6 Themes for the future

This section describes themes arising strongly from the HER audit and HER Forum meetings. Some items relating to these themes are detailed as tasks in this plan; others are included here to give an impression of users’ expectations of the HER, and to provide a basis for longer-term planning.

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.

Frederick Douglass. 1845. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by himself.

6.1 Recording Dorset's past

When the Sites and Monuments Record (now the HER) was established there was no acknowledged need to interpret or explain the data, since users either were or would have their use mediated by, professional archaeologists. The HER’s main use is still as a planning tool but communities now have a much greater role to play in planning, and this lack of synthesis is an obstacle to the HER achieving its full potential as a resource.

With the rise of TV archaeology more and more people are keen to have a go. Some throw themselves into fieldwalking, survey or excavation without fully understanding what they are getting into – the skills and equipment needed, the methods and words used to record what they are doing

Something which came out of discussions with HER users and prospective volunteers is their strong desire to set current practical work in the context of the work of antiquarians, early archaeologists and the development of archaeological methods and theory. For some people this topic is of interest for its own sake, but it also helps to explain current archaeological jargon and techniques. It connects people with the subject and makes them feel part of a community of practitioners, past and present.

People want to participate in the recording and monitoring of historic landscapes and structures in a way that contributes to their understanding and protection. Many people are already active or wish to have a taste of fieldwork or research, and many of them want to be provided with guidance and direction in that activity.

We need to meet this demand and ensure people have a good experience and produce good quality results that have an immediate and long-lasting impact on the understanding and protection of Dorset’s historic environment.

6.2 Past places

The Dorset Historic Towns Survey has struck a chord with local groups and communities. People find the technique of characterisation easy to understand, and the product accessible, and value the way it addresses the whole of an area in contrast to the ‘dots on maps’ approach. People don’t understand why there hasn’t yet been a characterisation of Dorchester in particular – it is the county town, was established in the Roman period, and is under some pressure for development. There is also strong demand for urban characterisations of Poole and Bournemouth. Some other counties have developed ‘toolkits’ for characterisation of smaller settlements, and this would be a welcome addition for use by parishes.

The parish liaison officer scheme was a ground-breaking scheme when it was established in 1986. When Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning was published in 1990 the role of the parish liaison officer was diluted, but there remains great good will towards and local interest in the scheme. Historic Environment Liaison Officers (HELO) have local contacts and a wide range of technical and artistic skills, which could be channelled into local recording and condition monitoring. Liaison officers are appointed by parish and town councils and continue to provide a point of contact for local planning and community engagement in general. The HER is contacted regularly by BCP residents asking if there is a similar liaison scheme in their area; there is a clear demand, and we need to think about how this might be set up.  

The parish provides an ideal working unit for providing information about the historic environment to local communities.  It is possible to record information on Places (as a monument record type) in the HER database, and some parish summaries have been created. The idea of online map-based presentation of parish summaries is always popular at HER Forum meetings, giving rise to an almost endless list of ideas for future use – it could be the basis for information packs for local schools, or the starting point for local recording activities, or a way of sharing information about people who lived in the parish in the past, local place names, myths and legends.

The parish liaison officer scheme and the creation of parish summaries will provide a jumping-off point for greater engagement in a way that is meaningful to local people, has immediate impact, and can be measured and managed relatively easily.

6.3 Finding Dorset

A known weakness is the recording of archaeological finds, both of isolated finds (such as those found by metal detectorists) and of assemblages of objects and material associated with excavation or fieldwalking. PAS data has been imported into the HER, but little has been done to identify significant clusters of finds. A recent 6-month shared PAS/HER internship funded by the Hedley Trust explored the need for data cleaning and the potential for such finds to provide more complete understanding of monuments. Assemblages of finds, on the other hand, tend to be hidden within larger ‘parent’ records – a settlement, for example. Enhancement of both these categories of finds records, and the addition of scientific data (such as dating) would make possible more refined searching of the database and support more sophisticated research.

An important area where work is needed is cross-referencing of HER records to material in museum collections, both individual finds and archives from archaeological fieldwork. This offers opportunities for close partnership working with local museums and shared training for volunteers.

Finds have a wide appeal because many objects can be easily understood as personal and functional items, often with modern parallels. They play an important part in education and outreach. It is often an interest in finds that draws people to historic environment volunteering. We have strong volunteer support in this area, and this could be developed further. 

6.4 Past people

The nature of the HER is to concentrate on ‘bricks and mortar’ but we know from parish liaison officers and discussion at HER Forum meetings that people want also to share information about families who lived and worked in places, and record more nebulous things like local place names and stories, and their significance.

A profound theme arising again and again in discussions is the need to include human connections and social history themes more strongly within the HER database itself but also in any educational material arising from it.

Some aspects of this ‘human connection’ can be recorded in the finer detail of the HER database, for example the palaeopathology and grave goods of individual burials, objects of a personal nature, the names of people on gravestones and memorials. Even this tends to favour certain groups – people who had formal burials, who owned goods and property, who could afford memorials. This can be counteracted to some extent by focus on more modern themes:

  • recent military history
  • war graves and war memorials
  • industrial archaeology, including rural industries
  • social movements and trades union activity
  • trade including the slave trade and contested monuments

6.5 Fields and farms

Dorset is a large rural county with a strong agricultural tradition. Around 90% of agricultural buildings and structures recorded in the HER are listed buildings and mostly farmhouses and barns, with a few cart sheds and granaries. These designated agricultural buildings and structures are likely to be those of greater architectural significance and are unlikely to represent the full range of types in the county. There may be hidden gems, and anecdotal evidence suggests that there are numerous and as-yet-unrecorded historic farm buildings and structures in the county.

Farm buildings are often recorded and considered in isolation rather than as elements of a larger working unit and part of a wider rural economy and community. This is reflected in the composition of Dorset’s designated agricultural buildings and structures. The pace of change in farming means farm buildings are subject to greater pressure. Internal features may be lost. Piecemeal or uninformed conversion may lead to loss of character and unity and disconnection from the surrounding landscape, once so crucial to the identity and operation of the farm.

There is a need for comprehensive and reliable evidence on historic farm buildings and structures to identify those worthy of designation, and to understand their significance as heritage assets, and their value to local communities. Essential to this is a project to characterise farmsteads and understand their role as part of the working farm unit; such projects have proved invaluable in other counties.

Alongside farm buildings and structures are the fields themselves. Historic Landscape Characterisation shows how the form and size of modern fields can be used to understand their historic origin. To understand this better at the local level we need to record field boundaries – walls, boundary banks and hedgerows.

6.6 Woodland archaeology

A lot of information in the HER comes from analysis of aerial photographs, with the result that recorded information is concentrated in areas where geology favours the formation of cropmarks and which are not obscured by vegetation.  Because of this woodland is under-represented in terms of archaeology of all types and periods, and the practical challenges of working in a woodland environment exacerbates this.  Features associated with the historic management and exploitation of woodland itself are even less well recorded. Some, such as charcoal burning stands, can be quite short-lived and leave little trace, making them difficult to recognise.

It is often not appreciated that some woodland – ancient woodland, veteran trees, coppice stands, historic hedgerow trees – is a heritage asset and part of the historic environment.

The historic environment features strongly in the UK Forestry Standard and the need to improve the recognition and recording of woodland archaeology in Dorset and thus ensure its better understanding and management, has been raised frequently at HER Forum meetings.

The next part of the forward plan

7 Thinking more widely

Senior Archaeologist, Promotion and Liaison

Name: Claire Pinder
Email: Claire.Pinder@dorsetcouncil.gov.uk
Tel: 01305 224921
Full contact details