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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, per-
haps with a new set of nondestructive
investigative techniques and tools. The
decision to limit the extent of excava-
tion to the ‘need to know’ requirement
of the recent restoration project illus-
trates not only important changes in
the approach to excavation in general
but also some of the developments in
the application of archaeological meth-
ods 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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