• Watching Briefs

    Identifying archaeological issues early by being present on-site

  • Early Evaluation

    Helping to identify any later archaeological issues in planning

  • Field-Experienced analysts

Watching Briefs


The most abused and misunderstood term in the archaeological lexicon.
At their best, they are cost-effective ways of collecting low-level archaeological data from areas for which there is little verifiable background information, or as corroborative checks on negative evaluations and desk-based assessments. Watching Briefs are commonly applied, to good effect, on domestic extensions and utilities refurbishments with groundworks of limited extent and duration. They are also extremely useful from a Client's perspective, when employed during geotechnic site investigations ahead of planning, giving the design team an indication of whether the project is likely to encounter significant archaeological issues: At their worst they become uncontrolled archaeological excavations lacking financial certainty, academic purpose or safe working conditions.

Watching Briefs that recover large quantities of artefacts or, worse, human remains, and which result in large and expensive post-excavation analysis programmes, are not 'Watching Briefs': they are un-controlled archaeological excavations. This situation also presents contractual problems: The archaeological contractor is not in sole occupation of the site, but has an effect on the progress of construction works disproportionate to the relative value of their work. The best solution is for the archaeological contractor to be a Nominated Sub-Contractor, but this rarely happens. Much of the Client dissatisfaction with planning-related archaeology arises from poorly-specified watching briefs and local authority archaeological officers, in trying to make their 'conditions' less onerous by requesting watching briefs, unwittingly achieve the opposite.

Construction professionals understand the term to mean the intermittent observation of construction works by an experienced senior archaeologist, with minimal intervention and recording, charged by the hour, for the purpose of ensuring that works do not disturb archaeological deposit unnecessarily. Many architects and surveyors maintain a 'watching brief' on their projects, 'watching' being the operative term: Most archaeological companies use 'watching briefs' to dump their junior technicians out of harms way during slack periods, running up large accounts for works of often questionable archaeological value.

Watching Briefs should be undertaken only where the specifying archaeologist (LPA or Consultant) has good reason to believe that the affective construction works will not disturb significant in-situ archaeological deposits, or where excavation by a groundworks contractor under archaeological supervision would be no more destructive than archaeological excavation. Where significant archaeological deposits can be predicted with reasonable certainty, the specifying archaeologist should specifiy 'Archaeological Excavation' as defined by the IFA. Watching Briefs should be conducted by the most field-experienced people in an organisation, who can recognise significant deposits, should they occur amongst the chaos of a construction site, and record them quickly and accurately. We believe it should be explicit in Watching Brief contracts that the archaeologist will not impede the general progress of construction works, but may reasonably request the temporary ( c. 2 hrs) deferment of individual tasks.

The most successful applications are to Archaeological Building Investigation and Recording where demolitions and opening-up are undertaken by the building contractor (although there is no reason why an archaeological contractor shouldn't do this). These situations provide the best opportunity for examining and recording construction details that can not otherwise be seen and with the minimum of disturbance to the historic fabric (cf. Meeson, R., 2001, 'Recording for Research and Conservation', in S.Pearson and B.Meeson (Eds) Vernacular Buildings in a Changing World, CBA Research Report 126) and have been responsible for most of our significant discoveries in recent years.