Okay, I’m back with the second instalment of the introduction to field recording. In this guide we will look at recording site type, making and recording field observations and writing a decent site description. I may throw in a few other things along the way.
Again, the site in question and the information presented in this guide does not relate to a single pillbox. Observations from several different pillboxes have been used to show the range of features that you may encounter. The aerial photograph references are also fictitious, so won’t be of any use if you contact Historic England to purchase copies of the photograph.
I have also noticed that I use site/structure/feature synonymously. In most cases I am referring to the feature you have chosen to record.
This is a long post but well worth the read!
Disclaimer and Further Points
As always, here’s the usual disclaimer.
I am not responsible for any issues that occur as a result of using this guide. It is also your responsibility to keep safe on site.
Don’t trespass. Private property does not have to be indicated with signs and it is your responsibility to secure landowner consent. Always gain landowner consent before accessing a site.
Unsolicited clearance or excavation of surviving sites is highly prohibited and will get you into serious trouble. If you choose to excavate or clear a site without the proper consents from landowners, relevant Historic Environment Record, or environment organisations and the associated project design and Desk Based Assessment; then you are actively destroying our shared heritage, making sites targets for further vandalism, and putting surviving sites at risk.
If you do spot any signs of Heritage Crime when out and about be sure to report it to the local Police force via 101 or via an online reporting form. Be sure to mention ‘Heritage Crime’ when making your report.
Everyone can help make a positive impact by accurately recording wartime sites and highlighting their significance.
I write this introductory guide to encourage a recognised standard of site recording and to promote the recording of wartime sites with local Historic Environment Records (HER). The local HER acts as the definitive record for historic and archaeological sites, as well as historic buildings in a given area. As the HER is used to inform local planning applications and is the go to source of information for archaeologists, historians and local government organisations, recording your findings with them is very important.
There are often local and national archaeological recording projects that sites can be recorded through, such as CITiZAN. However, unless a recording project is affiliated with a local HER, a recognised heritage organisation (such as the Council for British Archaeology, The Archaeology Data Service or Historic England) or the Association of Local Government Archaeology Officers (ALGAO), then it’s very unlikely that information is being recorded with the local definitive record; meaning that your information is not being used to enhance local records, inform planning applications or make a difference.
Always make direct contact with the local HER yourself. It’s very easy and contact details for all HERs in England can be found HERE.
By effectively recording a site directly with the HER you can help highlight the importance of surviving wartime heritage assets, and at least ensure that a site is preserved in the record if it has to be demolished, succumbs to vandalism, or coastal erosion. Working with local heritage organisations is the only way that the significance of surviving sites is going to be realised, and further sites preserved. Moaning on Facebook that your local pillbox has been demolished by the landowner, or through development does nothing to help the situation; especially when that effort could have been put into recording a site properly before it was demolished.
There is still a long way to go before wartime sites are properly investigated and recorded. The subject seems to have regressed somewhat in recent years, which is a great shame given the good start and sound methodology provided by the Defence of Britain and Defence Areas projects. Redressing this balance is another reason why I started writing this guide and publishing it free to everyone on this website.
Let’s Get Going- Back To The Story
The recording form used as the basis for this guide can be found here-Recording Form
After taking a break for a quick cup of tea, you and your friend get back to the task at hand. Having recorded the location of your pillbox you consult the recording form for your next task. You see that you are required to decide upon the type of site you are recording.
As you’ve already consulted the Defence of Britain site type thesaurus, available online, you are aware that using a recognised structured word list to describe site type helps keep records consistent.
Your observations of the structure have revealed that you are recording a ‘pillbox’. This term appears within the Defence of Britain site type thesaurus and is itself a valid site type recognised by the local HER. Your observations have confirmed that the pillbox does not conform to the known standard pillbox drawings drawn up by the Directorate of Fortifications and Works branch FW3 (FW3) during the Second World War. The pillbox also doesn’t conform to other known designs mentioned in the site type thesaurus. You write ‘pillbox’ in the ‘Site Type’ box.
Using a controlled vocabulary is an important aspect of field recording. Set vocabularies, or thesauri, help ensure a consistent standard across records, allowing records to be easily indexed by both recorder and heritage organisation.
Each site type thesaurus is structured to allow similar sites to be grouped into hierarchies consisting of broad and narrow terms. This makes it possible to record a site as either a broad, or if known, a more specific ‘narrow’ site type. This is very useful if you are able to identify a structure’s type, but not its specific design.
Each site type has an associated ‘Scope Note’ that provides a written description of the subject.
In this case we have chosen the site type ‘pillbox’. This is described in the thesaurus Scope Note as-
‘An often squat building with thick, loopholed walls and a flat roof, designed to accommodate a variety of weapons, usually strategically positioned to cover a vulnerable point in a defensive system.’
As you can see, this covers the structure we are recording.
The Broad Term ‘Pillbox’ is further sub-divided into 31 further Narrow Terms. These Narrow Terms are used to describe and record specific types of pillbox, including the drawings drawn up by the Directorate of Fortifications and Works Branch FW3. There are also a couple of Narrow Terms relating to drawings created by the Commander of Royal Engineers or Chief of Engineers for specific Commands and localities. We will look at this in more detail later.
I thoroughly recommend having a good read through the thesaurus to learn the basic site types. You can always refer to the thesaurus after your field recording to identify the Narrow Term site type, or print off the thesaurus and take it with you on site– http://www.heritage-standards.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/DoB_class.pdf
If you can’t identify the type of structure you are recording, then you can tick the ‘Unknown’ box in the recording form. This is also useful if you are recording scatters of concrete that you can’t identify, or any other feature you choose to record but can’t positively identify. Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t positively identify something. It’s best to record something as ‘unidentified’ instead of guessing and being wrong, which in turn puts bad data into the HER.
At this stage it’s worth saying that it’s a good idea to record any features you spot but can’t positively identify. These features may disappear at a later date and go completely unrecorded. By recording unidentifiable features, you allow others to further investigate them and eventually positively identify them through further research. There’s also no harm in recording what you think the feature may be but be sure to indicate that this is your interpretation. Prefixing your interpretation with ‘possible’ or ‘probable’ is the easiest way to do this- e.g. ‘Possible anti-tank block’.
At this point it’s also worth stressing the importance of not forcing the pillboxes you encounter into the known wartime FW3 drawings. You will often see these ‘Types’ mentioned online and in print; often without any background as to why these ‘Types’ are applied to pillboxes.
Branch FW3 was responsible for drawing up building plans for pillboxes and other defences. Each of the pillbox plans were assigned a drawing number running from FW3/22, through to FW3/28. Mentions of drawings for FW3/46 & FW3/46 were identified by Dobinson (1996) but the actual drawings were not traced within the National Archives. This is the basis for the ‘Type’ numbers used frequently to identify pillboxes. This causes many issues. Namely that few people outside of the subject know what a ‘Type 22’ is and what its function was.
More importantly, what is often not realised or made clear is that not every hexagonal pillbox is a ‘Type 22’ and not every square pillbox is a ‘Type 26’.
Little research has been conducted to identify all known pillbox designs in the UK. Dobinson went some way to identifying drawings held in documents within the National Archives, but much more documentary research is required. This means there are many unique or localised pillbox designs that remain to be properly identified in the documentary and archaeological record.
This is especially important as further pillbox designs were drawn up by the Chief Engineer (CE) at local Command level during the war. Even slight variations on the FW3 drawings; such as the addition of an extra loophole, the construction of an integral blast-wall, or the use of a different design of anti-ricochet wall may have been drawn up by the local Command’s Commander of Royal Engineers (CRE), or Chief Engineer and officially adopted at a local command level; with these modified drawings being assigned their own unique drawing number.
Recording every hexagonal pillbox, for example, as a ‘Type 22’ can (and probably already has) weaken and dilute the archaeological record; making what may be potentially important or unique localised designs appear to be a more common type of pillbox design. This hampers preservation efforts as misidentified, unique designs may be recorded as a more commonly surviving designs- ‘what’s the point of preserving this single pillbox when there’s 300 other survivors of this type?’
I recommend only applying the FW3 ‘types’ to pillboxes that conform exactly to the original FW3 drawings issued during the war. Any variations on these designs must be considered as officially sanctioned local modifications or even a recognised localised design. Furthermore, this is why being able to describe form, function and defensive context is a lot more important than learning the eight or nine known FW3 drawings and the known commercial drawings.
Also, recording a pillbox just as a ‘Type 22’ does not explain what the structure is to someone who has no idea what a ‘Type 22’ pillbox is. Taking the time to describe a pillbox’s form, function and defensive context is key to ensuring that the structure’s significance is appreciated by local heritage professionals and anyone reading your record.
Dobinson (1996) expands on the problem of forcing pillboxes into the FW3 drawings in Vol: II ‘Anti-Invasion Defences’.
One example being-
“…some speak of a ‘shortened type 24’, for example, when apparently referring to [drawing] CE SE Cmd 124/41- a structure with no demonstrable connection to the FW3/24… although CE SE Cmd 124/41 may look like a ‘shortened type 24’, there is no evidence that the CE [Commander of Engineers] at South-Eastern Command thought of his design in these terms.”
Dobinson also goes on to state-
“When reconstructing the tactical thinking behind a particular defensive system the exact structural type to which a pillbox may belong is of little relevance compared to its function- how many guns of which type, the thickness of the walls (bullet- or shellproof), or the use of camouflage.”
Date of Construction
Your desk-based research involved consulting aerial photographs taken during the 1940s. The aerial photographs revealed that construction of this specific pillbox was well under-way by 6 June 1940. From this you are able to narrow down the date when this pillbox was constructed.
Your friend spotted some other evidence that confirms the date of this pillbox. Graffiti on the roof of the pillbox shows a number of names, presumably the names of the contractors who built the pillbox, along with the date ‘1940’.
You write ‘Circa 6 June 1940’ in the Date of Construction box and write the reference for the aerial photograph and ‘graffiti evidence’ in the Source box.
This section is quite straightforward. If your desk-based research reveals any evidence for the date of construction, you can record it here. You may also spot features while on site, that help you to date the construction of the structure. Always keep an eye out for graffiti that was written into the still wet concrete. Also, local eye witness testimony may reveal an approximate date of construction. As always, record as much information as possible but make the source of the information clear.
Righto, onto the exciting bit!
This section is going to be quite lengthy and will not be an exhaustive list of what you will find while studying a feature. But, it will give you an idea of what to look for when on site.
Quickly photographing a pillbox and writing “It’s a Type 22” tells us next to nothing about the structure (even if the information is submitted to the HER) and will not help preserve surviving pillboxes (either extant or in the record); particularly when little is known about the pillbox in the first place.
Taking the time to make and record observations is what makes the difference. You should always aim to thoroughly investigate a site or structure, ensuring you record what you see. This is what makes the difference between a good and a bad record.
The key to doing this is time. Giving yourself enough time to make your observations is the first rule of recording a site properly. Rushing around, taking hundreds of photographs of 30+ pillboxes in an afternoon so you can post them to Facebook will do very little to preserve pillboxes; especially when you could have spent this time investigating one, two or three pillboxes (and their localities/supporting defences) in detail.
Always give yourself enough time to write down your observations while on site. Telling yourself that you’ll write down your observations later will lead to important details being forgotten (we’ve all done it!).
There isn’t a set way to make your observations on site and you may eventually come up with a system that works for you. Generally, I start by making observations of the external structure first, then start making observations of the interior (if safe to do so), followed by investigating the wider area around the structure; being sure to assess the location and identify any nearby earthworks or supporting defences. While making your initial observations you can start to keep a mental note of any features that need closer attention. This guide features a small selection of what you may see on site. Best advice is to keep an eye out for and record anything that stands out.
Finally, when making your observations you can start to plan which features you will photograph later. Also, contemplate the condition of the structure you are recording (more on this next time too).
Back to the story!
Your friend has already spent some time investigating the pillbox. You start your observations by taking a walk around the exterior of the pillbox, making sure to watch where you are treading so as not to trip or twist your ankle in any holes obscured by vegetation. The front of the pillbox isn’t accessible due to its proximity to the cliff edge. You ensure that you do not get too close to the cliff edge and make your observations from a safe distance.
As you work your way around the pillbox’s exterior you make a note of the structure’s shape in plan (the shape from above) is sub-hexagonal. You soon notice differences in the loopholes (apertures in the walls that allow weapons to be fired from within the pillbox) in the pillbox’s walls. The shorter oblique walls have slightly wider loopholes than those situated in the East and West facing walls. This difference is also noted for further investigation.
While investigating the exterior, you notice marks in the pillbox’s surface that appear to be the imprints of at least ten wooden boards. You make a mental note of this for further investigation later. You also notice that the pillbox appears to be deliberately sunk into the ground, with only a small proportion of the structure visible above ground. You estimate, after examining other pillboxes in the area, that around 1m of the structure is below ground.
A large amount of soil has also been placed on top of the structure, possibly to reduce its silhouette from a distance, as well as disguise the hard outline of the pillbox from the air. You make some simple bullet point notes in your notebook. While investigating the ‘top cover’ you spot the graffiti that your friend had spotted earlier. The roof of the pillbox is covered in a number of names and dates, clearly incised while the concrete was still drying.
Continuing your walk around the pillbox, you make your way to the entrance and its integral blast-wall. You spot a further rifle loophole in the West facing elevation of the blast-wall .
Another feature you notice is that the North-West corner of this integral blast-wall is chamfered.
You then use your compass to record the orientation of the pillbox; remembering that the direction the entrance faces is often opposite the expected direction of enemy advance. This tells you that the pillbox is orientated North-East to South-West, with the pillbox facing North-East.
You finalise your observations of the pillbox’s external surfaces by taking a measurement of thickness of the blast-wall. The hand tape measure shows that that this wall is 0.38m (15in) thick. You also take a measurement for the thickness of the roof slab. This also measures in at 0.38m.
Your prior research revealed that reinforced concrete walls of 0.38m (15in) thick were considered to be of bullet-proof standard while 1.06m (42in) thick walls were considered shell-proof at the time (Dobsinson, 1996).
Your investigation of the pillbox’s outer structure reveals no additions to the structure constructed at a later date. This pillbox was constructed in one ‘phase’.
To summarise, so far we have started the observation process by looking around the exterior of the structure we are recording. We have noted the shape of the pillbox in plan, observed differences in the loopholes and made a note of the wall thicknesses.
We have identified the imprints of the wooden shuttering used to cast the pillbox. A wooden formwork (similar to a mould) would be created to facilitate the casting of the concrete. The imprint of this shuttering still survives in the surface of many pillboxes.
It’s worth noting that brick was also used as a form of permanent shuttering (see image towards the top of the page). Pillboxes with brick shuttering are not made entirely of brick. The brick was simply used as a form of shuttering and often conceals a core of reinforced concrete. Although not within the scope of this recording guide, it is a good idea to consider accurately recording the shuttering marks at a later date. Assessing methods of construction is a rarity but is a necessity when recording wartime structures.
We have also started to draw conclusions about the pillbox’s camouflage and orientation. It’s worth noting that the entrance of a pillbox faces away from the direction the enemy were expected to approach the structure. This was to ensure that the entrance didn’t immediately come under fire, trapping the occupants inside. This is true for most pillboxes, however be aware that a few pillbox designs feature entrances that face forwards; so be sure to use some discretion when recording the orientation. If you are unsure, then simply record which direction the entrance faces and summarise your observations.
Measurements should be taken in metric as that’s the industry standard (metres). However, as wartime structures were constructed using the imperial system it is a good idea to also record and quote the imperial measurements.
Finally, keeping an eye out for any additions to a structure and working out how the structure has been changed or modified over time is very important. This is known as ‘phasing’ in archaeology. Some pillboxes in Eastern and South-Eastern Commands were ‘thickened’ with additional reinforced concrete to bring them up to ‘shell-proof’ standard from 6 May 1941 (Dobinson, 1996). Evidence for ‘thickening’ would be visible in the fabric of the structure, indicating at least two ‘phases’ of construction.
Back to the Observations
Okay, we’ve completed the observation of the exterior of the pillbox, time to assess the interior.
Before doing so, it’s worth mentioning that it is not a good idea to enter any structures that you can’t see inside. Many wartime structures have been used for fly tipping, so you never know what nasties reside inside. There is quite an obsession with entering wartime structures, but it is not recommended if not safe to do so. Also, some pillboxes and other wartime structures have been repurposed as bat roosts. Disturbing a bat roost is a criminal offence and you will get in trouble if you disturb one. If the entrance is sealed with a door this means you are not to enter the structure.
Don’t be an idiot and break into the structure or attempt to get around obstacles placed to keep you out. Those that enter structures illegally, break and enter or attempt to get around barred entrances to pointlessly access a structure cause serious problems for anyone with a genuine interest in recording wartime structures. They also make surviving structures vulnerable to further anti-social behaviour.
Having completed your observations of the external structure, you make your way into the pillbox. You ascertain that the entrance and interior are clear and safe to enter, so make your way inside. The interior is well illuminated, and you have plenty of headroom available to stand fully upright inside the pillbox.
You note that the blast porch covers an entrance to the pillbox’s main chamber. Interestingly, the entrance features a low lintel that forces you to stoop to enter the chamber. You also realise the lintel acts as an anti-ricochet wall for the loophole in the integral blast-wall. You make a note of this feature. The lintel and adjacent wall are also 0.38m thick, indicating that the pillbox’s main chamber is also constructed to ‘bullet-proof’ standard.
In the centre of the main chamber is a substantial anti-ricochet wall.
You take a measurement for the thickness of this anti-ricochet wall and note that it is 0.38m thick, just like the wall of the pillbox’s blast porch.
Next, you spot that the pillbox’s shorter oblique walls have a different type of loophole to those in the longer walls and blast porch. Again, you make a note of this.
These loopholes feature a recess in the interior, below the loophole. You theorise that these could have held the bi-pod legs of the Bren Light Machine Gun (LMG) issued to infantry sections at the time. There are also bars protruding from below the loopholes, which may have held a wooden shelf that has since rotted away. You note these features.
Just as you turn your attention to the second LMG loophole, you notice a square hole above this particular loophole. This hole slopes significantly from the interior to the exterior. You notice that only one other LMG loophole features this square hole above it. You decide to discuss this with your friend later.
The longer walls feature a slightly higher, but less wide loophole design which also lacks the probable Bren LMG bi-pod recess. You note that these may have been used to fire the .303 Enfield SMLE rifle.
The shuttering marks are also visible on the interior surfaces of the pillbox, showing that a wooden formwork was used to create the interior and loopholes.
That concludes the observation phase within the pillbox. You can always return later to prompt yourself while writing the site description.
Again, I need to stress that you will encounter many other features while investigating your site. Be sure to record as much as possible and use your initiative when considering what to record.
Making Contextual and Strategic Observations
Okay, onto the really important part. Effectively assessing the context of the site/structure you are recording is key to the record. This process includes observing and assessing the location and surrounding landscape for any apparent strategic advantages e.g. the pillbox has been incorporated into an existing landscape feature to camouflage it from a certain direction.
You should also observe any nearby defences or structures in the locality and assess how these would have interacted with the feature you are recording e.g. several pillboxes are visible in relatively close proximity to the pillbox you are recording.
Finally, you should observe the area surrounding the structure you are recording for any associated or supporting defences e.g. you spot a series of barbed wire pickets surrounding the pillbox.
It does take some time to ‘get your eye in’ but with some experience things will start to become more apparent. Remember that the point of making observations is to analyse what you see. If you see something that you aren’t quite sure about you can still record it. Just remember to make this apparent in your written site description.
Looking at the pillbox and its locality, you quickly spot that the pillbox is situated on the apex of rising ground which culminates in the cliff face to the North-East.
Note- The pillbox featured above sits on private property and landowner consent will be required to view it.
From this location the pillbox overlooks the beach to the North-East, the cliffs to the North-West (including a pillbox), and the surrounding fields that lead inland to the South, West and South-East. Your friend points out the location of a further pillbox to the West that has been constructed within an existing hedgerow.
You see that the pillbox is sited perfectly in the landscape to bring effective fire to bear on a series of vulnerable points in the locality. These vulnerable points include:
- The beach 280m to the North-East and the Anti-Tank blocks covering the high-water mark
- The gently sloping cliff leading from the beach to the North-East that could be negotiated by enemy soldiers
- Two other pillboxes in the area. This pillbox was able to put down supporting fire in the area of the adjacent pillboxes, which are approximately 450m away
It is also clear that effective fire could be brought to bear on any enemy infantry attempting to approach the position from the rear. Essentially the pillbox was sited to cover a 360-degree arc with fire.
Your notebook is starting to fill up nicely with bullet point notes and observations.
This is just a basic summary of what you may observe on site. As I said earlier, these skills will come with time.
Other things to keep an eye out for include-
- Bridges and other chokepoints that could funnel infantry or vehicles. If recording a pillbox, or trench, can you see any obvious choke points that the pillbox was sited to cover with fire? This may also include surviving or infilled anti-tank ditches (these would usually come to light during the research phase), beach exits and sharp turns/junctions in the road where vehicles would have to slow down.
- Important buildings. This is particularly useful if recording defences situated on an airfield or within the perimeter of an ordnance factory. Sometimes defences were sited to deny access to important or vulnerable buildings. Defences were usually sited on airfields to cover runways and the perimeter track of the airfield.
- If a pillbox sits in isolation please consider that what it is defending no longer exists. Frequently searchlight batteries and emplacements were provided with a single pillbox to cover the rear of the installation. This is often the most likely explanation for single pillboxes that are not part of a wider defensive landscape.
You may wish to highlight these features on a map or create a simple sketch map showing how these features relate to the pillbox.
At this point I can’t think of any other features to look for in the landscape, so I’ll update this section as more spring to mind. Please do feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below.
The important thing is that you send your initial records to the local Historic Environment Record. You can always send through additional information at a later date.
Having assessed the pillbox’s setting you turn your attention to the pillbox’s immediate surroundings. Your research highlighted some supporting defences including trenches and a substantial barbed wire obstacle in the area.
Making your way around the Eastern side of the pillbox, you spot your friend sat on the sizeable mound where earlier you had written down the details into the form. You notice that a shallow depression zig-zags its way around this earthen bank. It’s a clear and well-preserved trench!
You take a quick look at the trench, spotting some in-situ revetment pickets and also notice that the parados (the rear protective bank that your mate is sat on) obscures the loopholes of the pillbox’s East facing wall! You decide to record this trench later as an independent feature.
Making your way to the front of the pillbox, and the cliff edge (careful!), you see that, as expected, the barbed wire obstacle to the front of the pillbox has been removed. Well, except a single in-situ barbed wire picket on the forward slope of the cliff. You note this feature and take an estimated grid reference for the feature as it isn’t safe to climb down the cliff to take an accurate grid reference.
A look to the South of the pillbox reveals no evidence for the barbed wire obstacle that sat in the area, but you do notice that the trench extends to the rear of the pillbox but stops abruptly where the open field starts.
You find a further trench earthwork on the pillbox’s Western side. This one also stops abruptly as it reaches the extent of the open field. You remember that the aerial photographs you consulted showed a trench surrounding the pillbox. It is likely that the Southern extant of the trench has been ploughed out by subsequent farming activity in the area.
Your friend commends you on identifying the trench they had completely missed! You have successfully identified the remains of this trench and feel very pleased with yourself. This feature has been completely missed by several other people who have visited this pillbox over the years and posted photographs to Facebook. You make further notes that will come in useful when you create a separate record for the trench later.
Now you’ve made your observations, you join your friend on the parados of the trench and pour another cup of tea just in time for Dinner. You discuss what you have both seen and start to compile the site description.
Okay, I’m going to leave things there. This guide is long enough so far. In the next instalment we shall look at writing site descriptions.
Dobinson, C.S., 1996. Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume II: Anti-Invasion defences of WWII. Council for British Archaeology.
Introduction to Field Recording- Part 2: Making Observations & Assessing Strategy by Chris Kolonko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.