The Work of the County Archaeologist

Following the AGM on 18th February, our speaker was Shane Kelleher, the County Archaeologist, who provided us with an entertaining and informative tour of his area of responsibility.

Before Shane was appointed to his current post he had wide experience of archaeological work, not only in the British Isles but also worldwide. After starting in his native Ireland he had worked as far afield as Qatar before spending eight years in the Archaeology Department at Birmingham University. He took up his current appointment with Staffordshire County Council two years ago.

At the County Council, Shane and his staff comment on planning applications, highway schemes, proposals for minerals extraction, strategic plans and major national infrastructure projects (such as new major roads); as well as dealing with issues relating to the HS2 project. They also deal with the Environment Agency and companies delivering our utilities, such as water and gas. They hold extensive information on existing listed buildings, ancient monuments and significant archaeological sites. This is contained in the Historic Environment Record (HERS for short). This record is one of many around England, maintained by local authorities but overseen by English Heritage, which can be accessed by visiting the relevant office or, in many cases, accessed online. HERs are important starting points for anyone interested in the archaeology, built heritage or the history of an area. They can provide information on a wide variety of buildings and sites; from finds of prehistoric flint tools to medieval castles and Second World War pillboxes. The HERS information contains the National Heritage List for England (NHLE). It is the only official, up to date, register of all nationally protected historic buildings and sites in England; listed buildings, scheduled monuments, protected wrecks, battlefields and registered parks and gardens.

Any consultation on a planning application is likely, firstly, to lead to an examination of the HERS records for the application area. If the records show that the site has an archaeological interest or potentially could have, then Shane can request further investigative work. This could take the form of a simple survey on site, or a more sophisticated geophysical survey using ground penetrating radar. Next, might come the digging of trial trenches. All this information would be fed into the planning decision-making process with, possibly, specific conditions to be attached to a planning application. These conditions might require more work and the production of reports before any development of the land could commence.

How does this work in practice? Shane took us through some local examples of his involvement in schemes. Starting with pictures of proposed extensions at Alrewas Quarry, where trial pits revealed Bronze Age fire pits. These are widespread in Northern Europe, especially near water. Their provenance is still not clear. The traces of charcoal, burnt earth and cracked stones confirm that they were heated areas; but for what? Some scholars suggest they were cooking areas, others believe that water was poured onto the stones and the resulting steam provided a sauna-effect - either for washing or ritual cleansing. Often these sites are associated with fragments of pottery and animal bones. Over at Coton Lane, Tamworth, evidence of a Roman site has been recently been found, the first in the area.

At the other extreme, Shane has been overseeing an extensive report on the Rugeley Power Station site; recording much detail about the site and its surroundings before it is consigned to history. He has also been involved in overseeing survey work associated with the construction of HS2. Whatever your views are on this project, from the perspective of the archaeologist it presents an unparalleled opportunity to survey extensive areas of England. So far, in Staffordshire, excavation has revealed a Romano-British farm site at Streehay, an Iron Age settlement at Handsacre and a Bronze Age settlement at Huddlesford.

To conclude, Shane briefly explained the work involved with the 'Chase Through Time' project. Between 2016 and 2018, this project explored the rich history of Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. All across the Chase, previous generations have left their mark on the land. Much is hidden in woodland and heath. This includes one of the best-preserved Great War landscapes in England. Historic England worked with the County Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, using airborne laser scanning (LIDAR), to see beneath the trees and bushes. With the help of volunteers they assessed the remains of the camps, where up to 500,000 men trained before they went to the front line. Following the conclusion of mapping and volunteer involvement a report, illustrated with fascinating aerial pictures of the hidden ground shapes, is now available. Commemoration of the military role of the Chase can be found in the restored hut at the Birches Valley Visitor Centre. A number of leaflets about the project and the history of the Chase are available to download online on the 'Chase Through Time' website. Currently, there is also an exhibition on the project at the Cannock Museum of Mining at Hednesford.

Shane's visit made us appreciate that there are indeed a wide variety of sites of archaeological interest here in Staffordshire, providing strong evidence of multiple long term occupation of the land. So, who knows what lies beneath the soil in your garden?

Roger Hockney
February 2020