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Enter the archaeologists

10 May 2013

We want to improve the attractiveness of our churchyard, and the approach to the church, in order to become more welcoming. But we have been told that we may have to have an archaeological excavation - and pay for it - if we do. Is this correct?

ANY works to historical churches may have an archaeological impact, in so far as they uncover or break into the historic fabric of the church and churchyard. There are limits, however, to what you have to do with your works.

In general, archaeological study is required only for what is actually interrupted or damaged by your works, not for what surrounds them, or is left in place.

If you are doing internal repairs, or developments that break into floors, plasterwork, or walls, there may be an archaeological element. The original Georgian paint or finishes, for example, may be hidden underneath the 1950s paint. Discovering the original colours may inform current schemes.

Were those cherubs gilded in the past? Is there a medieval wall-painting under the Tudor and Stuart paint, from the days when Protestant tastes meant the removal of all decoration? Little scraps of paint will tell the tale. Information is all that is sought: you do not have to uncover the past unless the work makes it necessary. You need to know only what is there, and what is being disrupted.

Outside, in the churchyard, the ground may be full of bones. Many churchyards, especially urban ones, were closed long ago to new burials; so this would not be an issue. If known gravesites are going to be disrupted during your works, you may be required to consult the relatives of those who were buried. (This rule does not apply to ashes.)

Two kinds of disruption may be of interest. Digging a drain through the churchyard, or a pipe-run for water or gas supplies, normally involves a narrow, deep trench. An archaeologist should be on duty with a watching brief to see what comes out of the trench, and to note any significance.

Almost nothing will be dug out that requires further digging or uncovering, and items will be replaced in the trench after the pipe is laid. But what is found is recorded and photographed. If you run into something such as an underground stone tomb, or crypt, there may be more discussion before a pipe can go through it.

Creating a garden, perhaps with paving or seating and maybe some new pathways, usually affects only the surface of the soil. Mostly, there will be few bones - certainly no full skeletons - and the same recording may need to take place.

There will be questions other than archaeological ones if you are changing the "ambience" of the churchyard, and turning it from one kind of public space into another.

Changing from the historical form and function to a public meeting or socialising space may require the support of an organisation such as English Heritage, and the DAC will want to be sure of the quality of the changes before approving your plans.

In particular, although you may want the general public to see the church and churchyard as welcoming public spaces, doing so at the expense of its more subjective significance as a burial place, or through the loss of its "difference" from adjacent thoroughfares, may raise objections in the "permissions" process. Do discuss this with your architect at an early stage.

Your questions to maggiedurran@virginmedia.com.

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