The Role of the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland Archaeology. (Special Section)

By Brannon, Nick | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland Archaeology. (Special Section)


Brannon, Nick, Antiquity


The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), an agency within the Department of the Environment, aims `to protect and conserve the natural and built environment and to promote its appreciation for the benefit of present and future generations' (EHS 1996: 7). EHS has a central statutory, regulatory, management and participatory role in Northern Ireland archaeology.

Official care of archaeological sites and monuments in what is now Northern Ireland goes back to the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the Irish Church Act of 1869. This made provision for the upkeep of certain important ecclesiastical sites; 137 ruined churches and crosses were vested in the Commissioners of Public Works, to be maintained as National Monuments. Of these, 17 were in what was to become Northern Ireland. This precedent was noted in Parliamentary debates on the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882, which applied to Britain and Ireland, and of the 18 Irish sites, 3 were in what is now Northern Ireland. The Ancient Monuments Protection (Ireland) Act 1892 increased the scope for protection of sites in the earlier schedule.

Following the partition of Ireland and the creation of the six northern counties as Northern Ireland, the Ancient Monuments Act (Northern Ireland) 1926 was passed. The Act repealed the Ancient Monuments Protection Acts of 1882, 1892, 1900 and 1910 and the Ancient Monuments Protection (Ireland) Act 1892, where they applied to Northern Ireland.

The provisions of the 1926 Act included powers to acquire monuments by gift or deed, guardianship of monuments, preservation orders for monuments under threat, penalties for damage to such monuments, public access to monuments, definitions of `monument' (descriptive) and `ancient monument' (qualitative), and introduced the requirement to report the discovery of an `archaeological object' (defined as having an archaeological interest value greater than its intrinsic value) to the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee within 14 days of discovery. This last provision had no legal effect on `treasure trove' (deriving from medieval practice and law), which applied to bullion deposited with the intention of recovery. Membership of the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee was to include representatives of the Ministry of Education, the Queen's University of Belfast, the Royal Irish Academy, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, the Belfast Naturalists Field Club and the Deputy Keeper of the Records of Northern Ireland.

The 1926 Act was amended by the Ancient Monuments Act (Northern Ireland) 1937, which redefined the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee as the Ancient Monuments Advisory Council to include the membership of museum curators, provided for powers of entry on to lands and introduced a provision restricting excavation for archaeological purposes subject to a licence issued by the Ministry of Finance, paralleling the Republic of Ireland's 1930 archaeological law.

The 1926 and 1937 Acts remained in force until the Historic Monuments Act (Northern Ireland) Act 1971 was passed. This Act repealed and reinforced existing provisions but also provided for the `scheduling' of historic monuments in private ownership (with the requirement to provide notice of works), introduced powers for the compulsory acquisition of monuments and established the (advisory) Historic Monuments Council. `Protection orders' were also introduced, although in practice these proved to be too administratively cumbersome and time-consuming for the rapid (and reactive) protection measures intended. The 1971 Act had not long been in force when `direct rule' from Britain was introduced, and regulatory and functional powers were transferred under constitutional legislation from the Ministry of Finance to the Department of the Environment, where they have since remained. …

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