Archaeological watching brief

The archaeological watching brief – why it’s a double edged sword

The watching brief as part of the construction process

A watching brief is defined by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) as a formal programme of observation and investigation conducted during any operation carried out for non-archaeological reasons.

To clarify, this means that when groundwork is being undertaken as part of the actual construction process – for example, the excavation of foundation trenches or service trenches – it may be a condition of planning consent that those works are monitored by a qualified archaeologist who will record any archaeological remains which may be uncovered during the course of the work.

The watching may be required at all times during groundworks or on an intermittent basis dependent upon the working methods being employed by the contractor. Watching briefs can be required in a variety of construction projects from housing development, pipelines, transport infrastructure, renewable energy schemes through to mineral extraction and mining operations.

A watching brief is normally required for development sites where the potential for the presence of archaeological remains is considered low but where their presence cannot be entirely discounted. 

When a watching brief should not be the only desired outcome

Whilst very often the watching brief can be a relatively cost-effective and time saving method of approaching the recording of possible archaeological remains on a site, it should not be viewed as the only desired outcome.

Many developers believe that obtaining a condition for a watching brief should be the main aim if there is a likelihood that the site being developed will have an attached archaeological condition. A watching brief can be a good result when the site being developed actually contains little or no archaeology.

Part two of this article demonstrates why a watching brief can turn out to be a very expensive and time costly requirement for the developer.

About the CIfA

The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists is the leading professional body representing archaeologists working in the UK and overseas. Their members are professionally accredited and skilled in the study and care of the historic environment. They sign up to a rigorous Code of conduct, professional development (CPD) schemes and complaints procedures to uphold competence and standards in archaeology.