In my blog travels through commercial archaeology so far, we have: undertaken a Desk-Based Assessment, marched through the field undertaking a Geophysical survey and opened up a few Archaeological Trial Trenches as part of an evaluation. And, what did we find? Well for the purposes of today’s blog post, not a lot.
If our evaluation turned up mostly blank trenches, but did have a few scattered dated features, then we do still have an archaeological interest in the site. It is at this point that we will undertake an archaeological watching brief. In this case we observe any groundworks pertaining to the new development. The development itself having been assessed as likely to cause minimal damage (if that) to the limited archaeological remains on the site. Alternately we may be in an area of known heritage, say a scheduled monument or stately home with a considerable amount of suspected archaeological remains. In these cases, full-scale excavation is undesirable and an archaeological watching brief is preferred as it is the least destructive means of obtaining information about the monument or property, allowing for the preservation of remains outside of the development footprint without disturbance (in-situ).
The watching brief then is the final part (with the exception of the report) of archaeological work that we will undertake on a site with limited archaeological potential. We are generally expecting very little (except for the scheduled monument scenario outlined above), and record everything we see for posterity, so that it can be referenced should any other work take place in the area. In general we see a lot less than we would on an evaluation and considerably less than on a targeted excavation or an open area. Like the evaluation, what we are gaining is a snapshot of the site, but unlike the evaluation, what we see on a watching brief is being removed as we watch, our watching brief record will be the only record that the feature ever existed. Unless as on my current site we have something like a wall or culvert that the new pipe can be routed beneath.
It is not a fool proof method, and the archaeological observations can be sporadic, meaning that several people may have done a site visit, which can also cause nightmares for the one who ends up writing the report. But it is important to note that even finding nothing at all can be important for future research in the area, to quote that famous phrase – absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, and noting that nothing of archaeological interest was found in one field whilst three roundhouses were found in another can bring us closer to understanding the wider landscape of an area.
In my experience the watching brief is the least liked task of the field archaeologist (site dependent) as we actually have very little chance to really analyse what we are looking at. It is important to note that the watching brief is actually a very versatile form of site investigation and can range from an afternoon spent observing the excavation of footings for a new conservatory, to several weeks of sporadic trips observing the creation of a new road, to the several weeks of stripping small areas (the footprint) of the buildings of a small development, however this latter example borders on targeted excavation and open area which I will discuss next time.
In general, an archaeological watching brief is about observation. The archaeologist is not running the site (unlike an evaluation or excavation), we are just there to observe the groundworks involved with the construction. This can make the process incredibly frustrating for both parties – the developer wants to get on with the job and the archaeologist wants to record everything as accurately as possible. Occasionally there can be friction. This is not always true: some groundworkers and developers are actually great to work with. For example, the current team that I am working with, under the challenging conditions of Covid-19 and social distancing, are actually some of the best lads I have worked with on a site. We manage to give each other space whilst maintaining our observations and when we come across yet another post-medieval brick drain or foundation wall, they pause the machine and jump in with shovels to clear all the debris around the wall so that I can then hop in with my gear whilst they have a break, and do my final cleaning, photos, section drawings, scaled plan and measured tie-ins from established structures or grid points and record my contexts sheets. This can take anything from 10 minutes to the 3.5 hours I spent recording a monstrous intersection of several walls on Wednesday morning. These guys have been great and a real pleasure to work with, and I wish I could yell their company name from the rooftops, but I’m bound by Client and site confidentiality until the job is all done.
Other times watching briefs can be a real pain, as the archaeologist is not in charge of the site we cannot realistically halt the operation, however we are supposed to be given enough time to make our records and observations. Minutes can often be enough to make basic records, but often full recording is challenging, as the machine crunches on relentlessly and we are left playing catch up and recording features that may once have been ditches or pits in the section of the trench. Hopefully we will have managed to see the shape of the feature on the ground and thus determine whether it was a circular pit or a linear ditch. Although this can be deceptive – I recall vividly recording something that I and everyone else on site swore was a ditch in an evaluation, only to find when we returned and stripped the whole site that it was a very, very big pit and not the potential early medieval boundary to Bury St. Edmunds.
And, there may be another problem, (now this could just be me, but I suspect not), sometimes we simply are not listened to. On one of the worst sites I ever had the pleasure of doing a watching brief on, I found myself having to phone my (male) manager to have him explain that yes I was qualified to do this job, yes all those qualification cards in my wallet (CSCS, Cat and Genny, Overhead cables, manual handling, vehicle marshalling, my company ID card and several others) were really mine and yes I had earned them despite the desperately unfortunate handicap of being a woman! I had to phone my manager several times that day and indeed that week to have him repeat to the site foreman word for word, what I had said I was doing/ needed to do and why. This guy was a nightmare, and (being stubborn) I refused to swap the site with one of my male counterparts because by this point I was annoyed – I’d also lodged a formal complaint and wanted to see how it panned out, so this nightmare continued for about 2 weeks, whilst I recorded the, actually fairly substantial amount of pre-historic activity in the area of a new small two-house development. (I did actually get a very grudging apology – that was in no way sincere at the end of the job, but I also found out later that he also complained that a woman (me) had written the site report too). Fortunately, there seem to be less and less of these “gentlemen” around, but unfortunately construction is still rather male dominated – come on Ladies I want to see more female plant operators and site forewomen! Usually, once a difficult Forman realises that I do actually know what I’m doing and that I’m not trying to hold them up, but am willing to work with them to keep the site moving (so far as is reasonable), they usually relent and let me get on unhindered.
Anecdotes aside, the archaeological watching brief is a short observational analysis of a site. It is not something we would usually do in an area where lots of archaeological remains were expected – unless it is a significant site and the activity is minimal, such as a new pipeline for example. As a result, the ground interventions that we are looking at are generally half a metre wide and a metre or so deep (depending on the pipe, footing etc), so we only have a very small window to see what is going on. I once did a watching brief on the footings for a new garden centre, this involved 100 1m x1m squared excavated to a 1.5m depth and immediately filled with concrete. Fortunately, there was actually nothing to see, though I did manage to photograph every hole from all 4 angles just in case something showed up later. I’ve never found a major discovery during a watching brief and the chance of making one is very low because of the speed we have to go, but it is still possible and I would love to hear stories from other archaeologist who have made interesting discoveries during a watching brief!
Next time I’ll be looking at my favourite type of site, the targeted or open area excavation; a strip, map and sample – this is where all the real fun happens.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.