Monuments Vote through which all types of rescue work are accounted for and controlled; though I would remind noble Lords of the two circumstances in which the extra costs resulting from giving due weight to the importance of ancient monuments are borne on road funds. In this I am saying nothing of the extra sums which are being allocated on the Ancient Monuments side in respect of the Field Monuments Bill, which I was instrumental in taking through your Lordships' House a week or so ago. Recognising the special need here in the field of rescue work occasioned by highway construction (which is the particular point to which the noble Viscount addressed his Question) we propose to apply a much more than proportional share of this general increase to archaeological rescue work in advance of highway construction. Our present allocation for this is about £40,000 a year and we intend to increase this by £50,000; that is to say, to more than double. We shall continue to watch the situation and will stand ready to consider the provision of further resources if and when this should seem necessary.

I accept the point made by my noble friend Lord Reigate, that this does provide a challenge and test for a unified Department. This is one of the things in which we should be able to make progress more readily and effectively than was possible when the planning, highways and ancient monuments all resided in three separate Departments. But whatever we can do in the Department of the Environment, we must also continue to rely very greatly on the voluntary efforts of individual archaeologists and local societies whose services, and particularly whose vigilance, is essential and very greatly valued.

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