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WHAT IS GARDEN
ARCHAEOLOGY?
This quarter Judith Roberts
explains that garden archaeology
is a lot more than just digging
Below the restored 17th century Privy Garden at Hampton Court lie the largely untouched remains of earlier, Tudor gardens awaiting the attention of a later generation of archaeologists, perhaps with a new set of nondestructive investigative techniques and tools. The decision to limit the extent of excavation to the ‘need to know’ requirement of the recent restoration project illustrates not only important changes in the approach to excavation in general but also some of the developments in the application of archaeological methods to the study of historic gardens.
This recognised the wider importance of the Hampton Court site as a repository of historical information in its buried fabric. The decision also emphasises the responsibility of the archaeologist to conserve what has been excavated by record and publication and by the inclusion of what might be called a ‘damage limitation’ clause at the planning stage of the excavation; it highlights the need for sensitivity and the importance of the project brief.
The Privy Garden at Hampton Court is not, of course, the first garden to be excavated and restored but in many ways it is the culmination of a process which began with the first recorded garden excavation, at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1930s, which was excavated by the Ministry of Works prior to reconstruction. Indeed, there is an archaeological side to garden
history and conservation which has long been recognised and it is important, wherever possible, that there should be an integration of documentary research, field work and excavation in the interpretation of an historic park or garden. Like any building, this carries much of the record of its development in its physical fabric. Garden archaeology is one of a range of specialisms and analytical tools which, like all others, has its own techniques, requirements and limitations.
Excavation is only one of the techniques available to the archaeologist. Excavation is essentially destructive, as well as expensive, and full scale excavation should perhaps be seen as the final or ultimate intervention. In this article ‘garden archaeology’ is used as something of an umbrella term to illustrate a range of approaches to reading the above and below ground features of the site.
One of the greatest spurs to the use of garden archaeology over the past decade or so has been the fashion for historic garden reconstruction. New Place garden in Stratford, laid out by Ernest Law in the 1 920s was one of the earliest reconstructions and was based, like Law’s ‘Elizabethan’ knot garden at Hampton Court, on an interpretation of contemporary texts, not on excavation. Now there is a more scholarly approach to restoration, and to historically accurate planting, and it is here that an understanding of
contemporary texts has to be supplemented by the hard evidence of excavation or field survey. This has generated the need for accurate information about the plans and layout of the garden, about the chronology and sequence of its development andabout the nature and date of changes or additions, without which it is difficult, if not impossible, to make informed decisions about the nature, extent and period of the reconstruction.
There is a range of ‘non-destructive’ geophysical techniques which includes electro-magnetometry, resistivity surveys and infra-red photography which can be used to gather information to identify and plot below ground features such as the foundations of garden buildings, walls and path systems, the site of borders orparterres, as well as establish periods of infilling or change in the layout of earlier features. Archaeological techniques can also be used to identify planting pits or the disturbance of soil in nursery areas, but what is more problematic is identifying plant material and establishing planting plans or design intentions. Palaeobotanical techniques such as pollen analysis can be as well applied to gardens as to any other environment but there are limitations. Soil conditions vary and do not always support the survival of seeds and pollen; nor is it always possible to determine from such evidence, where it does exist. For example, plants may have
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