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Does size matter?
Seeing some of the postings on the human remains thread about short-cuts (some debatable) in methodology which are excused by the need to deal with huge amounts of (usually urban)archaeology (in that case burials), has got me wondering if this is valid. While I am not sure about the Spitalfields case which I feel was done to a very high standard overall, I have been involved with many large excavations where huge short-cuts were taken (with curatorial assent) to deal with the huge amounts of archaeology. Stuff like machining off all the post-medieval archaeology to deal with extensive medieval remains. This would not happen on a smaller more manageable site.

Watching briefs I feel are so flawed, that I have bored myself silly with the sound of my own keyboard ranting about them. Small projects involving key-hole work, although probably well dug are also limited for well understood reasons. And it seems that the very large open area urban excavations which hold the potential to provide the best quality and quantity of archaeological information are not held to the same standards as the medium sized project.

It seems that a hypothetical large site is going to be much better excavated and understood if it is developed and paid for by a number developers and the archaeology dealt with in manageable chunks, than by one developer/one excavation.

My own idealistic view is that archaeological methodology should be as uniform as possible regardless of the size of the project. Reality naturally intrudes on this view, but I wonder if cutting corners on the very big projects, whose developers are surely able to bear archaeological costs better than smaller developers is sensible or fair?

It is a wonder that developers don't club together to get whole swathes of archaeology in cities dealt with more cheaply than if they go at it alone. (As I write this I have realized that a massive project in my home city has probably done exactly this)Sad

Probably an easy question to answer and a touch off topic, but are developers ever subsidised (by local government, for instance) at all for the costs involved in archaeology, or do they always bear the total brunt of the cost?
I believe they are sometimes. For example when a council wants a site developed and reduces the price of the land when the developer baulks at the cost of doing the archaeology. Not that the council would admit to this I suspect!
Always better to sell land as 'vanilla' packages with the archaeology evaluated and conditions discharged, you'll get a better price. Any prospective purchaser will normally carry out the necessary checks to establish if the site is of archaeological interest and as a curator I regularly respond to enquiries from solicitors etc. As has been discussed elsewhere on this forum it's often not so much the cost of dealing with archaeology that is problematic to developers but the delays involved and the cost of having other (more expensive) contractors sitting idle. Over to the consultants on this one!
Mercenary, I recently worked on material from a 150 trench evaluation project that repeatedly turned up shallow or plough related post-Medieval features, over post-Medieval layers before getting to the earlier archaeology. All the post-Medieval features produced nothing more than highly abraded small fragments of pot and CBM. Now, I would normally be against any form of altering the excavation methodology, but this has persuaded me that perhaps, as there is no meaningful information to be gained, the psot-med strat could be machined off.

This probably won't happed and will take precious time and money to process post-ex, and although within urban areas an effort should be made to standardise methodologies, surely in some large scale excavations some reasonable allowances could be made in consultation with curators. As also recently occurred a curator asked for dry sieving of top soil from eval trenches to produce, yet more pieces of hopelessly small post-med cbm.

Sometimes, especially out of urban areas I think we must re-evaluate where the archaeology can be informative, rather than the strictly academic thought of - all information is valuable.
Vulpes - yes, you are right about 'vanilla' packages being easier to sell. The problem is that many landowners (local authorities and smaller private landowners) either cannot or do not want to stump up for the full cost of evaluation and / or excavation prior to agreement of land sale. In this event a usual response is to seek some clarity on the likely cost of archaeological work and this sum is knocked off the price of the land purchase (all part of 'due diligence' on behalf of the purchaser). In the event of the cost of dealing with the archaeology being substantially less or more than the rate assumed in the purchase agreement, an additional clause will include a pain/gain mechanism by which this is balanced out, and can even be covered by a separate insurance policy (or in the case of the archaeological advice being grossly negligent, costs can be recovered through the professional indemnity insurance of the advisor).

As a more general response to this thread I think that it can be right in some cases to deviate from the ideal in terms of excavation methodology, especially for large excavations in urban areas (didn't Biddle address this very issue as part of his opening address at the IFA Conference in Wichester - text available as a download from IFA)? I know of at least one historic town where the modern and later post-med material is routinely removed by machine on the grounds that the detailed documentary and cartographic sources mean that there is little to be gained from detailed excavation and resources should therefore be concentrated on the medieval and early post-med remains.


I understand the argument and may possibly even agree with it. I don't understand why such arguments are routinely applied to large sites but not as often to smaller ones. Are we not wasting our best opportunities to understand the whole story of a site, just because the archaeological bill might look too big? If so, then archaeology is being as spineless as ever.

I think you might be on the right track about the total bill being too expensive. However, it also has something to do with getting the best return on the investment (god, how I hate that sort of language) - on large sites there is a greater potential to focus work on parts of the site (either spatially or stratigraphically) to examine areas where we might learn more about that which we don't really understand.

I think I may have caused a few apoplectic fits amongst councillors recently on one urban site whan I suggested that detailed excavation of the Saxon remains was crucial as we know very little about that period within the town, whereas we could deal with the Roman levels in as more superficial way as this was much more well-understood. Almost all previous excavations in the town centre had removed the Saxon material without recording in order to look for Roman town houses. However we still live in times when aged councillors have a deep seated reverence for Roman mosaics and little time for the post-Roman grub huts that overlie them.

I don't really understand why we do not apply the same ideas to small sites - perhaps you are right in that here the total bill does not look too bad even if we excavate everything in detail, so we just do it anyway - if so then this does not reflect very well on the profession and perhaps we should be considering this issue more carefully.

posted by beamo:

'I don't really understand why we do not apply the same ideas to small sites - perhaps you are right in that here the total bill does not look too bad even if we excavate everything in detail, so we just do it anyway - if so then this does not reflect very well on the profession and perhaps we should be considering this issue more carefully.'

Site size in commercial archaeology (as I am sure we are all aware) does not always bear any relation to the size of the actual scope of the archaeology of the area being developed. A small site may therefore have a limited view of the landscape, requiring more excavation work to understand things that are more obvious when a larger area is opened up. This may account for some (but obviously not all) of the cases you refer to. :face-huh:

don't panic!

I'm not panicking - it is just that as a consultant I am bound by IFA Standards and Guidance that mean that I must give keen attention to any chance of reducing my clients' commitment to archaeology and therefore their costs.

JOKE !!!


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