Why archaeologists fear the humble plough
Every year historic archaeological sites are inadvertently damaged by ploughing. But theres
disagreement on how best to preserve these monuments, explains David Lovibond
IN THE slanting sunlight of a fine spring evening, a remote Wiltshire hillside fills with the shadows of an ancient field system. Twenty years ago, before the down was ploughed for cereals, the banks and ditches of the old fields were prominent landmarks. Next year, or the year after, and the last faint echo will have gone from the hill.
English Heritages Monument Protection Programme (MPP) aims to provide legal protection for archaeological sites like this by scheduling them as being of national importance. So far the programme, which is now 10 years late, has identified 17,460 monuments of this quality and has a target of around 30,000 sites by 2007.
The eventual total of scheduled monuments will only represent 10% of Englands eligible sites, which might be a Bronze Age barrow, a Romano-British estate boundary or a deserted medieval village. Nor does scheduling guarantee an archaeological sites survival.
"At least 50 scheduled monuments suffered significant damage in 1990, a similar number in 1991 and almost 30 in 1993 and 1994," says Peter Kendall an inspector of monuments for English Heritage. "But we only hear about a handful of sites and very few result in prosecution."
Yet the most serious, and insidious, damage to scheduled monuments arises not from malice or illegal action, but occurs as a daily and remorseless consequence of permitted ploughing.
The portion of the archaeological estate in pasture land remains relatively safe: these monuments would have been under pasture when originally scheduled and any subsequent or future change in the farming regime should leave the sites untouched. (In Lincolnshire, archaeologists say the only remaining grazing is on the earthworks, rising like green islands in a sea of arable). But Graham Fairclough, manager of the MPP, says "the largest proportion of scheduled monuments is under the plough". This dangerous predicament is due to a legal concession called Class Consent, which means that if a site was being ploughed when originally scheduled, then it can continue in that condition.
"An entire spectrum of archaeological sites is under the plough," says Richard Morris director of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA). "Deserted medieval villages, Iron Age farms, Romano-British villas, ritual sites of the last 6000 years, buried land surfaces with unique evidence for environmental history – the complete record of how people lived and worshipped, sooner or later ploughing destroys it all".
But Mr Morris does not think the farmers are necessarily unsympathetic to archaeology. "Mavericks apart, in general, farmers accept they are stewards and are glad to hear what they have on their land. But it is a matter of giving the right advice and finding the right management for sites, and then monitoring the results." It would seem to follow that if an earthwork is deemed worthy of scheduling, it should be provided with a management strategy designed to conserve it. This is certainly the view of Andy Fulton, project manager of the Monuments at Risk Survey (MARS) which Bournemouth University compiled for English heritage. "The project visited 16,000 sites nationally. In arable areas, if management agreements were not in place than the risk to the structural integrity of monuments was very high. Scheduling doesnt offer the protection it should."
Evidently English Heritage is unconvinced by these arguments. Graham Fairclough says it has negotiated between 800 and 1000 agreements whereby farmers contract to farm their monuments in non-damaging ways. Perversely, the great majority of these management agreements are in pastoral areas where there are fewer scheduled monuments and the risk of damage is minimal. In the arable areas, where they are most needed, formal agreements with farmers are rarities. Wiltshire county archaeologist Roy Canham says: "of 2000 scheduled sites, less than 1% are covered by management agreements. Ideally, each monument should have its own plan".
Mr Fairclough is unapologetic. "Management agreements are not the best way of protecting small sites in arable fields. A Bronze Age barrow taken out of cultivation would be too small to graze or manage and would be covered in scrub in a few years. Also agreements should be positive; persuading the farmer to start or continue a regime which is beneficial to a monument. It is not our policy to pay farmers not to do things."
The problem with sites reduced to soil marks or barely perceptible mounds is that without management agreements farmers, even well-intentioned farmers, may not know where their monuments are – or even that they have them at all, and continue ploughing to destruction unwittingly.
English Heritage has 15 inspectors and 22 part-time field wardens who are responsible for all the scheduled monuments in England, including London, and who are supposed to visit each scheduled site, and advise landowners, at least once every three years. Despite the huge projected increase in protected sites there is no provision for more inspectors or wardens, yet it seems neither monuments nor farmers are getting the service they need even under the present arrangements.
"Farmers have first to know theyve got these sites and what action they should avoid," says Andrew Clark, countryside policy adviser for the National Farmers Union. "But normally wardens are never seen or theyre simply not trained to understand agricultural operations. I think all scheduled monuments in private ownership should have management agreements, supported by comprehensive advice and grant-aid." Mr Fulton of the MARS projects says: "The reality is that site visits by field wardens never happen, or very rarely. People on the ground are just not there, and there is never time to check on changes in land use."
In Wiltshire, Cannings Cross is an early Iron Age settlement which the county archaeologist describes as "of national importance". But landowner Tim Daw says "my family has been on this land for 40 years and weve never had any information on the site or even been told its a scheduled monument.
There is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Importance) on the farm, for which English Nature provides a grant, and we receive regular newsletters and site visits, but no-one has ever written or advised us on the settlement. I would welcome a management agreement, not for the cash but to acknowledge the value of the site."
Mr Daw says his experience is shared by those of his neighbours with monuments on their land.
In mitigation Graham Fairclough says: "English Nature has far more people than English Heritage and far fewer SSSIs than we have scheduled monuments." English Heritage says it expects to supplement its efforts at site monitoring by enlisting the help of local authorities.
But county archaeologists believe the creation of unitary authorities threatens the already very limited protection they can lend to rural monuments. In Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, heartland of the old kingdom of Wessex and crowded with scheduled monuments, the new single tier authorities will be based on the urban areas. "This is where most of the resources will be concentrated," says Wiltshires Roy Canham. "The remainder of the counties, geographically-vast areas that contain nearly all the archaeology, will continue under the present system but with insufficient manpower and money to meet our responsibilities."
Ironically, where county authorities have been able to become actively involved in the management of sites, their experience seems to confound English Heritages views on agreements for monuments in arable land.
In Norfolk, David Gurney of the county museum service echoes the CBAs Richard Morris. "Once they know where and what monuments are, many landowners will agree to the sympathetic management of them."
As a result of the Norfolk Monuments Management Project, which identified suitable sites throughout the county, Mr Gurney says: "We have negotiated informal management statements whereby farmers have agreed to a range of benign measures including withdrawing earthworks from the arable, planting woodland round the edges of monuments and erecting marker posts round sites that remain under the plough." None of these informal agreements have involved any payment to farmers.
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme, recently transferred from the Countryside Commission to the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF), and MAFFs Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) scheme both allow the archaeological or historic value of landscape as a criterion for consideration.
These are Graham Faircloughs preferred solution for ploughed sites, but it has to be doubtful whether barrows or other individual earthworks could attract the attention of such grand mechanisms – or justify the cost. Moreover, farmers participation in both schemes is voluntary, which might not always be appropriate in the circumstances of seriously endangered monuments.
The point is that Englands archaeology is not organised into co-ordinated landscapes able to be subtracted from the working countryside in convenient blocks.
Britain is one vast archaeological site characterised by eccentric clutters of standing earthwork monuments, many of which are under the plough and in varying states of survival. The only feasible approach is for each scheduled site to have a separate management agreement.
Neolithic/early Bronze Age henge monument at Knowlton, Dorset surrounded by burial mounds which have been ploughed flat. They can be seen as light circular cropmarks. Pic RCHM England
Flattened medieval ridge-and-furrow field system in Oxfordshire, now under arable cultivation. Cultivation strips are visible as soil-marks. Pic Timothy Darvill
Above: The plough remains the primary cultivation tool on most farms, where it does no damage. Left: A Bronze Age barrow under pasture in Wiltshire. Pic Timothy Darvill
The effects of ploughing over a Roman Mosaic near Raunds, Northants.