The reading of buildings is much like the investigation of bones; with great care, interpretation and attention to detail, the silent bricks and mortar can reveal a little something about their history, the changes they have been through, and the challenges that they face to their preservation. I’m currently volunteering for Tees Archaeology (TA) for the week, on their Stockton-on-Tees building recording project. I’ve done this project once before, and I am glad to say it is a joy being back on it.
The importance of the recording of buildings was not something that my university education covered, and working with Tees Archaeology is helping to extend my own knowledge about what heritage can mean to the local population, and how fast certain things can change. Recently, in England, the planning laws have changed allowing rapid development of brown field sites and green field sites. Induced to encourage the building and expansion of new housing estates, and thus intending to help kickstart the economy, the laws are seen as a sustainable way to improve the growth of both the industry and the jobs market.
It’s well known that archaeology, in part, relies on the construction and building industry to help fund excavations and investigations ahead of, or during, building work. Yet the building recording work that I’m currently involved with belies another important aspect of capturing a historic moment in time. It helps to understand the development of a settlement, or a community, through its own architectural history, in its distinctive cultural and period styles.
Buildings often mirror different periods within the same construction as various parts are added, modified, removed, or changed, to suit or improve the current use. By recognizing certain architectural features however, such as brick work styles (the lovely English Garden Wall or Flemish bonds) for instance or window design, a rough construction date can be assigned. Further confirmation with period maps and further detailed architectural registers help improve the picture.
As always, I’m impressed by the professional skill involved with running an archaeological unit, and by the diversity in the specific lexis for each specialism (there can be a right handful in architecture). I’d highly recommend volunteering, or getting in touch, with your own local archaeology or heritage unit. You can sometimes be amazed by what you can find in your own back yard!