A golden anniversary: marking 50 years of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit

Before development-led archaeology was enshrined in law, many archaeological features were destroyed by construction projects without being documented – so, in the 1970s, a number of ‘rescue’ groups were set up to help record these remains before they were lost forever. The Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit marks its 50th anniversary this year, and Brian Philp guides us through some of its trials and triumphs to-date.


As 2021 dawned, there was a mixture of joy and dismay as Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit members realised that we had reached our Golden Anniversary. Founded in 1971, we were the first county-based Unit, followed by the Norfolk Unit in 1972, the Oxford Unit in 1973, and others later. All these early formations came about as a result of the huge threat to the buried heritage following growing post-war development for schools, housing, and commercial schemes – added to by extensive road-building, including motorways – which left the Government and county societies unable to keep up. Another excellent early response was the formation of RESCUE in 1971, under the inspirational leadership of Martin Biddle. Indeed, I have fond memories of the initiating Barford Conference where Martin and I were introduced, having arrived by chance together. Ironically, we may be the only surviving founder-members who are still working.

OPPOSITE The Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit has spent over 50 years excavating and recording archaeological features threatened by development. Here some of the members are shown excavating burials at the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Horton Kirby in 2017.
The Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit has spent over 50 years excavating and recording archaeological features threatened by development. Here some of the members are shown excavating burials at the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Horton Kirby in 2017.

Early days and tactics

Our Kent rescue work dated well before 1971, though, under the famous CIB banner (see CA 38 and 196). We had begun at the start of the 1960s, doing rapid recording on the frozen beaches at Reculver where the sea was pounding the exposed Roman fort – it was only saved when we campaigned for the construction of a new sea wall. (Our original CIB name stems from this work: it stands for Cohors I Batasiorum, and refers to stamped tiles that we uncovered at Reculver in 1960.) Further excavations documented the Royal Abbey at Faversham in 1965, the Saxon cemetery at Polhill in 1964 and 1967, the London Roman Forum in 1968-1969, Operation Gaspipe in 1968, the Darenth Roman Villa in 1969, and Dover Roman forts from 1970 until 2020. All of these have been fully published since. It was just after our start at Dover that I and three others created the Kent Unit as a registered charity, having given up our careers and surviving on meagre subsistence (we were later supported in a small way by the Ministry of Public Building and Works).

These early days required a degree of bluff and blunder to match the strong opposition to archaeologists that existed following the Mithras publicity of 1956. Our tactics then were to carry a clipboard, wear a safety helmet and strong boots, and arrive on development sites in a vehicle marked with official-looking insignia. When challenged, we would explain that we were simply looking for a harmless missing Roman road. This usually gained access and a chance to examine all the ground-works in preparation for site-recording after the contractors had left.

Difficulties and Dangers

There were, of course, difficult and dangerous moments. Two come to mind: the first was in 1963 when workmen dug a very deep trench for a bridge abutment through a high railway embankment which sealed an unknown chunk of the Roman town at Springhead (Vagniacae), near Gravesend. When they reached the critical level, I was able to climb into the compound five minutes after the contractors had left – a quick measurement showed the trench to be 44ft (14m) deep, and after descending three sets of ladders the working width had reduced to just 2ft 9in (85cm). With a torch, it was possible to record a section through Watling Street and associated structural evidence. All seemed well for two hours, until a strange noise above warned of an approaching train. Across the top of the trench roared some 200 tons of engine and carriages, sending down a hail of debris and dust that took minutes to clear.

BELOW A display of hippopotamus bones excavated by the Unit at Folkestone in 2018.
A display of hippopotamus bones excavated by the Unit at Folkestone in 2018.

The second perilous moment came in January 1969, on the site of London’s Roman forum at Gracechurch Street. We were sharing the site with four sets of contractors working a 24-hour programme and on a delay penalty (then) of £8,000 per week. The original foreman of the ground-works was always friendly, perhaps due to the handsome drinks we bought him and the machine driver each Friday afternoon. Disaster struck, though, when we met his replacement: he was teetotal and rather less than cooperative. Face-to-face confrontations with an interesting exchange of expletives followed, and we came near fisticuffs until he was told that my grandfather had been a professional prize-fighter. But with project managers it generally just needed a loud statement stating that ‘You are destroying the critical history of Roman London and we are going to stay here to record it regardless.’

That was not the dangerous part, though; there was worse to come. One day, we looked up from a deep trench to see the blade of a D8 bulldozer looming above our heads, pushing in tons of soil and burying us up to our knees. As it reversed for a second push, we decided it was time for a quick tea break! Anyway, we stayed on that site for 120 days – despite being ordered off after just nine. The results were highly important, with the discovery of the proto-forum and the south range of the second forum, as well as both extensive pre-Boudican structures and the fire-levels dating from the Iceni destruction of Londinium. All of these were later published in Britannia.

KARU has worked extensively at Dover, illuminating the town’s Roman predecessor in particular. This understanding is still evolving; during shutdowns necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions, the team has focused on creating a plan of the Roman town from 750 individual site-drawings.

Over the years, our overall strategy developed into a ten-point action plan, used successfully several times and most recently in 2014 in Madeira. The key elements included threatening to expose the developer as ‘vandal of the year’, buying ‘Xmas’ drinks for site foremen, and casually informing site-workers that we had the power to stop the job ‘as a family member was a leading member of Government’, knowing that the message would filter to the top. Then we promoted exposure through the local and national press. It mostly worked – oh yes, the good old days!

Looking back

Some 50 years and 800 projects later, we can look back on a steady progression. The early battles gradually faded away with the arrival of planning reforms such as PPG 16 (in 1990), but this development also saw the introduction of non-Kentish Units into the area, with limited local knowledge yet generous contracts. For our part, though, we completed projects in the towns of Faversham, Gravesend, Maidstone, Folkestone, Dartford, Rochester, Ashford; on Thanet; and at Dover for more than 40 years. We also worked on numerous rural sites in the Darent Valley, and right across the county and south-east London, including motorway operations on the M2, M20, M25, and M26 with excellent results. Most were grand adventures, though they also brought their challenges, not least during more than 40 severe winters. Nor has publication been ignored, producing 12 large monographs, and reports on 40 special subject sites and more than 300 minor sites.

Our greatest input has been at Dover where we have so far covered over 3ha of continuous archaeology, across more than 40 sites – and our investigations continue yet. The results have been spectacular, with the discovery of three Roman forts and their extra-mural settlements, the famous Roman Painted House, extensive parts of the Saxon and later town, and two large churches. Four substantial monographs covering the Classis Britannica fort, the Roman Painted House, the Saxon-shore fort, and the Saxon town have so far been published. The greatest battle of our history was also at Dover. There, in 1971, the roadworks engineers were set to destroy two Roman forts by cutting a deep trench across the west side of the town for a so-called bypass (see CA 38). But after 140 days of non-stop excavations, followed by a widespread campaign, we stopped the destruction and raised the whole road by 2m during the contract. We still call that episode the Battle of the Bypass. And our understanding of Roman Dover is still evolving: the COVID-19 interruption has allowed much work on the compilation of a grand overall town plan, extracted from some 750 individual drawings.

Among KARU’s members are three generations of the same family.

Who makes up KARU? Apart from the core team, we have the support of a large number of volunteers, mostly drawn from our training excavations in West, Central, and East Kent. In all, just over 2,000 people have taken part and several gave up their careers to work full-time in Kent archaeology. We were also joined by two good teams under the Government’s Job Creation Programme, where again some joined the full-time core, by this time frugally funded by the DOE and with some additional grants. Sadly, many of the early members have inevitably passed on to the great excavation in the sky, but we fondly remember them all – notably, John Willson, Howard Davies, John Horne, Maurice Chenery, Alan Gidlow, Peter Grant, Maurice Godfrey, and Audrey Button. Even so, three of the original team (including Gerald Clewley and Edna Mynott) are still working with the Unit, and we have another family in its third generation. On one fine occasion in 2013, all three generations were present at the University of Kent when the Unit was given the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, equivalent to a corporate MBE.

As well as our major rescue function, we carry out a programme of education and tourism. Two of our special sites are the Roman Villa at Orpington and the Roman Painted House at Dover. We fully excavated these, saving them from certain destruction, and then we built large cover buildings to protect both and opened them permanently to the public. The two schemes have won six national awards and, so far, the former site has welcomed over 85,000 school children on special Roman workshops, and the latter over 700,000 schools and foreign visitors. Three particularly interesting visitors to Dover were the Queen Mother, the Duke of Gloucester, and the Russian ambassador, the latter supported by armed KGB. Additionally, we hold annual public events at the Roman fort at Reculver and the Roman tombs at Keston – all operations that are only possible thanks to the support of so many good people.

The Covid-19 crisis

Like so many other archaeological organisations, in March 2020 we were hit by COVID-19, and quickly launched a five-point COVID Action Plan. The first step was to postpone most of our outdoor projects. Second, to reopen our two monuments when possible in July-September (albeit with severe safety protocols in place). Third, to launch a COVID Backlog Publication Plan, whereby we focused our time on writing up and publishing early sites for which no post-excavation funds had been available. The printing costs were generously met by two members of the Unit, including John Villette of Thanet, who has been associated with the Unit for 45 years. So far, six sites have been published, with five more waiting. These include a Mesolithic site (uncovered during work on the M25 in 1974), an Iron Age farmstead (M25, 1974), a possible Roman signal station (luxury homes, 1980), the archbishop’s palace (bungalows, 1978), a Roman farmstead (housing, 1990), a Roman settlement (supermarket at Gravesend, 1989) and a Saxon cemetery (private development, 2017). Two more Dover sites and two sites across a newly discovered Roman town (Noviomagus) are also in hand.

RIGHT During the pandemic, as well as focusing on publishing previously excavated sites, the Unit devoted their energies to supporting NHS staff at the local hospital.
During the pandemic, as well as focusing on publishing previously excavated sites, the Unit devoted their energies to supporting NHS staff at the local hospital.

The fourth element was to create and erect large road signs in support of NHS staff for their brilliant response to the pandemic, work during which many have died. This has been much appreciated by ambulance staff and paramedics, and outside the Princess Royal main hospital our signs have been seen by well over 500,000 people since April 2020. We have raised over £2,000 from our own team for health charities and the same hospital. For us, this is really just another form of rescue.

Finally, another special event was on 8 May 2020, when we again set up our roadshow on the Farnborough Bypass, with banners celebrating both the heroes of VE Day and the NHS. The response from several thousand motorists was warming. It was also good to share the two-minute silence with local ambulance drivers and later to join VE Day street celebrations at wartime sites. The range of archaeology, it seems, just never ends. Indeed, we have been proud to share our progress with Current Archaeology since its first edition, and to acknowledge its great national benefit. Well done, Andrew and Wendy!

Let me end with an offer to CA readers, who are most welcome to visit our Roman Villa at Crofton, Orpington, on 1 August 2021 for special guided tours at 11.30am and 3pm. There will be no charge, but donations and book purchases are most welcome. For more details, and to learn more about the Unit, see our website at http://www.karu.org.uk.

ALL images: Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit.