Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London at Historic England, sheds some light on the term and talks us through some of the fascinating scheduled monuments she’s come across.
“I’m sorry but what is a Scheduled Monument?”
This was a question I received recently after giving a talk about recent archaeological projects in London. The questioner was a little embarrassed, but it’s a remarkably good question. He wanted to know how something qualifies to be a monument; what gives it that special quality? It proved surprisingly hard to answer.
We’ve had Scheduled Monuments (sometimes known as Ancient Monuments) since 1882 when the Ancient Monuments Protection Act was passed. It’s the oldest form of heritage protection in England and dates back to the days when antiquarians such as General Augustus Pitt-Rivers researched and sought to protect the more obvious and traditional forms of archaeology – specifically prehistoric sites – taking a fairly literal interpretation of archaeology as the study of past societies through their material remains.
Kits Coty House, a Neolithic long barrow in Kent, was the first site to be legally protected when it was taken into state guardianship in 1883 on what became (and still is) the Schedule of Monuments (‘schedule’ being a civil service term for list).
The subsequent sites to be added tended to be prehistoric standing stones or earthworks like Arbor Low henge in the Peak District and Stonehenge and Silbury Hill in Wiltshire. Medieval sites like the magnificent Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, were considered tricky and expensive to repair and so weren’t considered at first!
In 1900, a new Ancient Monuments Protection Act was passed, a key component of which was to allow non-prehistoric sites to be designated, the first of these being Roman; Richborough Castle in Kent.
The act has been revised a number of times, last in 1979. We’re now at a point where monuments can be sites and buildings of any date, whether in state, local authority, public or private ownership.
The 1913 iteration has a good definition: ‘any monument or part or remains of a monument, the preservation of which is a matter of public interest by reason of the historic, architectural, traditional, artistic or archaeological interest.’
So in fact, practically any ‘thing’ could be defined as a Scheduled Monument, and crucially, sites need not be ancient.
The key is public interest, and for it to be considered nationally important. Of course we do include the very earliest traces of human and indeed proto-human life – it’s simplistic to say that the older something is, the rarer it is, but certainly we have very few well-preserved Stone Age sites and when they contain important evidence, then we schedule them.
Kent’s Cavern, Devon is one of the best examples, with some of the oldest bones of Early Modern Humans in Northern Europe. But a number of surprisingly modern sites have been scheduled, one of the youngest (and certainly it’s younger than I am) being the Greenham Common Cruise Missile Shelter, Berkshire. Scheduling can also protect sites which defy easy classification, such as the Scale Model of the Möhne Dam in Hertfordshire, secretly built to test the bouncing bomb.
You see, as history unfolds, the importance of events is reassessed, and the need to conserve examples of things previously overlooked as unimportant, or the site of protest and hatred like Greenham Common, becomes imperative if we aren’t to lose physical examples of our past.
The key here is physical continuity; there’s nothing like being able to stand beside or touch a site, to enable a personal and profound connection with the past.
So we use scheduling to protect and manage an enormous diversity of sites, including huge complexes like the Brooklands Racetrack in Surrey through to very ephemeral items such as the rock art at Chatton Park Hill, Northumberland, which was carefully designed and chipped away thousands of years ago.
We may not always know the exact purposes of the sites, but we do know how rare, fragile and fascinating they are. We need to ensure their survival, and that’s what gets Historic England staff out of bed in the morning!
There are now over 20,000 Scheduled Monuments preserved in England, and we add to this number every year; anyone can nominate a site for scheduling, but the criteria have to be strict to ensure the Schedule stays confined to the very best examples of our heritage.
We find extraordinary sites every year, which we add to the Schedule. So far in 2016 this includes 34 monuments, including wrecks, bombing decoys, roadblocks, a Roman bath house, an 18th century commercial ice well and today, we have added No. 1 Filling Factory at Barnbow, near Leeds. Tragically, Barnbow was the site of the first major loss of civilian female life in the war when an explosion killed 35, and was then hushed up to avoid loss of morale and worker recruitment.
Jane Sidell is Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London at Historic England, and one of the proud successors to General Pitt-Rivers, the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments.
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