I saw a tweet yesterday from Richard Parker (@velohistorian) containing welcome news about an important, extensive and under-threat archaeological site in rural Lincolnshire, England:
'[There is] evidence that the gods of old are marshalling their forces at Norton Disney today. County Council have deferred a decision on the planning application, awaiting more information. Time for the true extent of the villa to be revealed'.
But it's not only the gods of old we have to thank for this stay-of-execution whilst fresh evidence is presented and examined. Community archaeologists and local historians of Lincolnshire and beyond have become the guardian 'watchers' of this place, and it is they who have brought about this turn of events. So, credit where it's due - especially to Richard himself. He has spent many months delving into old excavation records and boxes of finds, contacting and passing information on to professionals, liaising with statutory bodies, getting information out via the press and social media, and generally being a top bloke.
For those who haven't been following this story - it's complicated in its detail, yet simple in its outline. A developer has bought a semi derelict farm with some land, and wants to build on part of it. A small part of the site (not being proposed for development) is scheduled; this modest square-boxed area is where a main villa building is supposed to be, in a field adjacent to the planned development. The scheduled area thus gives only a small part of the whole multi-period archaeological site any kind of protection. The rest is down to the planners and Historic England.
The national planning guidance called the 'National Planning Policy Framework' (NPPF) will in theory require the planners of the County Council to consider the context and setting of the Roman villa estate, within the broader and thicker palimpsest of preceding Iron Age and succeeding 'sub Roman' and 'post Roman' activity.
But it has felt like a very rocky road at times. After I wrote my two other blog articles on Norton Disney - the first one stressing that there's much more to a 'villa' than the remains of a Roman house* - some unfortunate developments unfolded. First, a planning application was registered with Lincolnshire County Council (LCC), despite this being prior to pre-application archaeological investigation of the area being satisfactorily completed. Furthermore, the planning application, PL/0036/18, turned out to be a significant one for the construction of a massive animal rendering plant on the site, close to the scheduled parts of the known villa and in a field of known archaeological importance.
The planning application exposed a number of flaws in the way in which planning 'meets' archaeology. First, statutory archaeological functions in government and local government are now chronically under-funded. The Historic Environment Record (HER) entry for this locale was not up to date. The scheduled area turned out to be, potentially, a boundary assignation based on a plot rented for excavation, before the villa was partially excavated in 1934-35 by Oswald, and possibly not even a boundary around the main villa building.
Further research by community archaeologists and local historians - such as the newly-formed Norton Disney History & Archaeology Group, and the Collingham & District Local History Society - tracked down excavations archives, photographs and skeletal material from the 1930s, plus aerial views, notes and complementary archival materials. These finds, along with recent site surveys, and gleaning information from fieldwork going on in relation to the planning application, have allowed the piecing together of a picture of an extremely important late Iron Age iron-working site and a large, economically active 'villa' estate. This 'site' extends across a very large area - of which the scheduled plot is just a minor part, even if (and it's a big 'if') it does demarcate a Roman building. Crucially, these community archaeologists and historians passed the information on to the right people and the right bodies, and made it public through social media.
The objections poured in thick and fast. Many objected to the poor quality of the planning application, which seems to be claiming that two huge buildings (100m x 30m), associated traffic and commercial activities, and an enormous chimney, would have 'no adverse impact' on this ecologically beautiful, archaeologically rich locale. Then there was the lack of an obvious map (at least whenever I looked), and the somewhat desultory list of consultees. It was, to my eyes, as an archaeologist and a former Planning Committee member, all pretty woeful. And, sadly, the archaeological desk-top survey included with the application was incomplete, based on inadequate data, and quite eyebrow-raising in its brevity.
In total, over 1,000 objections were lodged, on a variety of historical, archaeological and environmental grounds. And a 'stay' is now granted while Historic England and the County's Senior Archaeologist have time to look at all the evidence currently available - and not just that supplied by the developer - and make their final recommendations to LCC. A key package of evidence they'll want to see are the results of the two geophysical surveys on the field where the villa building is supposed to be, and the excavations on the adjacent proposed development site, all of which are yet to be released.
Hearteningly, the County's Senior Archaeologist's initial comments - which are important - suggest that he disagrees with the developer's assessment, saying that, 'the pre-Roman archaeology contributes to the archaeological landscape which is a significant heritage asset beyond merely the known remains of the Roman villa'. In addition, confirmation has also been received that the entry on Norton Disney's archaeology has been updated on its HER - see Lincolnshire's Heritage Gateway.
As Richard Parker discovered, the site at Norton Disney has been surrounded by controversies since the 1930s. There have been sagas of territorial control, rampant archaeological ambition, dissent and loathing, and raging battles of egos, partly revealed through a series of fascinating tweets by @velohistorian. He found a wonderful letter in the National Archives file about the villa scheduling in 1934-35 which talks of 'fighting to the last drop of blood to be able to excavate the villa'! Now of course the fight is on - and I hope and suspect that it's going to be won - to protect the villa and the prehistoric landscape which pre-dates it. And this is an undertaking by the community for the community. It's being driven by a sense of the common good.
This has been one of the best examples of the power of community archaeology that I've ever encountered. And long may the new guardian 'watchers' of Norton Disney continue in their quest for the future safeguarding of this beautiful place's prehistoric and Roman archaeology.
It's not too late to object! See Richard Parker's own blog. Many thanks to Richard for information about new discoveries and old photographs, and my thanks also to: Norton Disney History & Archaeology Group; Collingham & District Local History Society (and the Society's archivist, David Barker); Dr Rena Maguire; and to all the community and professional archaeologists and historians who are taking an informed interest in this story.
* What Is A Roman Villa? See the final section of this article about the entirety of the Romano-British villa: