Grubbing Out the Past

Britain’s archaeology is being obliterated – often with the help of archaeologists – yet hardly anyone seems to care

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 10th January 1996.

In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, written in 1907, a group of anarchists had decided that shooting politicians was a less effective means of undermining the morale of the nation than destroying national monuments. They launched a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, and the government set about trying to outwit them.

Today the government is destroying our national monuments and the anarchists are trying to save them. With the impending destruction of the Mesolithic, Roman and Civil War sites at Newbury, the appalling mismanagement of Stonehenge, the ripping of Twyford Down from the landscape, the granting of “Class Consents” permitting farmers to plough over Scheduled Ancient Monuments, the Ministry of Defence’s repeated obliteration of features on Salisbury Plain and the relaxation of planning constraints in Wales, one could be forgiven for believing that the government is engaged in a deliberate assault on the archaeological fabric of the nation.

The anarchists, by contrast, could not have associated themselves more clearly with our national monuments. The Dongas tribe named themselves after a set of archaeological features. Archaeology has arguably been even more important to roads protesters than wildlife. Many have been arrested for no less heinous a crime than trying to protect Britain’s heritage. So what has gone wrong?

In August last year, thirty lean, sun-tanned, scruffy people pulled their handcarts, goats, donkeys and bow-topped wagons to the top of Tan Hill, near Devizes in Wiltshire. They claimed that a Royal Charter, issued in 1499, entitled them to hold a fair at Lammas on the summit.

The police arrived in six riot vans, three dog vans and a helicopter. As the revellers trooped back down the hill, the officer in charge said “When will you people realize that this is Wiltshire, and you don’t belong here?”

Belonging, of course, is what the struggle to protect our archaeology is all about. Seven miles from Tan Hill, in the tiny country park surrounding Barbury Castle, every square metre of land has a story to tell. As well as the ditched ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort, there are Celtic field boundaries, Bronze Age barrows and Neolithic tracks. Standing on the earthworks, you can’t help but be aware that you are part of something – the land and its history extend ineluctably into you.

The lands surrounding the country park were once just as rich in human history, but today the bleak chalk rubble of a single harrowed field runs all the way down the valley the fort overlooks. Beyond it, the insult has been compounded, for after just a few years of producing grain which no one wanted, the newly effaced earth has been left to the weeds.

The farmers argue that their ploughing is an historical process. The difference, of course, is that the processes evident at Barbury Castle took place one on top of another – modern ploughing, by contrast, sweeps away everything that has gone before. In these stony wastes there is no place for us. We do not belong here, for there is nothing to belong to.

The hippies at Tan Hill were removed, the police said, because they posed a threat to the land. Yet no riot vans or helicopters turned up when Wiltshire farmers engaged in some of the most wanton acts of vandalism since the sacking of Constantinople. Far from it – they were paid by the state to do it.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the government, or the EU, ARE setting out deliberately to obliterate the archaeological record, but it seems that they couldn’t care less about its disappearance. Global free trade requires the homogenization of tastes and aspirations. Spirit of place provides the opposite. A sense of place cannot survive without a sense of its history.

There are, as yet, no comprehensive figures for the rates of loss of archaeological remains, but it’s likely that most of the record has already gone. Most alarmingly, there are no reliable means of protecting the rest. Farmers can destroy unscheduled (unprotected) ancient monuments without consulting anyone. In practice, it seems there is nothing stopping them from destroying scheduled ones, either. In one of the few surveys completed so far, archaeologists found that 145 of the 202 scheduled hill forts and earthwork enclosures in Dyfed had been substantially degraded since scheduling.

Archaeology is, of course, the definitive non-renewable resource. Historical sites don’t breed, and the pathetic attempts to recreate them merely render them meaningless. The loss of our archaeology is like amnesia. Of the 450,000 years of human habitation of these islands, only the last 1500 have been recorded, patchily, in writing. For the remainder, we rely entirely on what the land has to tell us.

Direct activists have carried the burden of archaeological defence because archaeologists have been lamentably slow to respond to the destruction. Archaeological conservation has been taught to undergraduates only for the last ten years – the discipline is more or less where nature conservation was 20 years ago. Part of the reason is that many academics have been party to the crime. Most of the opportunities for excavation are provided by developers building roads, housing estates or superstores.

But the discipline is rapidly waking up. Last month the magazine of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) lambasted the government’s Rural White Paper, which scarcely mentioned the historical environment. The CBA is calling for consideration of the wider landscape, not just isolated sites, and environmental protection to be firmly linked to farm subsidies.

Next month Bournemouth University’s Monuments At Risk Survey will complete its collection of data – it is expected to show that there are about one million recognized archaeological sites in England, of which only 15,000 have been scheduled. In 18 months it should be able to tell us how fast they’re disappearing.

There’s no guarantee that the government will pay the blindest bit of notice. The 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act is a caricature of misunderstanding and outdated thinking. The Countryside Commission, English Nature and English Heritage are starting a “countryside character programme”, recommending that certain landscapes be given special treatment by planners. While the idea has its virtues, most of the threats to archaeological remains come from farm and forestry activities which lie outside the planning process. This month the government was due to publish a Heritage Green Paper, but it’s been delayed. In theory, it will be a great opportunity to put the many glaring anomalies right. Archaeologists aren’t holding their breath, however.

The Tan Hill Fair eventually took place not on the hilltop, but in a green lane two miles away. For three days 200 people rode horses with painted flanks and plaited tails, drank mead, danced to the music of fiddles and mandolins and ate fat hen picked from a nearby field in set-aside, before they were thrown off by the police again. Something happened in those days which subtly changed the lives of everyone who roistered there. It is hard to tell what it was, but it felt like the future, swimming up slowly from the depths of the past.