30 August 2010

Summer of 2010 a “vintage year” for archaeology, says English Heritage

The presence of long past civilisations is being uncovered in amazing detail thanks to the exceptionally dry early summer weather and the Icelandic ash cloud. Throughout the summer, hundreds of cropmark sites from Neolithic long barrows to World War II military remains have been recorded from the air by English Heritage.

This prehistoric circular enclosure in Holderness is new to the record and has no local parallel.

This prehistoric circular enclosure in Holderness is new to the record and has no local parallel.

Roman camp discovered in Dorset

One of the most interesting discoveries was a Roman camp in Dorset – a lightly built defensive enclosure that provided basic protection for Roman soldiers while on manoeuvres in the first century AD. It is relatively rare in the south west of England with only three others known in the region.

Many known sites were also photographed revealing impressive new detail, including Newton Kyme, near Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Dating back nearly 2,000 years the rectangular Roman fort is known to have an earth and timber bastion, but aerial survey this summer revealed a stronger defence built in 290 AD covering seven hectares, with stone walls up to three metres thick and a ditch 15 metres wide.  An image, taken from a Cessna light aircraft, clearly shows the massive ditches of the defences with many signs of buildings, roads and other activity within the fort.  More details about the earlier fort enclosed within the later one were also exposed.

Newton Kyme Roman fort, North Yorkshire.

Newton Kyme Roman fort, North Yorkshire. The dry conditions revealed a wealth of detail within the fort, with ditches and pits showing as dark green.

A vintage year for cropmarks in recent memory

English Heritage says that this has been a vintage year for the appearance of cropmarks in the landscape - the ghostly outline of vanished structures and settlements, some many thousands of years old, which still survive under the soil.

Dave MacLeod, English Heritage Senior Investigator based in York, said: “It’s hard to remember a better year.  Cropmarks are always at their best in dry weather, but the last few summers have been a disappointment.  This year we have taken full advantage of the conditions.  We try to concentrate on areas that in an average year don’t produce much archaeology. Sorties to the West Midlands and Cumbria, together with more local areas such as the Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York, have all been very rewarding.”

Flights over the Holderness area of the East Riding have proved especially productive with around 60 new sites being found in just one day. Mainly prehistoric, they included livestock and settlement enclosures, field systems and trackways.  Aerial survey flights from airfields at Oxford and Sherburn-in-Elmet (near York) have also revealed a wealth of information. Some sites not visible since the drought year of 1976 have appeared again, well studied sites have revealed surprising new details, and many new sites have been discovered.

Roman Camp in Dorset

Roman Camp in Dorset
© English Heritage

The ash cloud grounded all planes except the Cessna

Damian Grady, English Heritage Senior Investigator based in Swindon, said: “This year’s summer got off to an unusual start when the Icelandic ash cloud closed down a lot of airspace to jet aircraft.  Fortunately the piston-powered Cessnas used by aerial archaeologists were not affected by the ash, so it was easier to undertake planned flights inside airspace around Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Bristol airports.  

“Promising signs started to emerge in late May when the dry conditions had started to reveal cropmarks on well drained soils, especially river gravels and chalk in the East and South East of England.  By June it became clear that the continuing dry conditions would produce good results across most of the country.  We then targeted areas that do not always produce cropmarks, such as clay soils, or have seen little reconnaissance in recent years due to recent wet summers or busy airspace.

“Unfortunately July saw deterioration in the weather which reduced the amount of flying we could do and the cropmarks started to disappear just before the harvest got underway.  It will take some time to take stock of all the sites we have photographed, but we expect to discover several hundred new sites across England.”

Aerial survey