A brief history of the Suffolk Historic Environment Record

Featured Image: SSMR Index Card used when the HER was a paper-based system.

Over the past few weeks, the Historic Environment Record (HER) team have been going through the vast HER archive, revealing interesting facts on how the HER developed.

The Suffolk HER originally started off as the Suffolk Sites and Monuments Record (SSMR). This was a paper-based card index with related paper Ordnance Survey maps. It was created between 1969 and 1974 by Stanley West, who was the part time County Archaeologist for West Suffolk (later becoming the Principal Archaeologist). To create the SSMR index, Stanley West combed through all the Ipswich Museum and Bury Museum Record Index Cards and maps, a set of Ordnance Survey archaeological records and a set of paper Ordnance Survey maps. By 1982, the SSMR card index had grown to 5,900 primary index cards with 2,500 cross referencing period cards.  By this time the present card index and paper system were beginning to show its shortcomings and with computers becoming more commonplace, it became clear that a move to a computerised system would be needed.

In 1983, work began in the SSMR to transfer the site record information onto standardised forms, alongside checking of the paper records in preparation for the move to a computerised system. Further that year a Sirius I microcomputer was purchased. The next significant step was to move all the paper records onto a computer database. As a backup the SSMR cards were copied, with the main set kept in the Bury st Edmunds archaeological offices and the backup kept with the Suffolk Archaeology Unit Office then based in Ipswich. During this computerisation process, the 1:10,560 paper maps were transferred to 1:10,000 film maps, forming the core element of the Sites and Monuments Record.

old print out of records
SSMR Computer Print Out

In 1998, the Suffolk SSMR transferred to its next significant step with a move to a complex relational database with linked Geographical Information System mapping.  This continues today, having been upgraded to newer software or versions of the database and is now known as HBSMR. 

A name change came in the early 2000s following a review by English Heritage on behalf of the government. Due to the increasing range of records encompassing more of the historic and built environment, alongside the archaeological sites, English Heritage (now Historic England) commissioned and published in 2002 and 2004 the Benchmarks for Historic Environment Records, documenting the resource needs required for a Site and Monument Records to reach the first stage of developing into a Historic Environment Record. 

Suffolk Sites and Monuments Record attained Historic Environment Record status in 2006.The Suffolk HER continues to innovate and expand today, for example through the completion of projects such as the Ipswich Urban Archaeology Database (UAD), Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Enhancement and The Suffolk Farmsteads Project. Following the launch of the Suffolk Heritage Explorer website the public can access an abridged version of the Suffolk HER online.

Many colleagues have come and gone over the years who have contributed to the Suffolk HER development into what you can see and access today. A significant contribution was made by Colin Pendleton, who joined the team as a part time Historic Environment Record Officer in 1987 before going full time in 1993. For 27 years Colin enhanced the Suffolk HER. He was also passionate about helping anyone learn about the archaeology in Suffolk as well as being an advocate of work-experience programmes for students. The team now is made up of 4 staff members working tirelessly to ensure the Suffolk HER is maintained and enhanced for the future, for research and to inform development in the planning system.

From its beginnings 53 years ago as a paper record, the Suffolk HER now contains 46,728 digital records ranging from palaeolithic flint tools through to Cold War Military sites revealing Suffolk’s rich and expanding archaeological heritage.

Colin in yellow hi vis
Colin Pendleton (1953-2014)

Find out more

Explore the online HER database and map on the Suffolk Heritage Explorer

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