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RCAHMS Afforestable Land Survey Programme

Date 1989

Event ID 550817

Category Project

Type Project



The formation of a new survey team with six new staff and an individual remit is an exciting event for any organisation, and it has indeed been so for the Commission, creating the opportunity to make an important contribution to archaeological conservation in areas likely to be at risk from afforestation. The Secretary of State for Scotland awarded the additional funding for the new team as a result of a joint approach by Commissioners and the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland in 1988. In the face of proposed planting targets in excess of 30,000 ha per annum, the two bodies expressed the gravest concern about the potential destruction of hitherto unappreciated archaeological landscapes by large-scale afforestation. The work will go forward on the basis of a rolling, programme which will be the subject of consultation and agreement each year between the Commission, Historic Scotland and the Forestry Commission. Regional Archaeologists also have an important part to play, suggesting areas for survey where they feel archaeological landscapes are most at risk. There has already been a significant overlap between new forestry developments and the areas covered by the survey.

The implementation of the Woodland Grant Scheme provisions in April 1988 has now ensured that there need be no fundamental conflict between archaeology and forestry, but the low levels of archaeological recording that have taken place in many areas of Scotland has made it impossible for Regional Archaeologists, who are responsible for the provision of the relevant advice to forestry authorities to fulfil this requirement. Thus, the new programme of strategic archaeological recording is of vital importance. Over the years, the Afforestable Land Survey (ALS) will revolutionise the sources of information on which conservation decisions are made. An essential element of the programme is the rapid transmission of information to the National Monuments Record of Scotland for dissemination to Historic Scotland, Regional Archaeologists and others.

Strategies for Survey

Uninformed forestry plantation is an indiscriminate and massive agent of landscape destruction. Consequently, the remit of ALS is wider than any other previously adopted by RCAHMS, as aspects of the more recent agrarian and industrial past are as much at risk from afforestation as more traditional areas of archaeological recording. Indeed, only roofed buildings will normally lie beyond the reach of the foresters plough, so that as comprehensive a survey as possible, aiming to present as wide a picture as possible of selected landscapes in a way that will be useful to planners and archaeologists alike, has been designed. Where appropriate, survey material is also transmitted to the Ordnance Survey for inclusion on future maps.

Rather than concentrate work in a specific area for a long period of time, it was felt to be important that work was evenly distributed over the whole of Scotland in the short term. Within the first eighteen months the survey has recorded a variety of different types of landscape with monuments encompassing a wide chronological and topographical range. Beginning with a detailed examination of the area around the Caterthun forts in Tayside, surveys have now been carried out in Stanhope (Borders), Strathrusdale (Highland), parts of the Deveron and Findhorn valleys (Grampian), the Muirkirk area (Strathclyde), the Gatehouse of Fleet area (Dumfries and Galloway) and the Waternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye. Work in the Strath of Kildonan (Highland Region), the Cleish Hills (Fife), Central Scottish Woodlands in the Midland belt (Central Region, Lothian and Strathclyde) and part of the western Cheviots in Borders Region is also in hand. The peat-covered landscapes of Gatehouse of Fleet and the Strath of Kildonan with their suites of prehistoric and medieval settlement remains have caused little difficulty, but the industrial landscape of the last two centuries around Muirkirk is an entirely new departure, requiring new techniques to be evolved to allow their adequate and informative recording. The complexity and interest of later use of the landscape is one of the most persistent themes to emerge from the survey, ranging from the industrial remains around Muirkirk to the clearance landscape of the townships, fields and lazy-beds on Waternish, highlighting the problem of conserving the archaeology of the more recent past over large areas of Scotland. It should be stressed that none of the areas chosen so far forms part of any specific development plan, but they represent a consensual view of the type of location most likely to be developed in the future. In some cases, certainly, the survey has barely been completed before the Regional Archaeologist has been required to make use of the results.

The survey of North-east Perth (RCAHMS 1990) broke with traditional patterns of RCAHMS work by presenting illustrations of much larger areas than would formerly have been thought possible, mapping the archaeological landscape as a whole rather than recording isolated monuments or 'sites'. Such advances reflect a new holistic approach the landscape interpretation with prehistoric and medieval or later remains seen as part of a land -use continuum. This demands special skills in field observation analysis and synthesis, while the capture of the information on plan has offered new challenges to the Drawing Office. The results published here testify to these newly enhanced and acquired skills.

The ALS team has built on the experience gained in North-east Perth, and, while maintaining flexibility in its overall approach to survey, has tailored its approach to the end -product most appropriate to the material under consideration. Differing levels of survey have been adopted according to the density, complexity and nature of the archaeological remains. Thus, surveys may range from a rapid 1: 10,000 scale recorded sweep through to instances where archaeological remains are of sufficient density and complexity to require enhancement by 1:2,500 and even larger-scale planning. At one end of the spectrum about half of the 93km2 of the Waternish peninsula was mapped at 1:2,500, both to cope with the density of monuments, and to provide a vehicle for the noting and interpretation of the 1,500 structures located amongst extensive remains of fields in the landscape. At the other end the coverage of the 100km2 in the Deveron valley, Grampian, was most appropriately undertaken at 1:10,000. In other areas, such as the Strath of Kildonan, a balance has been struck, with much of the area covered at 1:10,000 and a more limited number of individual sites or hillsides surveyed at 1:2,500. Prior reconnaissance and area assessment has proved vital in directing survey resources efficiently in the first instance. Increasingly, new technology is being exploited to maintain the flow of information from the field. In the past this sort of development has been limited to survey equipment, but the creation of a database for the Waternish survey to provide a readily manipulated foundation from which to write the complex survey material stimulated the acquisition of a weather-proof hand - held computer for use in the field, eliminating any re-keying for the establishment of a database of basic descriptions. The new survey equipment that has become available over recent years has equally revolutionised practices in the field. These developments were set in train in Wigtownshire and Perth and now extensive use is made of Electronic Distance Measuring (EDM) equipment on the majority of the surveys. Development of this aspect of the technology has rested with the Drawing Office, and a wide range of codes and symbols has been developed to enable considerable sophistication to be expressed by the digital data. Drawings based on this data may then be enhanced on the ground, or with information taken from vertical or oblique aerial photographs. Further developments have led to a treble or quadruple increase in efficiency in terms of the quantity of data generated in the field during any working period.

Extract from RCAHMS Annual Report 1990-1, 15-17

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