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Archaeology Group Look To Make -Roads Emerald Isle Permanent

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Headland Group, a prominent Scottish based archaeology firm, has made impressive in-roads to Northern Ireland through one major road construction project on two roads worth £3m.

The Edinburgh based firm has ensured that the development of the A1 and A4/5, proceeded without damaging historical sites and artefacts and where there were unexpected discoveries, recording and excavating these sites to professional standards in advance of construction. The works were also undertaken within a budget and timetable agreed with the client and their advisors. The Newry (A1) and Dungannon projects (A4/5) are largest that the group has undertaken in Northern Ireland and also among the largest archaeological projects in Northern Ireland to date.

Russel Coleman, a director with the Headland group, said: "We are committed to building our presence here. We very much enjoyed our recent work here and if all goes to plan, we will be setting up a permanent office in Northern Ireland soon, and will be looking to recruit new staff." 

Headland successfully competed against the largest contractors from all over UK and Ireland to win the roads service contract in April 2006. Under the new plans, the A1 and A4/5 were upgraded by the contractor consortium Amey, Lagan and Ferrovial Agroman (ALF), with work on both roads ongoing.

Russel added: "Having won the contract, we undertook a program of site investigations in summer 2006. This involved excavating trenches by machine combined with some hand dug test pits and trenches on the more sensitive sites to assess what survived below ground on the line of the new roads. A desk based assessment of the routes and a walkover survey had already been undertaken as part of the Environmental Statement."

In total, 21 archaeological sites or areas of archaeological potential were identified on or near the route of the A1 and 65 sites or areas of archaeological potential on the A4/5. These known sites included prehistoric, medieval and industrial remains including a standing stone, ring forts, earthen mounds and banks, enclosures, a medieval homestead, cottages and farmhouses, railways and tramways.

Russel said: "The program of investigations comprised of targeting the known sites but also the areas between sites to test whether there were hidden buried sites with nothing visible above ground. The work took two months to complete with a team of about 12. 

"A major issue on projects like these is the organisation of access to farm land, so that farmers can move stock in advance, backfilling and tidying up afterwards. Wet weather always makes this hard work. The field team is also strung out for many miles on different sites along the route so communication is a challenge."

Following field work, summary reports on each of the sites was produced and submitted to Dr Michael Avery of Archaeological Associates (Ireland) and Kate Robb of John Cronin Consultants (the two Archaeological Consultants employed for the project by Scott Wilson plc and Mouchel plc, the Consulting Engineers).

The Headland team went back into the field in August 2006 to fully excavate and record all the sites identified in the initial site investigations (agreed by the Client and Consultants). Work continued throughout 2006, finishing in October 2007.

Russel said: "The second phase of archaeological work, subject to new license applications, comprised the excavation of a large ring-fort and a former mill manager's house on the A1. On the A4/5 project, we excavated numerous burnt mounds (prehistoric cooking sites), two ring forts, a prehistoric settlement, a Bronze Age ritual timber alignment and three very large ring ditch enclosures, which were probably burial mounds, and a mill lade.

"We were based in Lurgan and on average we had about 40 staff many from our Scottish office but also contract staff from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, Poland and Sweden. Since coming off site in October 2007, we prepared summary reports on each site together with an assessment of any further analysis and reporting to bring the project to a conclusion. After agreeing the post-excavation budget, we are now working on the final publication which should be submitted to the roads service in spring 2010."

All archaeological work in Northern Ireland is subject to the issuing of a license from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. A separate license is required for each site investigation/excavation. Headland received 15 licenses between 2006 and 2007 for the A1 and A4/5 projects. Licenses are restricted to experienced archaeologists with a track record in publishing reports.

Russel added: "The commercialisation of archaeology beginning in the early/mid 1990s across the UK, has made a huge difference as developers now pay for archaeology. The whole process is driven by the planning system. Developers (commercial, local authority or government) now receive a planning condition if they are potentially disturbing archaeology below or above ground. Writing a report on the results of any site investigations or excavations, and publishing the results of the more important sites, is also part of the planning condition."

Roads and all major infrastructure projects are carefully designed from the outset to avoid as many known archaeological sites or historic buildings and structures as possible during route selection stage. Russel said: "The vast majority of what we find, as commercial archaeologists working on developments, are new undiscovered sites that have lain buried for centuries."

Government agencies and large developers hire an archaeological consultant to manage the archaeological process for them. The extent of their involvement ranges from dealing with the planning requirements to finding a contractor, briefing them and managing the contract and finances for their client. The consultant usually designs the scope of the work and the contractor works out the method to best achieve the aims. An archaeological license is then applied for. For road projects, the route selection process usually forms part of the environmental statement and is all agreed well in advance of a contractor becoming involved.

For smaller developments, such as a housing development the client or developer, usually deals directly with companies such as Headland as a contractor, who agree a scope of works with them and the local authority archaeologist (the NIEA in Ireland). 

Russel said: "All archaeological site investigations should be done as early as possible to avoid any surprises - ideally before designing the layout of the houses and drainage and access roads for example and before other sub-contractors are booked to start - just in case. This way, should archaeological remains be uncovered within the development, it may be possible to preserve these remains and build around them which is the preferred policy rather than disturbing them. This can save time and money. If it's not possible, and sometimes it isn't, sufficient time and budget should be allowed to deal with these remains before construction starts."

Headland Group formed in 1996 in a former lemonade factory in Edinburgh, and now has subsidiaries in the UK and Ireland and offices in Cork, Galway and Glasgow.

The group work on a wide range of archaeological projects, from wind-farm environmental impact assessments to maritime wreck surveys. The bulk of its turnover comes from dealing with archaeology in advance of large infrastructure projects.

Russel said: "The main part of our business is as a contractor, our business going forward is focused on transport and infrastructure, energy and renewables but we also handle housing, commercial property, aggregates, forestry etc. Our focus is on the larger and more complex infrastructure projects as this is all about scale and resources which suits us as a large contractor. But we also act as consultants producing environmental impact assessments for archaeological issues as well as providing advice and support in all aspects of cultural heritage management on commercial developments.

"We have had an eye on the Northern Ireland market since we embarked on these road schemes in 2006-7 but we put our ambitions on hold during the credit crunch. We are well resourced for this market thanks to our network of offices.

"Currency is an issue but we can offer clients sterling or euros. We are currently marketing and raising our profile in Northern Ireland and are testing the market from our base in Belfast to see what work/clients are out there. We have already had some success in securing new contracts.

"Many of our existing clients operate in Northern Ireland so it's natural that we continue our service to them as 70 percent of our business is repeat business and our clients take us wherever they are operating."