THEBULLDOZER, THESCHEDULER ANDTHECOUNCIL LEADER
As has been documented in this magazine, archaeology and heritage are suffering as the country tries to pay off its debts. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry – it will get better. But will it? Three cases show how bad things can be, while some archaeologists are hopeful. Is this the beginning of the end? Or can imaginative action now lead to a glowing future? Mike Pitts reports
The bulldozer South of Bristol in Somerset are four earthen rings known as the Priddy circles. Though little understood by archaeologists, they have long been recognised as a unique group of prehistoric monuments, each of them closely comparable to the earthwork around Stonehenge. In June about a
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third of the best preserved of the four was bulldozed.
The rings are a prehistoric mystery. Three of them are perfect circles, close together and aligned roughly northnorth-east; the fourth is apparently also circular and a little further north of the others. Each is just under 200m across, the same size as that at
Stonehenge. They look superficially like henges, but – like Stonehenge – they differ in featuring a ditch on the outer edge of a bank rather than vice versa.
These simple details (true circles with an outer ditch) link Priddy to a small collection of sites that range from Flagstones in Dorchester, Dorset, to Llandegai in north Wales. There are suggestions these monuments lie historically between earlier neolithic causewayed enclosures, important places for temporary social and ritual meetings (see feature Jul/Aug 2011/119) and later neolithic henges, a unique British tradition. That Priddy belongs to this pivotal class was confirmed by Jodie Lewis and David Mullin in 2008, when small excavations at the damaged site suggested it was built around 3000bc – contemporary with the start of Stonehenge. Otherwise well preserved, the Priddy circles could hold clues to /CBA
The four prehistoric rings at Priddy as mapped in 1911
understanding some of the key questions about prehistoric Britain.
The rings are scheduled ancient monuments, were not listed by English Heritage as being at risk and all are within the Mendip area of outstanding natural beauty. Yet early in June one of the circles was landscaped by a new owner. New fencing and tree saplings were reported, and serious harm to the archaeological site was soon confirmed by English Heritage.
The scheduler Damaging a scheduled monument is a criminal offence, with penalties that can stretch to severe fines or a prison sentence. English Heritage is investigating the Priddy case, which is unusual for the apparent severity of the destruction at such a prominent site. But Priddy is not alone at being at risk. As this magazine reported (May/Jun 2011/118), 15 of Devon’s Roman forts are scheduled, yet eight of them are already being ploughed under a consent system. Ignorance, cold economic calculations or sheer bloody-mindedness can result in legally protected sites being damaged or destroyed. Nonetheless, scheduling monuments, as with listing buildings, especially if backed by helpful advice and education, has a proven record of saving important remains from our past. Which is why a trend at English Heritage is particularly troubling. Many ancient and historic sites are
In Martyn Copcutt’s photo of June 19, the earthwork of the southern circle survives as freshly exposed soil and bank material on the field boundary
Sandy Gerrard plotted annual designation statistics using data on English Heritage’s published national heritage list. The decline in designations is dramatic, particularly of ancient monuments not easily seen, and new surveys using new techniques commonly reveal new ones – sometimes of national or even international significance – meriting designation for legal protection. Yet, says archaeologist Sandy Gerrard, the number of archaeological sites scheduled annually by English Heritage has fallen since 1995. Since 2005 it has been so low as to be almost unnoticed; only nine were scheduled across the whole of England in 2008. The number of buildings being listed has also fallen. Gerrard felt so strongly about a situation that he was unable to change, in November last year he resigned from his post as a heritage protection adviser at English Heritage.
He believes sites are no longer being scheduled because where once the relevant people in authority were archaeologists, increasingly they now are not, and have little interest in archaeology. It takes time to schedule a site, and half those so designated after 2005 had been selected before then; over 500 cases started before 2002 have been abandoned. The sudden rise in listed buildings in 2010 is accounted for by a one-off drive to list old cases. The real picture may be worse than the graph.
The council leader In July English Heritage made Roger Bowdler its designation director, on the retirement of Peter Beacham. Formerly head of designation, Bowdler
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