The State of Large Earthwork Sites in the United Kingdom

By Jones, Kevin L. | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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The State of Large Earthwork Sites in the United Kingdom

Jones, Kevin L., Antiquity


The cumulative effects of minor damage to sites from broader environmental factors, including visitor pressure, will often go unrecognized. Management projects to recognize and prevent such damage have only recently been the subject of professional study and investigation. The ethics, principles, analysis and codification of such management are relatively few (Coles 1987; Berry & Brown 1994; 1995; Thorne 1990; Jones & Simpson 1995). This paper records the management practices at selected earthwork archaeological sites in the United Kingdom and comments on aspects that I think need review.

Throughout the world, earthworks are the among the most common types of field monument. Typical forms are mounds, platforms, ditches and banks revealing the plan of settlement sites (fortified or not) and ceremonial sites. Because they are usually constructed from unstable material and have steep sides, all earthworks are at risk from erosion. The plants that grow on the earthworks provide protection' from erosion. Any process that damages or destroys the protective plant cover, or disturbs the soil, is likely to be destructive to the earthwork. Enhancing the speed of establishment of vegetation, maintaining it in optimum condition and avoiding the need for repeated, costly intervention are the keys to effective site management.

Earthwork sites frequently occur in lowlands, where light grazing keeps them open and prominent in the landscape view but where they are continuously at risk from ploughing and damage from heavy stocking, particularly of cattle. Where they occur in uplands, woodlands or shrublands, the vegetative cover and light stocking reduce the potential for erosion, generally ensuring good surface condition.

The stabilization of earthworks is complicated by the nature of the soils from which they are made. Specifically, banks, because they comprise fill excavated from the bottom of ditches, tend to have the reverse of normal stratigraphy: the less fertile subsoils are at the surface. With greater capacity for drying out, banks therefore pose considerable problems for establishing a conserving site cover.


* Maintenance is the continuous protective care of historic fabric or materials.

* Stabilization is the halting of decay or erosion, not allowing it to progress further.

* Repair, restoration and reconstruction are increasingly invasive phases of intervention in historic fabric.

* Restoration is returning the existing fabric of a place to a known earlier state by stripping away accretions or the making good of damage by the addition of genuine materials. With earthworks, the concept of restoration is most appropriately applied to repairing erosion scars by bringing in hard fill and topsoil. (Based on the Australian ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance.)


In achieving the goal of archaeological site stabilization, the choices open to archaeologists are often driven by nature conservationists. Archaeologists tend to be in awe of this lobby (Lambrick 1985; Prior 1990; Berry & Brown 1995) which has had remarkable success in promoting the acquisition of large tracts of downland, including many representative and outstanding archaeological sites, in the southwest of England and elsewhere.

The overall land management goal has been defined as 'integrated conservation management' (Thackray et al. 1995). This may be no more than a catchphrase. At best, the archaeologist and nature conservationist have an association which is a 'logical outcome of their overwhelmingly common aim: the preservation of landscape' (Coles 1986: 36-7). In areas smaller than a landscape, there are potential and actual points of divergence between archaeological conservation and nature conservation - from woodlands to the fine details of pasture management.

An example is the management of endangered insects, frequently found in archaeological settings (Wells 1985; Kirby n.

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