Sheena Payne-Lunn is the Historic Environment Record Officer at Worcester City Council.
This week, the Worcester City Historic Environment Record hit a significant milestone. A chance discovery by volunteer Peter Walker while trawling the local newspaper archives at The Hive, led to the addition of the 2000th ‘archaeological event’ to the HER database. The Worcester City Historic Environment Record (HER) contains digital and paper-based records relating to the archaeological and built heritage of the city. It has two principal points of origin – the Worcestershire/ Hereford and Worcester County Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) and the Worcester City SMR. Worcestershire was relatively early in developing an SMR (from 1972/3), while Worcester City began compiling its own record from the late 1970s onwards, initially based on a card index but later on a computerised index. Today, the Worcester City HER shares an integrated database and Geographic Information System (GIS) with the wider county HER on a software platform called HBSMR, which enables archaeologists, historians, students and anyone with an interest to search for information on a site by site/ building by building basis. It is not only crucial for use within planning and development management, but also forms a unique and irreplaceable public archive, one which is increasingly recognised for its value in education and for research. So, how does information get added to the HER? Much of our information reaches us through the development management process. The Archaeological Officer might advise that the site of a planned housing complex, has potential for Roman remains and that therefore, an evaluation needs to take place in advance of building. The site is excavated by an archaeological team and written up into a report. This report is submitted to the HER for inclusion as an event, ie. an activity that results in the recording of archaeological information. That activity might be an excavation, a chance find, a photographic record (usually of a standing building) or a geophysical survey. Our 2000th event was recorded yesterday, after Mr Walker called into the office with a snapshot taken from the Worcester Chronicle, December 1852. The article reported the following;
The act of discovery as recorded here, is what we would call the ‘event’, and in this case the event is classified as a ‘casual observation’ (an unplanned observation of archaeological features or finds), though it’s quite possible that William Cope had rather a surprise when he uncovered these human remains! The article has prompted some speculation within the archaeology team as it is not so long since excavation on the site of the new Sainsbury’s in St John’s uncovered a number of Roman burials, and the question remains as to whether this discovery in 1852 might have been related. We will probably never know. Managing archaeological information and making sense of it, is always like trying to complete a large jigsaw without the guiding picture and with several pieces missing, so the best we can do (160 years after this discovery took place) is record what we do know as accurately as possible. In the case of Mr Cope’s trench, ensuring that we can pinpoint the location as closely as the sources allow is crucial. This is where the rest of the HER’s resources become very useful. To locate the garden in which William Cope was digging his trench, we were able to draw on a number of historic maps. The Swan Pool was a large pond, alongside what is now Swanpool Walk, that is recorded in the late 13th century as a fishpond. The pond is shown on a number of historic maps up until 1928 when the site is marked by an area of marsh, before completely disappearing by the time the Ordnance Survey mapped the area in 1940. The closest contemporary map to the 1852 discovery is the St John’s Tithe of 1841.
It’s hard to say with any certainty, where exactly Mr Cope’s garden was, but presumably, the trench he was digging wouldn’t have had its origin too far from the Swan Pool itself. As the ground slopes off towards the east the trench would be less likely to be on the east side of the pool, though further than that, it is hard to say. There are a number of small cottages on the land surrounding Swanpool Walk that may have been home to a gardener. Which of these belonged to William Cope could be narrowed down further by reference to the 1851 census. As it is, a best guess has to be made and the image below shows the completed HER entry and accompanying record, with the event location for record WCM102000 – Human Skeleton, Swanpool Gardens, St John’s indicated by the pink hashed circle. It isn’t all guess work of course. The vast majority of archaeological events have been undertaken during modern times and to professional archaeological recording standards. This means that excavated remains are drawn on a site plan that indicates the exact location and depth of archaeological deposits. An example of this would be the excavations to the north of Swanpool Walk that uncovered evidence of occupation from the middle Iron Age through to the Roman period and beyond. A rectangular enclosure ditch excavated on site and dating to the Late Iron Age is illustrated here, with a number of later burials cut into its line. These human remains therefore are meticulously recorded and locatable, greatly adding to our knowledge of the area that is now St John’s.
Further information on the Worcester City HER is available via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, a limited dataset on Heritage Gateway or by following @WorCityHeritage on Twitter.
The Archaeology Office at The Hive is also open to the public, with the Worcester City HER Officer available on Tuesdays, 1-4pm.