Northern Ireland's archaeology ranges from sites and monuments to maritime remains. The Historic Environment Division works in conjunction with external bodies in order to excavate, survey, catalogue, protect and conserve our archaeology.

About archaeology

Archaeologists aim to understand past societies and cultures by studying the material evidence they left behind. The modern landscape of Northern Ireland contains evidence of over 9,000 years of human activity surviving as archaeological sites and monuments, archaeological objects and maritime remains around our coastline. These range from tombs, castles, churches and settlements to the more personal objects associated with people's daily lives in the past.

Archaeological survey and excavation are two of the main tools employed by archaeologists to discover and record this diverse and often fragile evidence. All the information recorded during an archaeological excavation or survey is submitted to the Sites and Monuments Record, to improve our knowledge base, be made publicly accessible and contribute towards future research.

Archaeological excavation and survey in Northern Ireland

Archaeological excavations may be undertaken for various reasons, including for research purposes, as part of conservation repairs to a monument, or in advance of development as a condition of planning approval. Archaeological excavation involves meticulous recording of archaeological objects and remains, but unfortunately through this process archaeological features and layers are destroyed. Archaeological excavations are therefore only carried out as a last resort and it is essential that they are of a high standard and undertaken by suitably qualified personnel. An archaeological excavation licence is required for all archaeological excavations in NI, or to search for archaeological objects. We are the licensing authority in NI and issue 200-300 excavation licenses each year.

Our staff undertake archaeological fieldwork and survey as well as commissioning archaeological surveys and excavations as part of our role to protect, preserve and promote Northern Ireland's archaeological heritage.

Archaeology found on Road Improvement Schemes

As part of our work to help communities realise the value of their heritage, HED often works with and advises other government departments and the private sector. HED collaborates with colleagues in Department for Infrastructure (DfI) Roads to help deliver efficient new road improvements schemes crucial to our economy while preserving and recording archaeological remains. Two major archaeological projects which took place along the A1 road improvements from Lisburn to Newry and the A4 and A5 road improvements from Dungannon to Ballygawley have been published by DfI Roads as PDF documents and are freely available on line.  

  • Down the Road highlights the archaeological features uncovered on the A1 road improvement schemes between Lisburn and Newry
  • Road to the West highlights the archaeological features uncovered on the A4 and A5 road improvement scheme from Dungannon to Ballygawley

Archaeological excavation licence

A licence is required to search for archaeological objects or to carry out an archaeological excavation. All archaeological excavations must be carried out under the direction of a qualified archaeologist, licensed by us. 

A licence application must be submitted for every excavation, by the archaeologist who will direct the work, at least four weeks before the date on which work is due to begin.

Structure and contacts

View the Historic Environment Division structure and contacts

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