He was a classic old-school type, straight out of Please Sir, complete with a sports jacket with leather patches on his elbows. In a previous life he had been chief surveyor for Watney’s Brewery but gave it up because he said he couldn’t face another cheese and onion bap, which was all pubs had to offer for lunch in the 1970s.
“Gentlemen,” he said – girls didn’t do surveying back then – “if ever your career leads you to become a site manager and you have the misfortune to uncover either bones, pottery, human remains or anything remotely interesting don’t tell anyone and concrete over the lot as quickly as you can”.
Not in the interests of conservation, maybe, but over the years I’ve come to understand what he meant. It’s a fact that many housing developments are delayed every year due to the discovery of archaeological remains and I was reminded of this when I went to Rome last year.
The Eternal City’s underground railway comprises just two lines and they are building a third line as the present system is inadequate.
The problem is it’s Rome and every 50 yards or so they find yet another Roman mosaic floor or bath house. Everything then grinds to a halt as the archaeologists move in to excavate and remove everything.
It also happens here all the time. Just ask developers London & Regional Properties, which recently started site clearance operations on the Greenwich peninsula to build the Lovell’s Wharf development.
When finished this will extend to more than 700 apartments. You can take it from me the last thing they wanted to uncover was a 12th century water mill, since when English Heritage and numerous archaeologists from the Museum of London have been camped there.
A press release states that English Heritage is working closely with Greenwich Borough Council, the developers and the Museum of London to ensure this important discovery is carefully recorded.
Call me an old cynic if you like but this will result in time delays which will cost the developers a fortune and all they will want is the whole thing dug up and carted away as soon as possible.
Interestingly, it’s not only hidden structures which cause developments to be delayed. Another cause which is more common than you think are plague pits as a result of the Great Plague of 1665.
One of the plague strains is now thought to have been anthrax, which can stay active for centuries.
If a developer finds a plague pit he has to resist the urge to find the nearest concrete mixer and let all the appropriate authorities know, including health and safety.