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Going back to the future

Comment; Archaeology

The first time I had anything to do with archaeology, I spent a hot summer on a site opposite St Paul's in London washing medieval cow bones unearthed from an ancient meat market.

A few years later I was picking my way through 2,000 skeletons from the Black Death discovered in what were the grounds of an old abbey on the site of the Royal Mint near the Tower of London.

Both sites are now covered with modern development and every time I walk past I'm conscious of what used to be there. But very few other people have a clue.

Not everyone has my unhealthy obsession with old bones, but I'm sure most people would be interested in where the buildings they work in or visit sit in the history of their village, town or city and would want to have some way of seeing or experiencing what was found underneath.

Developers still tend to want to blot out the past when they build. There might be the odd nod to history in a building's name or the positioning of a plaque but it is a rare event for a new structure to be designed to include or show off the remains of the old.

There are the exceptions of course - the Guildhall in the City has preserved some of its Roman past for the public to see.

But on the whole the trend is still to get the archaeology dug up and out the way as fast as possible with no thought as to how it could add value to what is going to replace it.

Developers and their designers are not the only ones at fault here. The archaeologists could do more than squirrel their finds away in cardboard boxes and then disseminate their discoveries to a very limited audience via academic papers.

The success of Time Team, Meet the Ancestors and other television archaeology programmes have helped underline the fascination a large proportion of the population has with its own history.

It must be possible for the construction sector and the archaeologists to tap into the enthusiasm for everyone'sbenefit.

Archaeologists are beginning to recognise that the remains they find need to be made more accessible and relevant to the public if the sector's popularity and funding is to be preserved. Why not encourage them to work with construction to incorporate finds into new developments so people can see them in situ.

It is a fair bet that developers could charge premium rents for the right remains. Most blue chip clients would have loved the chance to take on the building on the site of Norfolk Palace where Henry VIII danced with Catherine Howard. It should have been possible to include a few of the original tiles from that dance floor somewhere - suitably protected of courseand open to occasional public view, and just think of the returns.

That was a missed opportunity but there are plenty more to be had.

As a hint St Georges - which is developing the site at Vauxhall right by the remains of London's earliest bridge (see News) - really should be thinking about how it can capitalise on that discovery.

Jackie Whitelaw is managing editor of NCE

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