Between 1999 and 2007 Framework Archaeology, a joint venture between Wessex Archaeology and Oxford Archaeology, carried out major excavations in advance of the construction of Terminal 5 at Heathrow, on behalf of BAA. The results of the excavations were published in two monographs – which were accompanied by an innovative interactive digital archive.
Due the size of the new terminal, the excavation site covered approximately 75 hectares – the largest archaeological excavation in the UK at the time. The challenge was both logistical – to mobilise and maintain a large excavation team with adequate support from both parent organisations, working within the restrictions and tight scheduling of a huge construction site; and archaeological – to make a record, to the highest standards, of what turned out to be a complex multi-period site.
Beyond the initial record and dissemination of the results, there was also a desire to preserve the project archive in a way that offered future researchers full accessibility to the archaeological data, with the tools to manipulate and reinterpret them in an ongoing process of enquiry.
All the participants and collaborators in the T5 project must be congratulated on their bold, innovative and timely attempt to enrich archaeological methods, recording systems and reporting procedures.
From the beginning, the aim of the archaeological programme was to move beyond the routine recovery and description of archaeological remains and to arrive at an understanding of the history of human inhabitation. This demanded a robust digital recording system, based on an iterative excavation and interpretative process, using a database linked to a Geographical Information System (GIS). As much of the data as possible, including from finds and environmental samples, was gathered and processed on-site in order to inform the excavation strategy. Overall, the hope was that a particular theoretical approach to archaeological practice could produce cost-effective and interesting results to the benefit of clients, archaeologists and the public alike.
Throughout, our clients, BAA, were fully supportive of a ‘front-loaded’ strategy that required the development of an infrastructure to support the archaeological process, recognising that this represented an opportunity to participate in an exciting and innovative project and, moreover, one that offered excellent value for money.
We created a display for Heathrow Airport based upon our excavations at Terminal 5. Within the departure terminal lounge, two video screens showed a looped video telling the story of the excavations and the discoveries made. Beside them were cases containing replica artefacts from the site including pottery, a bonze spearhead a set of flint tools. A bespoke website was also created for this project.
In archaeological terms, the Terminal 5 project has shown the value of investigating very large areas of landscape, revealing a remarkable history of human inhabitation over 9000 years, and showing how successive generations came to change the landscape they inherited. Fragments of a Neolithic cursus monument were excavated, as were prehistoric and Romano-British field systems and small farmsteads, an early Saxon settlement and medieval timber buildings. Memorable finds include bronze spearheads, well preserved wooden objects and pottery vessels from waterholes, the remains of a Roman lead font deliberately placed in a pit, and medieval silver coins. The digital archive is now available via the Archaeology Data Service (ADS).
Digital recording systems are now commonplace in archaeology, but at the time the Framework Archaeology approach was ground-breaking. New forms of data capture and analysis were introduced and a new approach to publication was adopted. One of the results was to place much greater onus on the excavation team to not only record objectively the archaeology, but also to it interpret it – an empowering experience which has inspired a large section of British archaeology.
The achievements of the Terminal 5 project were recognised by the heritage sector when the work was awarded the prestigious British Archaeological Award for Best Project in 2008 and the interactive digital archive was highly commended in the award for ‘Best Innovation’.
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75 hectares excavated
1687 file downloads via ADS
1 British Archaeology award