Saturday, 11 April 2009

Britain's endangered battlefields

Even the less highbrow UK papers are getting on the conservation bandwaggon. According to the Daily Mail, it is a matter for concern for its readership that battlefields, which have shaped Britain’s national story more than any structure, have almost no legal (or any other) protection at all (Robert Hardman, ‘Battles of Britain: They are the sites of bloody clashes that shaped this nation, now you can fight to save them', Daily Mail 10th April 2009.

The Battlefields Trust a small grassroots charity has teamed up with English Heritage to create a national network of volunteer patrols to prevent crucial chunks of the historic environment disappearing under development or being eroded by metal detector wielding artefact hunters. They are employing a number of development officers to help amateur conservation enthusiasts up and down the country form a 'neighbourhood watch' to monitor threats or damage to sites all over England and Wales (in due course, it hopes to do the same in Scotland). At the same time, the newspaper reports, English Heritage is pushing for restrictions on unauthorised metal- detecting in the Government's forthcoming Heritage Protection Bill.

The Battlefields Trust has initially chosen 43 sites for special supervision, eight of which are deemed to be at 'high risk' from threats such as housing and looters with metal detectors. These sites do not currently command any special status, merely an obligation on local authorities in Britain to 'consider' them before granting any planning permission. The Battlefields Trust wants to recruit a custodian for each one, a local who will keep tabs on planning applications, vandalism, rogue metal detecting or fresh accidental discoveries of archaeological material. They also want to include many more battlefields on their list. With an English Heritage backing of £125,000, the trust aims to have custodians and support groups for 100 known battlefield sites by 2011.

Many of Britain's historic battlefields are now simply ploughed fields or meadow. Few of them have any above-ground earthworks, the primary physical evidence left consists of patterns of artefacts deposited during the battle, almost all of which will be in the topsoil. We often hear artefact hunters and collectors protesting that they "do no damage" when they remove artefacts from the topsoil, which in any case they assert is not in its original place of deposition due to being moved by the plough ("animals and wayter"). On the Battlefields Trust webpage there is an interesting 2004 plot here of the distribution of evidence in the ploughsoil of the battle of Naseby found by systematic survey - evidence that would be totally lost if metal detectorists had been here previously collecting away all the lead bullets without recording any details and melting them down (as they do) for the scrap metal. Plots of the patterns of distribution of finds in the ploughsoil like this need to be confronted with the glib assurances of those in the pro-collecting circles who say that the distribution of material in the ploughsoil "has no meaning". If it was the case that this evidence had been "moved by the plough" - there would be a random and even spread of metal items all over the search area, which clearly there is not. There is a pattern to be interpreted, but that can only be the case if it is recorded before various people loot unknown quantities of the material away without record.

How many artrefact rich sites in Britain can one say have NOT already been depleted of a substantial amount of evidence in order to make the interpretation of what is left facing the fact that an unquantifiable and unclassifiable part of the data are already missing? That does not just apply to the surface survey of battlefields.

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