Archaeology and public benefit

23 March 2022


Archaeology and public benefit

Reported by Grace Field, PhD Student, Finance and Fundraising Lead at CUSPE

On 9 February 2022, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow Dr Sadie Watson led a CSaP seminar on the relationship between development-led archaeology and public benefit. Her research at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) aims to establish project design strategies that will maximise the social value of future development-led archaeology projects.

What is development-led archaeology?

Development-led archaeology is archaeology conducted as a precursor to commercial development. The idea is to assess and explore the history of a site before evidence of that history is destroyed by heavy machinery or buried under the foundations of a new building complex. Development-led archaeology in the UK is controlled almost entirely by Local Planning Authorities; according to Dr Watson, 99% of the archaeology in the UK happens because of the development-controlled planning system.

When Local Planning Authorities grant permission to develop a site, they almost always require archaeological assessment as a precondition. It is then the developer’s responsibility to employ archaeologists like Dr Watson to perform fieldwork on the site and publish their findings.

Why focus on public value?

New development projects, Dr Watson explains, are required to show how they aim to produce public benefit – or, equivalently, `social value’. This stems from their obligation to comply with the Public Value Framework and the Social Value Act. The Public Value Framework is a practical tool for maximising the value delivered from public spending, and the Social Value Act requires those who commission public services to think about how they can also secure wider social, economic, and environmental benefits.

She notes, however, that currently the public value of development-led archaeology – a precursor to almost every proposed development – is rarely included in those assessments. Her research aims to highlight the social potential of the archaeology that runs alongside development, in part by creating more people-focussed design strategies for future work in her field.

What is the public value of archaeology?

According to Dr Watson, there are two current sides to the value of development-led archaeology:

The first one is knowledge creation. We’re telling people things about the past through our work. And the second one is value to the construction sector. We’re mitigating and removing the risk of development.

If planning authorities shift their focus away from these fairly restrictive ways of thinking about archaeology, they will end up, she suggests, with development projects that provide greater benefit to people and their local communities. This will only be possible if planners and curators are empowered to prioritise “value-led design and reject price-led minimum standards”.

The local knowledge uncovered by development-led archaeology can provide public benefit in a variety of ways. Several participants in the seminar emphasised its place-making power – how new local knowledge can connect local residents with their heritage and inspire pride in place.

One participant pointed out that archaeology can show us how land was used in the distant past, which can in turn help us to repurpose and optimize land use in the present. Archaeological findings could, for example, inform us about how to restore farming and crop diversity to an area that has not been farmed for thousands of years. Dr Watson agreed, adding that archaeological data can shed light on how past human populations dealt with climate change.

Quantifying the benefits of engaging with archaeology, however, presents a challenge. Dr Watson emphasised that more research is needed in this area, although work on wellbeing metrics is ongoing. Now her focus is on encouraging people to “give it a go”. Her team are currently working on small case studies in London with clients who are willing to test a more public-centred approach to development-led projects.

From Dr Watson’s perspective, archaeology is ultimately about people, not things. Making that clear to the public is, in her mind, at the heart of the shift in perspective that her research supports. In her words:

People tend to think that we study things when actually what we’re studying is people, of course, and that’s the critical change.


The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme supports talented people in universities, businesses, and other research and innovation environments. It also allows universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators or to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas. Learn more here.

Image Credit: Becca Tapert on Unsplash