When this blog got spotted by an archeological blogger I followed the link back and in doing so discovered a new ‘how to do survey’ publication “A practical guide to recording Archeological sites” published by RCAHMS in 2011.
As a surveyor working in heritage I’m always keen to see guidance on professional practice. The PDF from RCAHMS ( The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland) is a well designed introduction to Royal Commission style field survey, it is an introductory guide exhorting everyman to be his own surveyor with gushing enthusiasm:
“Anyone can have a go, and it only takes a little practice to become quite proficient.”
“Armed with only a few pieces of equipment, you can bring history alive.”
“The techniques described in this guide can be used to record any type of archaeological site, however old or complex.”
Now that’s all well and good but heritage recording is my business so I was wondering when the professionals might get a look in, after all there are limits to what can be done on a whim by Joe Public armed with a sketchbook, tape and string. We turn up in the back end of the intro: in a fact panel on the “origins of recording”:
“Significantly, by the later 19th century, those that led the antiquarian societies also realised the need to employ people with appropriate skills to improve and disseminate knowledge about such sites. Hence the establishment of government-funded organisations such as RCAHMS (founded in 1908).”
So that’s all right then! The Royal Commission are the pros, but wait, they want you to have a go too:
“Who can do it? Anyone can! Previous experience or knowledge is not essential. All you need to start are good observational skills and an understanding of what you would like to achieve, whether that be a simple record of a single site or an in-depth study of a whole landscape.”
Clearly there are no limits to what the amateur can achieve and no doubt the technical skills needed can be picked up easily:
“Some of the techniques used for recording archaeological sites might seem relatively complicated before you try them, but they can soon be mastered by most people, regardless of age or previous experience”.
I read on, intrigued to see what recording techniques the layman can record a whole landscape with. My experiences of working with metric survey tools such as photogrammetry, LiDar, GPS and TST tells me this is a tough technical discipline that demands serious training to be effective – so what are the best tools for the amateur, and what kind of records will be produced with them?
After an introduction to the public record archive, air photo libraries, OS maps (with due reference to the great English surveyor William Roy) and the most excellent on line monument record databases (known as ”Canmore’ in Scotland and ‘Pastscape ‘ in England) the guide settles on 3 metric techniques: hand held GPS, chain survey and plane table : the favorite tools of the RCAHMS archeological recording teams.
We step back almost 100 years when we get to detail mapping technique and consequently so does the quality of the records captured by these methods: this guide has decided to ignore the value of the CONTOUR as a topographic record!
The goal for the guide is to produce a hachured plan as the 3D topographic record. Why this is so is something of a mystery to me as in modern survey practice hachure is a cartographic device to accentuate sub contour detail- not a substitute for height information.
My best guess as to how this came about is that when the Royal Commissions for England (RCHME, now defunct), Scotland (RCAHMS) and Wales (RCAHMW) were set up in 1908 they inherited an antiquarian measurement doctrine that saw the science of mapping as alien to the work of the historian. They determined that hachure would be the method to depict topographic detail for their site records and thus set a national standard for archeological field survey. The decision was made in the light of the prevailing view by antiquarians of the time that the map of the nation’s archeology would be flat and height information was best left to the national mapping agency: the Ordnance Survey. This decision forced a ‘split convention’ whereby contours were seen as a ‘map’ feature and hachure as a ‘site record’ one. The die was cast and generations of Royal Commission ‘surveyors’ (later, more accurately, known as ’investigators’ and ‘landscape detectives’) were trained to do height in hachure.
The problem with the hachured plan is the absence of any height metrics, contours deal with this very nicely and still allow the required ‘interpretive’ emphasis if needed.
Sadly this very nicely put together guide has missed the opportunity to add height information to amateur monument recording practice and perpetuated a long standing problem with national inventory survey in the UK.
Contouring with a plane table is a fairly simple process but it has never been Royal Commission practice. Using a level, TST or GPS for contouring is not difficult either- but you need a surveyor!
It’s not the first time I’m left baffled as to why professionals in archeology take on the skills of surveying without reference to a surveyor but it’s still disappointing to see the effect of a ‘knowledge gap’ caused by institutional practices which are really out of date now.
So since 1908 the landscape as viewed by the Royal Commission eye will always be a flat one – even in Scotland!