‘You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones!’

So screams the hero of Steven Spielberg’s classic horror movie, Poltergeist, shortly before his entire house is engulfed by malevolent spirits and sucked into the cemetery on which it was built.

The subject of his fury is the one true villain of the film (who’s not a ghost, that is) – the site developer.

Apart from giving construction a bad name, the developer’s sharp practice building ‘dream’ homes on a burial ground is directly responsible for all the supernatural mayhem that unfolds.

Unearthing the past

While it’s unlikely that the consequences will be quite so dramatic in real life, construction firms and developers do have to be very careful about how they approach work on ancient burial grounds and historic sites.

With so much of Britain’s long and exciting history written into its buildings and landscapes, these issues come up much more often than you might think.

In fact, 95% of all new archaeological discoveries in this country come through commercial land development – and developers spend more than £150 million every year on archaeology alone.

That’s why working in construction can be so interesting and rewarding. Archaeologists, for instance, have a key role in the industry, researching and advising before work starts, and recording and protecting any important discoveries.

In recent months, construction projects have uncovered mass burial plague pits, an extensive Anglo-Saxon settlement, and the earliest manuscript ever found in Britain – as well as the earliest surviving example of the name ‘London’.

Treading carefully

During an application for planning permission for a project, developers have to show that they’re aware of the ‘heritage assets’ that a site might have, and demonstrate that their plans don’t undermine any historic significance.

Heritage consultants might work with archaeologists to make an ‘evaluation’, which could involve library research, fieldwork and exploratory excavations before and during the development work.

Once the application’s in, the planning authority decides how the developers should minimise their impact, such as through a proper excavation with academic analysis and publication of findings, or a full historic record the building and for posterity.

Consecrated land and burial grounds have their own special laws. Builders can’t just dig up human remains without permission. Guidance from legal advisors and legal assistants save developers huge amounts of time and money in the long run, and help projects run more smoothly.

Skeletons in the closet

Have you ever lived in a haunted house? As many as one in three people say they have. Depending on your viewpoint, sharing your property with ghosts could be a good or a bad thing. On the whole, though, it’s harder to sell places rumoured to be haunted.

Although there are no explicit laws about haunted houses, the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 prevents people from marketing real estate using false or misleading claims. In theory, this could include saying a place isn’t haunted when it is – or vice versa.

Either way, land negotiators do their research so they know about any issues that might affect the value of property. They understand what has potential as a site for development and work closely with lawyers, agents, planners, clients and contractors to make the right decisions and get the best prices.

Fortunately, when it comes to finding out the truth about a property, ghosts are well known to be awful liars. You can see right through them.

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