Does the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill matter for archaeology outside the UK?

As if war, iconoclasm, looting, antiquities theft, collecting and poverty weren’t enough of a threat to global archaeology, over the last few weeks a new danger raised its head. Having decided that we don’t build enough houses in the UK, the current government has decided to lay the blame for this on ‘red tape’, and is proposing to reduce such bureaucratic obstacles in the imaginatively titled Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill (NPIB).

Although the text of the NPIB hasn’t been written yet, indications are that the Bill will ‘ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary’. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When I worked in pre-planning archaeology (writing desk-based assessments predicting the type of archaeology likely to be present on any given development site), I saw a large number of proposals and the pre-planning changes required by Local Authority Planners. Some were sane and sensible. Others . .  less so! It’s entirely reasonable to consider whether planning conditions are always ‘necessary’.

But there is a risk to archaeology from the NPIB. Unknown archaeological material, and known but less significant remains (i.e. those that are not Scheduled Monuments), are not protected by statute in the UK. Instead, they are protected under current planning policy (and its more famous forerunner PPG16). The resulting process ensures that both planners and developers know what archaeology is likely to be on a given site, through initial desk-based assessment and subsequent onsite field evaluation, if necessary. It means that any archaeological work can be programmed into the development, and costs and delays kept to a minimum. The excavation of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare first rose to prominence, demonstrates the kind of problems, delays and expense faced by government, planning authority and developer in the days before the current system was put into place (as this post shows). The system isn’t perfect, and depends very much on the thoroughness of the planning authority and the archaeological contractor, but it works very well and has given us many exciting new finds, including the King of Prittlewell, a nationally significant find that made the headlines, and was found only a few miles from where I’m writing this.

The problem with the NPIB is that archaeological work is currently almost always enforced under planning condition. I have no doubt that even under the NPIB many planning authorities will consider archaeological planning conditions ‘absolutely necessary’ and continue to use them. The risk is that archaeology will be seen as an easy target, a scapegoat for the many other things which can and do hold up development (not least of which is opposition from local people), something planners can omit to appease developers and central government in the demand for faster housing. The Telegraph is already leading the charge to lump archaeology in the those things that are unnecessary brakes on development and should be swept away. We need to ensure that that doesn’t happen, while welcoming better planning legislation. Everything depends on how this law is drafted. So we need to show government how important it is that archaeology is protected, that reasonable archaeological work doesn’t hold up development and that the current system is far better than some ad-hoc process where development is delayed by exciting archaeological finds that were unexpected and weren’t planned for.

This isn’t just a matter for UK archaeology. Many of the techniques, skills, and the actual archaeologists, that are used around the world, have been fostered by planning archaeology in the UK.  At a time when we have unprecedented looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, how can we lobby for better protection, for more stringent laws against illegal antiquities in the UK and internationally, if the UK government is reducing protection for the archaeological sites in its own backyard? When population growth threatens archaeological sites (in Egypt for example), the type of pre-development excavation that has been employed in the UK and elsewhere could be used to record (and so extract the scientific information from) archaeological sites, while permitting an expanding population the space it needs. The reversal of archaeological protection here is a matter of wider significance beyond archaeologists, archaeological organisations and academics working with UK material.

If we do not fight for UK archaeology, if the NPIB is used to undermine archaeological protection, then it sends out the message that archaeology doesn’t really matter. This would undermine UK involvement in many of the causes that matter to archaeologists all over the world including;

  1. Efforts to improve laws against illegal antiquities;
  2. International cooperation between UK and foreign governments in the prevention of looting and repatriation of stolen antiquities;
  3. Preventing museums selling artefacts on the international market;
  4. Government protection and investment in archaeological sites across the globe.

Various UK archaeological organisations are busy lobbying to ensure their voice is heard, but there is also a a petition  (or there’s this one if you live outside the UK) to sign to demonstrate how important it is to you that future legislation continues to protect archaeology and ensure it is dealt with in a timely manner, for the benefit of everyone. If you have an interest in archaeology, no matter what type, I urge you to sign it because this is about all of our past and is a matter for everyone with an interest in archaeology, no matter what continent!

The cairns of the red mountain: Cairns and comparative anthropology

Cairns are a common enough feature of the Egyptian landscape, but one I find fascinating. They are apparently ordinary and innocuous, are easy to build and hard to date, and have recently been subject to the serious archaeological research they deserve (Riemer 2013).

So I was intrigued to meet some very familiar looking cairns while on holiday on Lanzarote, in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Africa and some c. 2600 miles from the Nile valley. Cairns in Egypt exhibit a variety of different forms, and several of these different types were visible on Lanzarote. The route up and around the crater of the Red Mountain, an extinct volcano west of Playa Blanca at the south end of the island, was marked by a series of rough cairns made by simply piling stones in a heap.

Rough cairns marking the route up the Red Mountain, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote (2016)

Some felt moved to mark their successful ascent of the extinct volcano by creating miniature piles of stones, and a vast array of similar stone piles were visible on the foreshore at Marina Rubicon, close to an area of former salt pans and derelict windmills. While the modern stone piles were probably engendered by the artistic impulses of the locals and the boredom of passing tourists, the accumulation of the features was very similar to the piles recorded at Egyptian sites and generally assumed to be of a ritual nature (see for example the upright stones at Gebel Tingar published in Storemyr et al.  2013).

Stones piled up vertically on the beach at Marina Rubicon, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote (2016).

Elsewhere in Lanzarote similar piles of vertical stones, arranged in lines, were used to mark field boundaries between vineyards or garden plots, much like simple navigational aids found along ancient desert roads in Egypt.

The explanation for these similarities is very simple, but their existence is thought-provoking. Like Egypt, Lanzarote is a place where there is very little wood (due to a lack of rainfall and high temperatures), but abundant small stones. Instead of building wooden markers and fences, it is far more efficient for people in both countries to use local stones to mark their property, their routes, their success and their artistry.

There may also be a common North African origin for the cairn-building activities in Egypt and Lanzarote, although it should be pointed out that there is no evidence of any direct connection between the Egyptians and the Canary Islands. The native inhabitants of the Canary Islands (commonly known as Guanches) are believed to have originated in North Africa, and their native language is similar to indigenous North African groups. Since the desert environment extends across much of North Africa, it would be logical for many North African groups to use cairns and other stone formations for various purposes. The ancestors of the Guanches are likely to have been part of this general ‘cairn culture’, just as the Egyptians were on the opposite side of the continent. It would be interesting to track the occurrence of cairns and stone piles around the Sahara, to see how common these forms are cross-culturally.

Cairn-building habits are convenient for the archaeologist, who benefits from surviving stone structures long after wood would have decayed in all but the best conditions. They can aid in the identification of routes and significant places, and they also demonstrate the continuity of human-nature. The tourists on the beach at Playa Blanca built additional stone piles to feel part of something that began before they arrived and will continue after they leave. It is likely that a similar motivation prompted those ancient Egyptians who contributed to the stone piles at Gebel Tingar, even if this was subsumed within more complex religious or ritual ideals.

The Lanzarote cairns also demonstrate a number of problems of cairn archaeology. The very simple forms used on Lanzarote are extremely similar to those used in Egypt, and probably elsewhere as well. If a modern cairn looks very similar to an ancient one, this makes any given structure difficult to date. It also raises questions of function. If the piles of stones on the beach at Playa Blanca are artistic, why should the structures at Gebel Tingar be ‘ritual’? How can we distinguish between the two? These are the questions I am trying to answer in my research on Egyptian cairns, cairn-culture and landscape archaeology.


Cairns feature regularly in papers in F. Förster, and H. Riemer, (eds.), 2013. Desert Road Archaeology in Ancient Egypt and Beyond, Africa Praehistorica 27, Köln, but see particularly H. Riemer, ‘Lessons in landscape learning: The dawn of long-distance travel and navigation in Egypt’s Western Desert from prehistoric to Old Kingdom times’ for cairns in navigation; and  Storemyr, P. Bloxam, E. Heldal, T. and Kelany, A. 2013. ‘Ancient desert and quarry roads on the west bank of the Nile in the First Cataract region’ and references therein for  collections of upright stones and stone piles as ritual structures at Gebel Tingar .

A brief description of the Guanches, their culture and the impact of colonisation is presented in J. L. Concepcion, 2014, The Guanches survivors and their descendants. 20th Edition.