The section headed `Countryside and Churches' in Geoffrey Wainwright's (2000) memoir comprised three paragraphs which ranged over historic buildings, excavation archives and indeed churches. It was, however, remarkable in failing completely even to mention the central problem of rural archaeology--its steady erosion by an uncontrolled agricultural system. This mirrors English Heritage's failure to address this most significant problem in modern English archaeology.
Agricultural damage has occasionally been addressed by government--for example, in the Monuments At Risk Survey--but attention in such surveys is focused on upstanding sites that are visibly suffering damage. The almost invisible destruction of `flat' or `buried' sites is easier to ignore. It probably began with the advent of deep steam-ploughing in the 19th century, and must have risen with the vast increase in arable land during and after the Second World War. Many people, Geoffrey Wainwright apparently included, believe that the scale of destruction in the countryside cannot compare with that in urban areas. They feel that modern agriculture is just re-mixing strata already irretrievably mixed in medieval times. As an eminent urban archaeologist once said to me, haven't these sites been ploughed for generations? Well, the location of our fields may not have changed much since then, but our agricultural methods certainly have.
As wages have risen, larger machinery is needed to work a field in fewer sweeps. A more efficient plough, cutting more furrows at a time, needs a heavier tractor to pull it. And increased traction means that the plough will bite more deeply. As farm incomes have dropped, farmers have changed from livestock to cereals and from cereals to root crops. These changes need a deeper and more stone-free topsoil, and the topsoil is deepened at the expense of the underlying layers. Underlying occupation deposits are particularly valuable enrichments to a topsoil. The problem has been recognized for some time (Lambrick 1977; Hinchliffe & Schadla-Hall 1980). Even the partial MARS found that 25% of all monument destruction through agriculture has occurred in the last 10 years or so (Darvill & Fulton 1998: 130.).
How can the destruction be recognized and monitored, if surveys such as MARS are not adequate? Aerial photography can alert us to the damage, but most sites, with small sub-soil features, do not show up well on photographs. The only survivors from the wrecked stratigraphy of these everyday sites are the small, strong finds. Indications of agricultural damage in the countryside can therefore only reliably be found by painstaking fieldwalking and metal-detecting, and the recording of finds scatters. MARS not only focused on upstanding sites, but specifically excluded `stray finds' from its attention (Darvill & Fulton 1998: 31). A charitable interpretation of this would be that to have included them …