12th International Conference of Archaeological Prospection

12th - 16th September 2017 - University of Bradford

Conference Programme and Orientation Guide

45 Years of Commercial Archaeological Geophysics in the UK: Have we Progressed?
Dr John Gater MCIfA FSA, SUMO Services


Back in the mid-1970s, some of the earliest developer-led archaeological geophysics was carried out by the then Ancient Monuments Laboratory at English Heritage on the Southern Feeder gas pipeline. The results were so successful that in 1979 British Gas employed the author to set up an in-house department carrying out geophysical surveys. The remit was to investigate sites in advance of construction of a major network of pipelines bringing gas from the North Sea to regions throughout the UK. The geophysics team were an integral part of the planning and engineering discussions from the outset.

In the early 1990s geophysical surveys commenced at a number of locations along the A303 at Stonehenge. This was the start of two decades of survey work carried out at the behest of the Highways Department working with a variety of Engineering, Environmental and Heritage Consultants. Alternative routes were investigated in a piecemeal way, with seemingly little reflection on future strategies. Little or no discussion took place with the archaeological geophysicists. The end result is that in 2017 the original surveys are now being reassessed to test their integrity; the project raises many intellectual questions including whether we can rely on the data from past surveys.

 In 2026, or thereabouts, people will be travelling on trains between Birmingham and London at unheard of speeds and passing over sites which had been surveyed geophysically at unheard of speeds. The surveys will have been carried out by armies of people with arrays of instruments which have collected terabytes of data per hectare (enough to warm even the hearts of ADS). The end result: - an interpretation plot on a layer in GIS. This is HS2 and we are in 2017...45 years into Commercial Archaeological Geophysics...

This paper will reflect on the above projects and passing mention will be made of Time Team which enabled archaeological geophysicists to realise they are not always infallible.

John carried out his first geophysical survey some 44 years ago and has been involved full-time in Archaeological Geophysics since graduating from Bradford University in 1979; the past 32 years have been spent in Commercial Archaeological Geophysics. He also filled 20 years of his life as a ‘media star’ on Channel 4’s award-winning archaeological programme Time Team. His interests in archaeological geophysics are only surpassed by the lure (magnetism?) of Real Ale.