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Maggie Durran: Keeping a watch on the foundations

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We are about to begin extensive works at our church, which involve digging down for foundations for the new building. As the area in question had a huge bomb-crater after the Second World War, we think we are unlikely to encounter any archaeological issues. Please comment.

ARCHAEOLOGY is a huge issue with any church project that goes below ground level, because so often our churches are built on ancient centres of habitation or burial. As yours is a Georgian church that was built on a greenfield site, there may be little notable archaeology below the level of the bomb crater — probably no Roman remains for you.

The crater, however, may not correspond to the footprint of the new building you are planning. There may be undamaged land — areas where the bomb damage was shallow, for example. For this reason, you are likely to be required to have an archaeologist present with a “watching brief”; that is, employed to watch the excavation and stop proceedings if something interesting comes to light. Burials, artefacts, and old foundations are possible finds that would be of interest.

If your architect and design team have old ground-plans that show that your deepest foundations do not reach beyond previous building lines, or beyond the crater — across, or down — you may not face any problems. But if, for example, you are going outside the estimated extent of the bomb-crater, it may be advisable to undertake trial pits at the most questionable points, to determine what is beneath the planned foundations.

Where there are archaeological remains, or where a site has to be watched over to ensure that there are no remains, the owner has to pay for archaeologists to do the work — this is required by law. Also, legally, your builder must stop work if anything is uncovered.

Churches that are planning extensions to provide small-scale facilities, such as lavatories or a servery, often plan a structure that is, in effect, a concrete table resting on legs that go down through the burial layers and cause far less disruption than digging full-scale foundations. In this case, the archaeologist will watch the piling process that installs the legs to identify anything that is brought to the surface.

Archaeology should, therefore, feature in your budget as a contingency figure. An archaeological report exploring all the issues I have mentioned above will inform your design team of the real likelihood of uncovering remains, and the necessity of a sensible contingency sum.

If nothing archaeologically interesting comes to light, then at least the money is still yours, and is ready for another part of your project. But, if the budget is tight, and if you have no such archaeological contingency, your entire project could flounder when you are required to bring in archaeologists. Better safe than sorry on this one.

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