Introduction to Field Recording- Part 3: Writing A Site Description

Part 3 of this Introduction to Field Recording is now live!


Introduction and Summary

It’s been a busy couple of months since my last update.

Back in April I ran a training weekend with the Nautical Archaeology Society– my thanks go to Peta and Nick for organising this and supporting the workshop. Also thanks to Clive for writing this BLOG

Over the past couple of months I have been approached for advice regarding planning applications which may damage or destroy surviving wartime sites and structures.

This has highlighted and confirmed the need to provide information to local Historic Environment Records (HERs). As HERs are the primary source of information for planning applications at a local level, it is extremely important to provide them with up to date and detailed information that adequately highlights the significance of wartime heritage assets.

Making contact with and providing information to your local authority’s HER and stressing the importance of surviving sites qualitatively is the only way that preservation of wartime sites can begin effectively. Trespassing, posting random photos to social media and moaning on Facebook that ‘they’re all being demolished’ is not going to accomplish anything.

The same goes for objecting to planning applications. Detailed information is required to make a difference. Stating that a site should not be demolished “Because it dates from WW2 and is important to the country’s history” is unlikely to save anything.


Second World War 5-inch gun house at Studland Bay. Misidentified as a 6-pdr gun house on nearby interpretation board.

You need to be able to highlight the site’s historical importance in real terms, e.g. how many examples of the structure/site type survive in the UK. What is the site’s local strategic importance? Who operated the defences in the area? Does the site retain any original or unique features? What is the site’s current condition? What information will be lost if the site is destroyed? These are all things that need to be highlighted in objections to planning applications.

If there’s one thing you do as a result of this guide, make sure it is contacting your local HER. Don’t go down the route of aimlessly posting pictures or videos to Facebook, Flickr and Youtube, believing that you are somehow magically preserving wartime heritage assets. I can’t stress this enough.

Right, enough of that. Back to the guide.

Usual Disclaimer Time

Defences don’t belong to you and are the property of the landowner so don’t remove anything from a site, don’t trespass, don’t illegally dig stuff up, don’t illegally clear defences of vegetation.

If you do any of the above, you are not ‘preserving WW2 sites’.

Respect a landowner’s right to privacy.

“There were no signs saying Private Land” is not an excuse.

If the landowner asks you to leave their land then you shouldn’t be there and have failed to work ethically.

I am not responsible for any issues that arise as a result of using this guide.

New Recording Form

recording form

I have updated the Site Recording Form following some very useful feedback. It follows the same format as the previous one, so it shouldn’t be too different and confusing.

Recording Form V2.2

Further resources from the UK Second World War Heritage Group can be found HERE

Site Description Heads-up

Site descriptions can be written in the field or when you return home. Either way, make sure you make notes when on site that can be used to compile your site description.

Writing the description at home has advantages, such as allowing you to provide and include sources if you wish to quote or critique someone else’s work. Remember that if you do consult or quote any published works or online information you should provide the source in your site description. This allows others to assess and critique your record and see where your information came from.

For continuity’s sake, the narrative will involve writing the site description in the field.

What is a Site Description?

© IWM (D 24523)

© IWM (D 24523)

Site descriptions are probably a complete mystery to many as there’s very little guidance to be found online.

A site description is a summary of your site observations. This is the meat of any record and should include as much information as possible. A site description consists of a  description of the structure, its current condition and its features; along with a summary of why it was sited where it is (it’s strategic purpose/context).

The site description is important as it may act as the definitive record if the site is lost. It may also be used to inform planning decisions (if submitted to the local HER), or even used as part of the designation process to gain Listed or Scheduled status for the site.

There is no fixed method for writing a site description. However, I tend to try and answer the following questions when writing a site description-

What and where?- What are you recording and where is it?

What is its form and function?- Describe the structure, its features and its purpose.

What remains?- What remains of the structure and what is its current condition.

What is its context?- An assessment of the structure’s function in the wider landscape and a consideration of its strategic location.

The overall aim of this description is to record your site observations comprehensively; describing what you saw during the survey process, as well as analysing what you saw.

You can also include an interpretation and an analysis of the strategic context of the site you are recording.

What and Where? Describing Site Location

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Back to the narrative. Are we sitting comfortably…

You start compiling your site description by writing a summary of what you are recording and where it is; in this case, a Second World War era pillbox.

This is a summary of what you are recording, describing the period, site type (using a recognised site type thesaurus) and location. This allows someone reading the record to get a quick overview of the site. This summary can also include the directions you recorded earlier.

You write the following description, happy that you have thoroughly described the pillbox’s location elsewhere in the recording form-

Second World War pillbox located above Middle Cliff, Speeton centred at Grid Reference: TA 14759 75562. The structure sits on private property.

A quick summary of the location should suffice to fulfil the ‘What and where?’ aspect of the site description as further details and directions have already been provided in the Site Location/Directions section of the recording form. However, if you feel that more detailed directions are required then they can be included within the site description. A quick mention of the accessibility to the structure can also be useful.

Describing Form and Function


This is the most important aspect of a site record. Describing a structure or feature effectively takes practice but is a very useful skill. Taking the time to stop, think and observe is the first objective.

Next you start to plan how you will describe the form of what you are recording. You discuss your field observations with your friend; including the pillbox’s shape in plan, its features, and the earlier observations you made regarding how the pillbox was constructed.

After some debate, you write the following regarding the pillbox’s shape and form-

The pillbox is orientated to face North-East, with the entrance facing South-West, away from the expected avenue of attack.

The pillbox is sub-hexagonal in plan and constructed to bullet-proof standard, with an integral blast porch projecting from the North-West facing wall, forming the South-West facing entrance. This blast porch protected the entrance to the pillbox. The North-West and South-East facing walls have been elongated to create the extended hexagonal shape of the pillbox’s main chamber. The integral blast porch is rectangular in plan, with the top left corner chamfered so as not to impede the arc of fire of the nearby loopholes. The blast porch is integral to the pillbox’s superstructure, covering the low entrance into the main chamber. An anti-ricochet wall, 3m in length, sits centrally within the pillbox’s main chamber. The walls, roof and internal anti-ricochet wall are 0.38m (15in) thick, the recommended thickness for bullet-proof standard for reinforced concrete walls at the time. The structure is constructed entirely from reinforced concrete.

Lozenge Plan 1

Plan of the pillbox

Okay, so that just about covers the pillbox’s shape and form. You can already see that there’s a lot more to recording pillboxes than writing ‘World War 2 Type 22 pillbox’. This is why detailed recording is important, more so as a lot of HER records relating to pillboxes are still relatively simple.


The description starts by explaining the structure’s shape in plan (it’s shape from above). This gives the reader an idea of the structures shape, without having to actually see the structure, a photograph, or scale drawing.

When I was taught how to write site descriptions I was always told to “try to paint a picture of the site with words”. I still remember that advice today.

There are many terms that can be used to describe a structure’s shape in plan. Here are some of the most common and useful terms to describe shape in plan-

Square- Simple, the structure is square in plan.

Rectangular- Again, straightforward explanation for a rectangular building

Hexagonal- Self-explanatory, useful for describing hexagonal structures

Octagonal- You guessed it, used to describe octagonal structures

Sub-hexagonal- Can be used to describe any structure that is nearly hexagonal in plan

Irregular hexagon- Another useful term for describing six-sided structures that don’t necessarily conform to the standard hexagon shape.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Chamfered leading edge of blast porch

As always, this list isn’t exhaustive, so use your initiative when describing a structure’s shape. Prefixing with ‘sub’ and ‘irregular’ is a useful tool to describe non-standard shapes and any weirdly shaped structures you may come across.

Another important aspect to record is the structure’s orientation. Simply recording the direction the pillbox faces tells us a lot about the expected axis of enemy attack. This simple, but important observation is rarely noted in contemporary records or the often poor site descriptions posted on social media.


Using compass orientations to describe the location of features and walls is also very useful, especially if you aren’t providing a scale plan (drawing) of the site.

Wall thicknesses are key to recording structures such as pillboxes. The wall thickness can tell us a lot about the structure’s function and its intended purpose. Measurements should be given in metric (preferably metres instead of centimetres) as metric is the industry standard. However, as wartime structures would have been constructed using imperial quoting the imperial measurements is very useful.


Note the thickness of the wall and roof in the integral blast porch

Reinforced walls of 0.38m (15in) thick were considered to be of bullet-proof standard by the British Army at the time, with 1.06m (42in) considered shell-proof (Dobsinson, 1996). The wall thickness can indicate the anticipated severity of the fighting the pillbox would encounter, hence the importance of recording this information.

Describing Features


Confident you have recorded the structure’s form, you move on to describing the pillbox’s features. You remember the different types of loopholes you saw in the walls of the pillbox, the graffiti, and the camouflage methods employed to hide the structure both from the air and on the ground.

This pillbox features two types of loophole (specially designed apertures that allow the firing of weapons from inside the structure) within its walls. A loophole design with a recess below the interior opening, possibly to accommodate the bipod of the Bren Light Machine Gun (LMG), are to be found in the pillbox’s shorter, oblique walls (four in total). These LMG loopholes are orientated to the North, East, South and West in this example.

The South and North facing loopholes also feature a squared hole located above that slopes from the interior to the exterior of the pillbox. The function of this feature is unknown. But could have been to vent gases from the LMGs while in use or used to drop grenades out of the pillbox. The latter, however is unlikely given how dangerous and rather impractical this would have been. Square recesses below the loopholes hold short sections of ‘L’ shaped metal bar, possibly to hold a now decayed wooden shelf.


Sloping square hole above LMG loophole

The longer, South-East facing wall contains four evenly spaced loopholes. These loopholes are different in design to the loopholes in the shorter oblique walls. Lacking the internal recess for an LMG bipod, it is assumed that these loopholes would have been used to fire a rifle. Two further rifle loopholes of this type are present in the shorter North-West facing wall, with a single rifle loophole located in the North-West facing elevation of the integral blast porch. Worth noting is that the external corner of the integral blast porch has been chamfered, possibly to increase the arc of fire from the rifle loopholes in the North-West facing wall.

Each loophole would have provided an approximate 60 degree arc of fire.

The rifle loopholes of the South-East facing wall are entirely obscured by the parados (rear protective earthwork) of an extant slit trench. Once the slit trench was constructed it would not be possible to fire rifles from the South-East facing loopholes. This could indicate that the pillbox was to be used only by the LMG team of the infantry Section while the riflemen took up positions outside the pillbox, which was common practice.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

Summer vegetation adding to the pillbox’s camouflage scheme

A thick covering of turf sits on top of the pillbox to reduce the structure’s shadow signature and hard outline from the air.  The structure has also been deliberately sunk approximately 1m into the ground to reduce its silhouette; making the structure harder to spot on the ground from a distance.

The pillbox appears to have been constructed in one phase, with no evidence of later construction or modification.

Next you start to describe the graffiti.


Period graffiti

Period graffiti survives on the roof of the pillbox, with several names clearly incised into the still wet concrete during construction. Some of this graffiti sits under the turf camouflage, indicating that either the camouflage was added after the concrete had fully cured, or that the turf has slumped. A total of six names and four dates can be found on the roof of the pillbox:


French 1940

E Gall


J.GRAY 1940

Smitts 1940

The pillbox survives in Good condition (Fully or almost-fully intact and clear at time of survey) with no signs of damage and no current threats to its long term survival.

So, there we have it, that’s the pillbox’s features described. There’s so much more that you can describe, such as methods of construction and building phasing, but this should give you an idea of what to consider when writing a feature description.

Camouflage techniques can be recorded, such as the presence of metal loops to attach camouflage nets, paint schemes, construction of pillboxes within hedgerows and under tree cover, and the use of vegetation and turf to reduce a pillbox’s silhouette.

In this survey area, turf was often piled on top of a structure to hide it from the air. However, given the overgrown nature of some wartime structures please consider whether turf, soil or leaf litter on top of a structure is a period or contemporary feature. Aerial photographs are useful for identifying wartime camouflage schemes used.

The important thing here is to describe the features you see in as much detail as possible.

Note the condition assessment at the end. I will be covering this in the next edition of the guide.

It’s worth noting that you should make sure that you differentiate between what you have observed and what your interpretation is. This can be done by simply using ‘possibly’, or ‘could be’. “This could possibly be a…”. This helps to make it clear where you have interpreted something you have seen which may no longer exist.

Strategic and Landscape Context

© IWM (TR 2393)

© IWM (TR 2393)

Having described the structure and its features, it is now time to assess and describe the reason why this pillbox is located where it is.

Earlier, you spent time looking at the wider area and the landscape features this pillbox was sited to defend. You and your friend spotted a number of important features within the landscape that help explain the pillbox’s location within the local defences.

This pillbox is one of three infantry pillboxes of this type sited on the cliffs above Reighton and Speeton beaches. These pillboxes were situated along the cliff to cover the beach, defend the viable beach exits, provide support to the pillboxes on the beach and also cover the rear of the beach front defences.

The pillbox is sited on the apex of gently rising ground that culminates in a cliff face. From this location the pillbox overlooks the beach 250m North-East, the cliffs to the North-East, and the surrounding fields that lead inland to the South and West. This provides the pillbox with an effective vantage point, allowing the occupants to cover the surrounding land and approaches to the position.


Panoramic view to the front (North-East) of the pillbox

From this position the pillbox could also cover the following landscape features with effective fire: The beach up to the high water mark, anti-tank blocks that run from East to West on the beach, the gently sloping cliffs that approach the position from the North. This pillbox could also provide mutual fire support in the direction of two further pillboxes located approximately 450m to the North-West and West (at Grid refs: TA 14510 75872 & TA 14329 75627).

The pillbox is also capable of covering the ground in an arc from the West to East, allowing the occupants to bring effective fire to bear on any infantry attempting to approach the position from the rear. This allowed the occupants of the pillbox to protect the rear of the defences on the beach front and also engage any enemy that managed to breach the beachfront defences attempting to attack the defences from the rear.

The parados of a nearby slit trench limits the South-East facing arc of fire, but this area would have been covered by the occupants of the slit trench.

Aerial photographs have revealed the pillbox was surrounded by a barbed wire obstacle. A single screw picket from this obstacle survives at Grid Ref: TA 14764 75576. This obstacle would have prevented enemy infantry from closing on the position and getting into grenade throwing range. The pillbox and supporting slit trench were both capable of covering this obstacle with fire. 

After all that, you sit down for yet another cup of tea and a sandwich. It’s been a busy day so far but you still have a couple of tasks to complete before you’re done. You sit back and enjoy the sun which has just broken through the cloud.

Okay, that should just about cover the strategic analysis description.


The aim of this description is to present your critical analysis of the pillbox’s strategic location in the landscape. Further information on making these observations can be found in Introduction to Field Recording- Part 2: Making Observations & Assessing Strategy

You can see that the description of the site’s strategy starts with a brief summary of the wider context. This helps outline the individual context of this structure and also illustrates the wider defensive picture. This can be particularly useful if you intend to do further site analysis or write a report following a detailed survey of sites and structures in defined area.

The next aspect of the description consists of an appraisal of the pillbox’s strategic location in the landscape. This should be a description of the advantages provided by the pillbox’s location, and can also be an assessment of the disadvantages of the position. However, when assessing disadvantages you need to consider how the surrounding landscape has changed since the structure was in use. Development and planting of new woodland in the post-war period, for example, can extensively change the surrounding landscape and may give a biased impression of the structure’s strategic location.

Again, compass directions and distances can be used to describe the surrounding landscape and any landmarks that are located in the vicinity of the structure you are recording.

This is then followed by an analysis of where the occupants of the pillbox could bring fire to bear and what they would have been defending. This part of the description will rely on your field observations and will be different for every structure you survey. It is a good idea to provide grid references for any other structures you mention in your analysis. This can allow a HER officer to create additional records, as well as use your description to gain further information about additional defences.


© IWM (BU 21)

© IWM (BU 21)

I think that just about covers things. Well done and thank you for reading this far.

Hopefully you can see that there is a huge amount of information to be recorded from just a single pillbox. The only thing you need to do is spend time actually looking and recording your observations.

I understand that it may be a long process but this is the level of information that is required to effectively preserve such sites and structures in the record; especially if it isn’t possible to preserve or conserve them physically. This level of information is also required to highlight the importance of surviving wartime heritage assets.

By using the recording methodology outlined in this guide you can help to make a genuine difference.

I have provided a copy of the full site description HERE to make it easier to assess and read.

If we compare the description to that of a similar pillbox recorded on the local HER we can see that there is a huge amount of information yet to be recorded. This also highlights one of the reasons why HERs are struggling to push for the preservation of wartime heritage assets. In a lot of cases local HERs haven’t received any information regarding wartime sites and structures since the official Defence of Britain project (The one run by the Council for British Archaeology) finished in 2001.

Be aware that the description provided in this guide is not representative of a real-life pillbox. It’ll be pretty funny to see if it ends up getting ripped off!

Here’s one final tip. Once you’ve written one site description things get a lot easier. For example, you can apply the terms and phrases you’ve used to other examples of the same pillbox as long as those stock phrases apply. You can also apply the same set phrases to other structures quite easily by changing the sentence structure. In a matter of time you’ll have developed your own vocabulary of phrases that you can use to describe surviving wartime heritage assets.

For those of you that made it this far, here’s a bonus. I wrote this blog for CITiZAN which covers the basic information to record when recording pillboxes and features a handy step by step guide- What can we learn from pillboxes?

Next time we’ll look at recording material types, recording condition and conducting and recording a photographic survey.

Until then.


Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology. pp.160-163.

Creative Commons Licence
Introduction to Field Recording- Part 3: Writing A Site Description by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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