The Past Surveyed Tomorrow

By Stevenson, J. B. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Past Surveyed Tomorrow


Stevenson, J. B., Antiquity


The last 25 years has been a period of rapid change in the approach to archaeological fieldwork in Britain and this has been reflected in the development of survey within the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), the government-financed body responsible for maintaining the national record of archaeology and architecture. The monolithic county-based inventory approach of RCAHMS' first 60 years has been replaced by a more broadly-based archaeological strategy founded on programmes of work that range from national overviews and regional surveys to individual site plans. Archaeological mapping has superseded monument planning as the key field objective, and all survey, whether terrestrial, aerial or desk-based, is underpinned by the RCAHMS Geographical Information System (GIS). The radical changes in field data-capture have been mirrored by parallel developments in making that data accessible once it has been collected. Publication formats have been expanded to appeal to a wider range of users, while the principal access point to the data is now via the Internet using Canmore to provide web access to the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) site and collections database. Canmore has recently been complemented by Canmap, which gives access to Canmore using Ordnance Survey maps at scales ranging from 1:250,000 to 1:10,000. Whilst some of these developments have been reactive, such as the response to the threat of widescale afforestation in upland areas, RCAHMS has, wherever possible, adopted a proactive and long-term view of its role as both a national body of survey and as a provider of archaeological information to professional and lay audiences.

The Royal Commission has been, since its creation in 1908 (Dunbar 1992), largely identified with a single product, the county inventory, which reached its apogee in 1992 with the publication of the seventh and final volume of the Inventory of Argyll (RCAHMS 1992). Begun in the 1960s, this monumental work had absorbed the majority of the efforts of the field staff for over a quarter-of-a-century and, long before its completion, it was clear that this style of working was incompatible with the role required of a modern national archaeological survey.

The demise of the county inventory was, however, only one of the catalysts that led to the redirection of archaeological survey policy within RCAHMS. In 1983, the transfer of the responsibilities of the Archaeology Division of the Ordnance Survey (OS) to the then three Royal Commissions provided a welcome opportunity to review RCAHMS' roles as the national body of archaeological survey and, through the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS), as the provider of archaeological data at a national level. Prior to 1983, the archaeological side of the NMRS had played a subsidiary role to that of the longer-established section dealing with architectural history, but the absorption of the OS Record Cards greatly enhanced the responsibilities of the archaeological section, whilst the curation and maintenance of the record cards by the NMRS posed a number of strategic questions for RCAHMS as a whole.

Although from the outset the Royal Commission had concentrated archaeological survey on county volumes, the Royal Warrant under which RCAHMS operated allowed work programmes to be undertaken throughout Scotland and, to a limited degree, this option had been exercised in the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1939-45 War, when the majority of the staff was seconded for wartime duties, Angus Graham (the then Secretary) and Gordon Childe (a Commissioner) carried out survey on archaeological monuments threatened by the development of military establishments, and this recognition of threat-related survey was revived in the 1950s with the Survey of Marginal Lands, when RCAHMS staff undertook a nation-wide survey of monuments threatened by the expansion of agricultural activity. However, the momentum for threat-related survey was not maintained into the 1960s and work was again focused on county surveys. …

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