BACK in the development boom of the 1960s a group of volunteers and short-term contract staff started to study land that was soon to meet the long arm of the digger.


For the best part of the next two decades Oxford Archaeology fought for grant funding and developer permission to visit land in the hope of finding a lost gem from Oxfordshire’s history.

That all changed with new planning laws in 1990 that made it a legal requirement for developers to hire independent archaeologists if there was a risk schemes could concrete over vital relics.

From Roman ruins in Dorchester to wig-makers of Oxford, the work of archaeology plays a major role in helping historians learn more about Oxfordshire and the UK’s past.

For example, its work on the Thameslink project to expand London’s rail capacity discovered a Roman bath house under a main road and a large post medieval cemetery.

Chief executive officer Gill Hey said the 1990 Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning made a “huge difference” to its work and now accounts for 80 per cent of its £9m turnover.

The rest of its business includes research projects for groups like English Heritage.

Mrs Hey, who has been with the Osney Mead charity for 25 years and in the top post for six months, said: “We have suddenly got extremely busy.

“An enormous amount of money goes into archaeology now, the profession has developed from something quite small-scale with a lot of volunteers to something that is a lot more professional.”

Not that the charity has escaped the impact of the recession, losing about 100 people from a staff of 350 in its Oxford, Cambridge and Lancaster offices as schemes – particularly housing – do not start.

The economic downturn is having a further impact because of cuts to councils’ archaeology expertise, she said, meaning staff who give vital advice on whether councils should approve plans are being lost.

“Councils are finding it a struggle to be able to afford the staff to monitor these things, to monitor the applications and make sure appropriate conditions are attached.

“In a way, you can’t blame the councils.

They have a limited amount of money and an awful lot to do.”

Given their work can delay or even scupper multi-million-pound building schemes, working closely with developers is vital, Mrs Hey said.

“They vary,” she continued.

Generally people are very accommodating because they realise if they want to put in a planning application for other things, it is to their advantage to work within the planning system.

“It is very rare for things to be stopped.

"What usually happens in those circumstances is that everybody sits down and says ‘how can we accommodate this particularly important piece of work?’” A shopping centre plan for Liverpool’s Docklands, for example, was changed to build above 18th century dock walls, so visitors could walk through a key part of the city’s industrial heritage, she said.

While the landowner owns any recovered relics, most give them up to go into museums or council storage.

Developer money means the charity can pursue its own projects, such as its five-year work with Oxford University to uncover a Roman town in allotments in Dorchester-on-Thames.

She said: “The best thing I ever found was a neolithic building from about 3800BC.

“I was watching the machine and there were these great big post holes.

These were being exposed in a long line, it was quite extraordinary.

“I thought ‘it can’t be’. This was the first one that had been found in southern England.” Mrs Hey said: “It is my family.

I am attached to it and very proud of what we have done.

“I think that we do lead the field in lots of ways and I am determined that will continue.”