Heatwave Reveals Lost UK Archaeological Sites

The scorching weeks of the summer of 2018 left crops shrivelled and gardens scorched. It has also revealed the lines of scores of archaeological sites across the UK landscape, tracing millennia of human activity, from Neolithic cursus monuments laid out more than 5,000 years ago to the outline of a long-demolished Tudor hall and its intended replacement. Lost sites have been turning up all over Britain and Ireland, ploughed flat at ground level but showing up as parch marks from the air, in areas where grass and crops grow at different heights, or show in different colours, over buried foundations and ditches. A treasure trove of discoveries, including ancient field boundaries, lost villages, burial mounds and military structures, was revealed on Wednesday, recorded during the summer by aerial archaeologists flying over the landscape for Historic England.

Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said the weeks of very hot weather had provided perfect conditions. “The discovery of ancient farms, settlements and Neolithic cursus monuments is exciting. The exceptional weather has opened up whole areas at once rather than just one or two fields, and it has been fascinating to see so many traces of our past graphically revealed.” The results are still being assessed, but Damian Grady, the aerial reconnaissance manager for Historic England, said, “This has been one of my busiest summers in 20 years of flying.” Helen Winton, the head of aerial investigation and mapping, said it was the best year since 2011, which revealed more than 1,500 sites for the first time.

Prehistoric monuments and settlement near Eynsham, Oxfordshire, have become visible during the hot summer. Photograph: Damian Grady/Historic England.

There is particular excitement over four iron age square barrows at Pocklington in the Yorkshire wolds. Their distinctive shape is rare nationally, but others in Yorkshire have also been excavated to reveal spectacular burials with grave goods including chariots. The discoveries include two cursus monuments near Clifton Reynes, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, which are some of the oldest and most enigmatic prehistoric field monuments in Britain. The long, straight-sided enclosures – some up to several kilometres in length, and laid out between 5,600 and 5,000 years ago – were named by early antiquarians who believed they were used for chariot races, but they are now believed by some to have formed part of ritual processional routes. One of the two discoveries, found as part of aerial photography and laser scanning project in north Bedfordshire, had been hidden under a medieval bank which is gradually being ploughed away.

Among dozens of sites revealed in Cornwall were an unusual prehistoric settlement surrounded by concentric ditches at Lansallos, and an iron age settlement surrounded by a circular ditch with marks of other circular and rectangular structures within one field at St Ive – evidence of continuity of settlement over at least 4,000 years. What is believed to be a Roman farm, with buildings, fields and paddocks, has shown up at Bicton in Devon, and at Stogumber in Somerset four bronze and iron age farms have been spotted, one with signs of having been abandoned and a new settlement built on top. Near Eynsham in Oxfordshire features including a circle of pits and later burial mounds and traces of a settlement, have revealed themselves. They were previously spotted and protected as a scheduled monument, but had been invisible for many years.

Few of the newly identified sites will ever be excavated, but now their location is known many will be given protection from deep ploughing or development. The same effect has been seen in Wales, where newly-revealed sites include a rare early medieval cemetery with square barrows in south Gwynedd and the site of a Roman villa site exposed within the outlines of an already known prehistoric settlement site in the Vale of Glamorgan. Historic Environment Scotland has already revealed a similar harvest in central and southern Scotland, including a Roman camp and iron age burial sites, and in Ireland, a previously unknown henge showed up near Newgrange at Brú na Bóinne, already a World Heritage Site, where another passage tomb was also discovered this summer. The combination of drought and a gorse fire also exposed the word Eire etched on the cliff top on Bray Head, made in the second world war to alert passing bombers that they were flying over the neutral republic.

Credit: Maev Kennedy for The Guardian, 15 August 2018.