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Archaeology Matters

Disturbing find for CBA Director highlights how vulnerable archaeological sites can be

Roman Finds from Service Trench in York (July 2014)

As reported in the Guardian today, Dr Mike Heyworth, Director of the Council for British Archaeology, made an unexpected discovery on Thursday evening when he spotted a number of Roman items, including a human jaw bone and fragments of pottery, in a service trench on a residential street in York.

The street in question is known to have been built on a nationally significant Romano-British cemetery, part of which was excavated in the 1960s. Recent excavations in the same area by the York Archaeological Trust gained national publicity when the graves of a number of Roman Gladiators were discovered. However, despite the significance of the site it appears that Northern Powergrid were given permission by York City Council to excavate without the need for any archaeological assessment or supervision.

On discovering the items, Dr. Heyworth called the North Yorkshire Police to report the human remains, something the contractors had apparently failed to do. He also reported the incident to the Council so they could get an archaeologist on site to record the remains and check for other evidence of burial in the trench. Work has now been halted while this is carried out.

The York Press has reported that a spokesperson from the Council has confirmed that they are investigating the incident, but that they are satisfied that "No major or lasting damage has been caused and the few bones which have been disturbed have been removed, are in safe keeping and will be reburied when it is safe to do so.”

This view unfortunately does not take into account the irreplaceable archaeological information that has needlessly been lost, a situation that could have easily been avoided if proper archaeological supervision had been in place. This is something that the CBA is extremely concerned about, particularly given the level of funding cuts that many local authority archaeology services have suffered in recent years. The role of these services is to flag up when developments might affect archaeological sites, and to ensure that proper arrangements are put in place to excavate and record archaeological remains in a timely manner as part of the development. However, in many parts of the UK archaeological services are facing huge budget cuts and local councils increasingly do not have access to the professional expertise they need to help them to assess the archaeological impact of new developments.

Dr. Heyworth said, “This is what can happen when development work goes ahead without archaeological monitoring. It is particularly unfortunate in this case that the extensive publicity about the Roman gladiators found opposite this site did not lead to anyone flagging up the sensitivity of this site, particularly as Roman remains are often found very near the surface. A piece of the jigsaw which could help us to understand this settlement has now been lost along with a piece of our city's history. This incident highlights the vital role our local authority archaeology and conservation services play in monitoring planning applications and other proposals that can damage archaeological sites. In some parts of the country funding cuts to local services have resulted in black holes appearing, particularly in the North, with planning authorities taking decisions in the absence of archaeological advice.”

The Council for British Archaeology is working with partners across the heritage sector to involve local people in championing the value of archaeological advisory services and helping to look out for issues and report where archaeology and heritage sites are vulnerable or at risk. For more information about this please visit the Speak Up section of our website.

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