Orthomosaic of a burial ground (c) MOLA

Human remains: what developers need to know

MOLA team

The potential for uncovering human remains on a development site can be a daunting prospect for developers embarking on a project, as they can be of archaeological significance and have legal constraints. But there’s no reason why human remains need be an issue if planned for from the outset and dealt with professionally. Archaeologists deal with historical burials on a regular basis; particularly in large cities like London, so are able to guide developers through the process.

Are there burials on my site?

As with any aspect of a construction project, it’s best not to make assumptions about the presence (or absence) of human remains on a site.  It is often the case that historical burial grounds won’t be obvious from above ground. Unexpected discoveries can have significant time and cost implications for a project, which consulting an archaeologist can avoid.

To get an idea of what lies beneath your site, archaeologists start with desk-based research, ideally carried out as early as possible! Early risk-assessment is used to inform site acquisition, design and feasibility, and pre-application discussions with local authorities and reports are supplied in support of planning applications. By combining research of historic maps and documentary records, with MOLA’s in-house database (ArcGIS) - which holds data from thousands of archaeological investigations, georeferenced historic maps, and for London, a digitised survey of burial grounds - we can accurately assess the potential for burials.

What to consider at the excavation stage

If human remains are present they need to be excavated. However, there are a few considerations that developers may benefit from bearing in mind:

Know who the stakeholders are

Developers need to obtain the appropriate legal consents; the general rule is that an application needs to be made for a Faculty from the Diocese if the site lies within the jurisdiction of the Church of England, and a Burial Licence from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for other areas. Archaeologists prepare the Written Scheme of Investigation (WSI) for approval, in line with guidance from either the archaeological advisor in the local authority or the advisor to the Diocese. Read our interview with Rekha Gohil from the MoJ for more information on licences and legal obligations.

Evaluation helps to quantify accurately

Archaeological evaluation, through digging trial pits, is often required to help quantify the extent of survival in advance of excavation. The results reveal the depth, level of preservation and density of burials, and soil conditions. From this, experienced archaeologists can provide informed rates of progress, to feed into a developer’s programming and costing.

Excavation doesn’t halt progress

Construction doesn’t need to stop whilst archaeologists are on site. Excavation can also be done in phases, integrating with the construction programme. This is particularly applicable on larger sites, and commercial archaeologists are experienced at working alongside other contractors (demolition, exhumation etc.)

Get experts on team

Excavating burials is a skilled task and it is crucial than an experienced archaeological team, including human bone specialists (osteologists), are on site. They have the expertise to work effectively and flexibly, allowing for on-site decisions to be made immediately.

Understand post-excavation requirements

Once human remains have been excavated, off-site assessment, analysis and research takes place. This is a requirement of the planning condition (or Faculty) and ultimately leads to the publication of the results. For further information on this stage, please see our article, Crossrail: how to analyse 3300 skeletons.

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