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Page history last edited by Tess Barrett 9 years ago

 

Even in 1975, European Architectural Heritage Year, national complacency over the irresponsible destruction of standing buildings and archaeological remains alike runs at an extraordinarily high level. With few exceptions, developers in York have proved sympathetic to requests for permission to excavate some part of their property in advance of rebuilding, and cooperation from the city s Planning Department could hardly have been better. In certain other parts of the country the situation has not always been so satisfactory, and every week brings new press reports of archaeologists or conservationists locked in a battle with property speculators or local authorities intent on archaeologically disastrous development plans. There seems to be no precedent f or the current struggle over Wallingford Castle, however, in which it is the Ancient Monuments Board which finds itself accused of insensibility towards the destruction of a major monument.  

 

The site itself has an impeccable pedigree , for we know that Wallingford was one of a whole chain of towns fortified by Alfred the Great in an attempt to contain the mounting Danish threat in the ninth century; some have claimed that the origins of the defences are even earlier. Part of this thriving late Saxon town was subsequently buried under a series of massive new earthworks associated with an early Norman Castle, later enlarged and extended in the thirteenth century. The effect was to produce what Tom Hassall, Director of the Oxfordshire Archaeological Unit, has described as a ‘an English Pompeii’, with many of the Saxon buildings and streets sealed intact under the earthen bunks. Situations of this kind are rarely encountered in this country, where we are mercifully not greatly afflicted with Pompeii-style disasters: indeed, in a letter to the South Oxfordshire District Council, the Department of the Environment itself declared that it knew of ‘no similar site which survives in this detail. It is of national importance and should if possible be preserved. The alternative - complete excavation - would not only be unsatisfactory but also too expensive’. Subsequently, in February of this year, the whole site of Wallingford Castle was scheduled by the Department as an ancient monument.

 

This letter was written in response to a planning application by the Architects Benevolent Society, which was reapplying for permission to build a combined residential and nursing home within the area of the outer bailey of the castle, having already been granted planning permission for a similar scheme in 1972 which had later proved beyond their financial resources. The Society’s relief can be imagined when the Department announced in June that, on the advice of the Ancient Monuments Board, they now felt the physical preservation of the site could not be held of national importance and that subject to proper excavation (which they hoped could be completed by autumn) its development should not be opposed. Whatever the reasoning behind the Board’s decision, it was widely condemned as a betrayal, both of the site and of the Department of the Environment’s inspectors who had tried to save it: appeals were immediately made by local archaeologists, by the Chairman of the County Council and by the Mayor of Wallingford. Letters to the national press included several which observed that the decision was likely to make the Department of the Environment’s most memorable contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year the sanctioning of the destruction of what was, by its own admission, a unique site.

 

Surely what is called for at Wallingford is neither destruction nor excavation, but preservation. There can be no doubt that a more appropriate site could be found for the new home, intended for (of all people) retired architects. Although the rate of increase in archaeological expenditure over the past few years has been impressive, it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the destruction of historic sites has risen even more steeply; until the necessary resources are available to deal with all the threats from redevelopment, can there be any justification for allowing (or even promoting) development in areas of key archaeological importance? It must be said that the Department has arranged for three-month excavation to be carried out at Wallingford, but this brings little solace to the many archaeologists who feel that it would take many years to do justice to the complexities of the site; too often in the past token excavation has been accepted as a fitting prelude to large-scale destruction, and while this attitude as regrettable under any circumstances it must be considered inexcusable on sites of outstanding significance. Furthermore, the techniques employed in archaeology are themselves developing so quickly that the methods employed today will inevitably be considered quite unsatisfactory by future workers: since excavation involves the destruction of at least part of the evidence, it is vital that certain sites are preserved intact for future investigation. Otherwise, Heritage Years still to come are likely to become increasingly reminiscent in character as less and less survives, and archaeological debate a matter of academic disputation rather than active research.

 

Editors: A.G. MacGregor, R.A. Hall, S.A.J. Bradley

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