Much of England’s heritage remains to be discovered or recognised. Important terrestrial or maritime archaeological sites are still hidden or hard to reach; even familiar buildings and landscapes may be known about but poorly understood or undervalued. Our research includes identifying, defining and communicating the most significant aspects of the historic environment.

Urban and public realm

More than 80% of the population live in urban areas. Towns and cities have extraordinary historical depth and associations. Their landscapes, buildings and archaeology are an invaluable source of evidence for how people have lived and worked for centuries. Archaeologists working in advance of redevelopment have extensively investigated many towns. Heritage is a powerful force for the sustainable development and regeneration of towns and urban centres as places with authenticity and meaning. Some urban places and public spaces deserve particular attention and support from Historic England, to gain a better understanding of heritage significance, or to help respond to change. We do this through our Heritage Action Zone programme, and application of our Constructive Conservation approach. However, the sheer scale of our urban centres, and the rate of change means that there is still much to understand and urgency to do so.

Research will have impact if it assesses the significance of urban environments most subject to change. It will help us to ensure that the National Heritage List for England has up-todate information, that statutory protection is appropriate where warranted, and advice on design approaches and planning decisions based upon an understanding of the historic character and distinctive values of streetscapes, buildings and public spaces.  

Research questions

How can we better understand the scale and pace of change that affect the significance of historic town centres, individual buildings and open spaces?

How can we better understand the capacity for historic town centres to change while retaining their historic character?

How can we best define the character of urban areas to help others plan sustainable growth, greater densities and tall buildings?

How can we use historic local character and distinctiveness of urban areas to inspire and guide future land use, development and design?

How can we best respond to the change of ownership of major civic and public buildings in urban centres?

What particular urban building and townscape types are most poorly understood, least protected and most at risk from change? What is their capacity to adapt to new uses?

How much unrecognised medieval building form and fabric is hidden within later redevelopment of structures in historic towns?

How can we best encourage participation of urban communities in work to record, and plan for the future of their heritage?

What contribution do historic parks and open spaces make to urban environments?

Are there important questions that can be answered from backlogs of unpublished archaeological investigations?

Rural landscape

Rural communities and places are crucial to an understanding of England. People’s harnessing of natural resources over millennia has created the character and beauty of today’s countryside. That character can be threatened or enhanced by our use and management of land. Rural places are changing at an accelerating rate, driven by demands for new housing and infrastructure; the opportunities of better IT connectivity; the redundancy, disposal and reuse of buildings; from changes to the climate, farming practice  and rural development policy. Despite these changes, heritage assets in rural landscapes  may be isolated and so more vulnerable to heritage crime.

Research will have impact if it captures the significance of rural heritage, ensures that informed statutory protection is in place, where warranted, reflected in the National Heritage List for England. It will help owners, local authorities and other agencies consider land-use change that maintains rural character. Work on sharing approaches to significance with the natural environment sector will help integrate  land-use management.

Research questions

How can we better understand the scale and pace of change affecting the significance of historic farm buildings, functionally redundant vernacular buildings and small estates?

How can we better understand the  capacity for rural landscapes and  buildings to change while retaining their heritage significance?

How can we use historic local character and distinctiveness of rural areas to inspire and guide future land use, housing development and design?

How can we better integrate approaches  to heritage and ecological assessments  of significance? How can we use and communicate enhanced understanding of our rural historic environment to encourage communities to engage more actively  with the character of their rural places  and landscapes?

Marine and Maritime

England, as part of an island nation, has a rich marine heritage of historic wrecks and submerged prehistoric landscapes. The marine zone is being exploited with increasing intensity, yet our current knowledge reflects only a fraction of what lies beneath the waves. Our coastal heritage is fragile, and threatened by coastal erosion and flooding in many places. Although erosion presents a threat, and we need to know what we may lose, it can also provide an opportunity since erosion often reveals unknown archaeological deposits on the coastline. Research that draws together heritage surveys with information from other sources will create a more complete picture of our marine and maritime historic environment. This will have impact as it helps us put appropriate statutory protection in place, provide essential evidence for management, enriches the National Heritage List for England, and provide a rich source of educational material and inspiration  for both local communities and  tourism. That inspiration can in turn lead to better reporting of discoveries, a resource for further research.

Research questions

How can we maximise the use of survey  and prospection data collected for renewable energy, aggregates and fishery projects to help us better understand our marine heritage?

How can we mobilise volunteers and community groups to help assess the significance of identified historic wrecks,

and coastal or submerged  archaeological sites?

How can we develop reliable models for predicting the presence of unrecorded marine heritage assets in advance of development and change? How can we use the distinctive  coastal heritage of England to help  create vibrant and economically viable  coastal communities?

Water, wetlands and waterlogged 

Wetlands and inland waterways make up as much as 3% of England’s land surface. Over 10% of this is internationally designated RAMSAR wetland. To these need to be added the ‘belowground’ waterlogged environments (such as around Nantwich, Boston or York), or localised waterlogged deposits such as those found in river gravels. Water and wetland heritage covers three categories. First, waterlogged archaeological deposits – the challenges of detection, characterisation and preservation of heritage in these environments are intense, while the quality of the evidence found at sites such as Must Farm or Star Carr can be internationally important. Secondly, heritage associated with water bodies –  the structures and landscapes directly associated with the exploitation of floodplains, river valleys and lakesides. Finally, the heritage of water management and water use – fords and crossing points, dams, weirs, mills, bridges, meadows, canals, and similar that have shaped our history from the earliest human occupation to their role in the Industrial Revolution. Each of these categories is under pressure from, for example, the need to: exploit aggregate reserves, actively manage catchment systems, preserve water and land quality, and flood prevention.

Research will have impact if it expands our understanding of the nature, extent, significance and character of our heritage associated with water, wetlands and waterlogged sites, and contributes significantly to its sensitive management and appreciation by owners.

Research questions

How can we fill the gaps in our understanding of the distribution,  character and value of wetland and waterlogged archaeology?

 How can we improve prospection techniques for, and gauge the urgency of recording, wetland and waterlogged archaeology?

What aspects of water management heritage are most at risk of loss and  least understood? How can we improve our understanding of the value and significance of individual sites or integrated landscapes associated with the exploitation of water?

Industrial and infrastructure

Britain has outstanding international importance as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  

Historic industries define the character of many English cities and towns, landscapes and villages. Many industries have shaped particularly strong regional and local identities. The infrastructure and machinery built to support trade and communication – roads, railways and canals – is now a hugely valued heritage. Industrial sites are also visitor attractions, forming an important element of our tourist economy. They can be a catalyst for regeneration and renewal, often by new, creative industries, as new industrial infrastructure takes the place of the old. As industry and infrastructure sites change rapidly in response to technological development and economic cycles, buildings, structures and whole landscapes are being put to new use,  or are facing abandonment or destruction. Research will have impact if it helps to improve our techniques, to understand in detail the origin, range and diversity of our industrial and infrastructural heritage and its influence and effect on the wider landscape. It will establish the most significant elements, which we should try to preserve as part of new development where change is inevitable.

Research questions

Which extractive industries and their associated communities are less-well understood and under-represented in heritage records?

What is the distribution, character and significance of workers housing related to different industries, and how much of it is under threat?  

What has worked well and less well where industrial heritage has inspired the regeneration of buildings and places for housing and retail?  How can similar approaches be successful where market prices are depressed?

What will the impact be of the transition from carbon-based to renewable energy on, existing sites for coal, oil and gas extraction and processing, power generation,  and transmission?

How can large and complex 20th-century industries, transport and infrastructure, including ports and harbours best be recorded and understood if they cannot  be preserved?

Military and defence

The robust and functional architecture of castles and coastal forts dominate their surroundings. Dockyards, drill halls, barracks and airfields evoke vivid histories and a strong sense of place. Prisoner of war camps and poison gas factories provide a different perspective. In 1945, one fifth of the country was being used for military purposes. Today, many historic facilities and training areas are being decommissioned by the armed forces, providing opportunities to create new and distinct places based on a military past. Former military sites of all periods act as a focus for the local tourist economy.

Research will have impact if it helps us understand the extent to which the armed forces have adapted historic places. In turn, it will help reveal how much of their work remains, its condition, and the management regimes or statutory protection measures that will best ensure the survival of the most significant places either in military or civilian use.

Research questions

What is the character and significance of poorly understood classes of military building types and sites?

How have past and current military land use, military towns and settlements shaped local character and how can this inspire reuse and regeneration?

What has worked well and less well where historic military buildings and places have been adapted to meet the needs of the 21st century armed forces or to act as the foundations for new distinct civilian places?

Faith and commemoration

Places of worship and commemoration are  at the heart of their communities. They are created and maintained by and for those communities, and so their use and adaptation tells of social change at a local and national level. Many places of worship have already endured for a long time – they are often the places with the longest continuous use of any local building. Burial grounds perhaps represent the diversity of our entire population more completely than any other single type of heritage. They provide a rich and complex resource for communities, as places of peace, green open spaces, centres of biodiversity, evidence of past society and of family histories. Some sites, especially those of minority faith groups, are under-recognised and poorly understood. The day-to-day care of all these sites may be undertaken solely by dedicated volunteers, and they face marked decline where they cannot find economic  reasons to be sustained.

Researching these places will have impact if it helps us to find and celebrate our diverse and fascinating landscape of faith and commemoration sites, promote their continued use, and better understand their significance. It will help better understand their condition and vulnerabilities, inform statutory protection,  and find new ways to support communities  caring for them.

Research questions

What does 21st century faith heritage look like and how are sites distributed? 

What gaps exist in the National Heritage List for England for burial grounds, and how are these best addressed?

How do we ensure under-represented faith heritage is visible, through work with local congregations to understand what they value and why?

How do we decide what might change inside churches with many historic  fittings and fixtures, while retaining  their significance? How can we help others to understand  and enhance the significance of historic burial grounds?

Archaeology of the deeper past

The archaeology of the deeper past in England – prehistory, the Romans and the early medieval periods – can be elusive and ephemeral, but it is all around us, and is the sole source of evidence for 99% of human history in England. We rightly celebrate the exceptional discoveries like Must Farm or well-known sites like Hadrian’s Wall or Sutton Hoo. However, our understanding is inevitably partial and we need better information to manage future change, affecting less wellknown sites. We support research to identify, understand and communicate the importance of these aspects of the deeper past of England. These early traces survive as cropmarks, scatters of artefacts in plough-soil, buried deposits, subtle earthworks or ruined buildings. Aerial survey over the last 50 years has resulted in the discovery of tremendous numbers of previously lost sites. Developer funding in the last 25 years has supported a great expansion in archaeological excavation. However, this represents a tiny fraction of what is there.

Research will have impact if it helps us bring together and synthesise the evidence recovered both from a quarter century of archaeological reports, and from the 4,000-5,000 new investigations each year. It will examine the breadth and diversity of monument and settlement types and help to establish new priorities for fieldwork within the wider context  of cultural research into past societies.

Research questions

What is the grand narrative of the first 99% of human habitation of what is now England? What new settlement or monument types are being discovered through survey or field investigation, and what should be there but has not yet been identified?

How can the sector ensure better co-ordination of our understanding to aid in the conservation and management of an irreplaceable resource?

How can we better investigate, understand and apply existing statutory protection to more challenging types of monument, such as those lacking defined structures or only surviving as ephemeral evidence, and which are most vulnerable?

How can we improve public understanding of the archaeology of the prehistoric, Roman and early medieval periods in a way that inspires a modern audience, and helps its protection and management?

Understanding the Historic England Archive

The Historic England Archive is a unique national archive of the historic environment of England. It represents over 100 years of recording and collecting activity in different contexts and by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Not all the records were created with a documentary role in mind, but in gathering these records together and preserving them for the nation there has been a consistent focus on creating a record of our shared archaeological, architectural and landscape heritage. The Historic England Archive holds over 12 million pieces of archive on 16km of shelving in a dedicated archive store in Swindon. Our holdings include files, reports, drawings and plans, but 75% of our collections are photographic negatives, prints and transparencies. We store our collections in environmentally controlled archive vaults which ensure that these records will be available for future generations.

Research on the collection in its own right will have impact if it offers insights into the history of heritage documentation and recording of the historic environment. It will unlock new narratives of engagement with the past. It will also help inform our future collecting, documenting and access strategies.

Research questions

Can we better understand the creation and purpose of individual collections by researching the individuals and companies who created them?

And how do their stories fit into the broader history of British photography, and record photography in particular?

Can we analyse collection data in new ways, for example to look at patterns of recording and commissioning geographically and over time?

What kinds of crowdsourcing project will be popular for online engagement and virtual volunteering?

How does use of our holdings and other historic environment archives by researchers inform and influence conservation of buildings and sites?