Archaeology

A Powerful New Free Tool Virtually Maps England’s Archaeological Sites

An innovative and groundbreaking digital archaeology tool will give members of the public an opportunity to explore thousands of archaeological sites all around England, visually and by reading written reports and descriptions. On the Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer , visitors can select and zoom in on any site they choose, to see aerial photographs, read official archaeological reports based on excavations and onsite studies, and learn more about the history of that site and of the people who built and occupied it.

Mapped features around Hadrian's Wall using the new Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer, which provides amazing virtual information and images for thousands of English archaeological sites. (Historic England)

Mapped features around Hadrian’s Wall using the new Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer, which provides amazing virtual information and images for thousands of English archaeological sites.  (Historic England )

An Enormous Database of England’s Archaeological Sites

The Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer has been constructed using an enormous database of information related to countless English archaeological sites. All of it has been uploaded and organized to give virtual tourists unlimited access to England’s ever-expanding archaeological record.

This exciting platform can best be described as a “huge archaeological jigsaw puzzle,” says a spokesperson for Historic England, the preservationist organization that created the Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer and are hosting it on their website .

Over three decades of mapping projects utilizing high-quality aerial photography equipment have been used to make this interactive tool, which is free to use. Detailed instructions are provided to make sure digital tourists can take full advantage of this unique resource.

Curious visitors can see and learn more about England’s most famous archaeological or monumental sites, such as Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall . They can also expand their knowledge of British archaeology by checking out sites that are far less familiar. Virtual tourists who reside in England can find out what’s been discovered in or near their cities and counties, and then go see those sites in person if they wish.

“This new aerial archaeological mapping tool lets people fly virtually over England and drink in its many layers of history,” said Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s chief executive. “It will allow everyone to explore the hidden heritage of their local places and what makes them special. We hope it will give people a springboard to further investigation, whether for research purposes or simply to satisfy curiosity.”

Efforts will be made to update the map in real time, so fresh discoveries can be added to the virtual database as soon as they are announced.

LiDAR technology was also used for the virtual database of England’s archaeological or historical locations, like this spoil heap in the Yorkshire Dales. (Historic England)

LiDAR technology was also used for the virtual database of England’s archaeological or historical locations, like this spoil heap in the Yorkshire Dales. ( Historic England )

Discovering a Landscape Infused with History

For the uninitiated, virtual archaeological tours of the British archaeological landscape are likely to be quite educational. The layperson may not realize just how bountiful that landscape is, and they may be both delighted and enlightened by what their online travels reveal.

As virtual tourists complete their aerial surveys, they will see structures and markings that date back as far as 6,000 years. Some of these Neolithic period highlights include the remains of flint mines, huge burial mounds, and large circular earthworks known as causewayed enclosures.

Moving across the landscape and forward in time, virtual travelers will see and learn more about Bronze Age (2,500 BC to 800 BC) round burial mounds, Iron Age (800 BC to 100 AD) hill forts, and Roman camps constructed during the first through fourth centuries AD. They will see evidence of medieval era farming activity and look down on the ruins of 18th and 19th century coal mines.

Visitors will marvel at the size of the remaining structures at a First World War training camp in Staffordshire, where as many as 20,000 soldiers were barracked at any given time. At Newhaven in East Sussex, they can visit World War II anti-invasion installations along the coastline, and then move on to see the well-preserved remains of military camps and airfields built in Yorkshire and East Anglia.

Of course, if they’re interested in learning more about Stonehenge, Avebury, and other prehistoric monumental sites, they can zoom in on all the standing stones that archaeologists and historians have discovered and catalogued over the centuries. From the comfort of their own homes, they can re-create virtually a quest that hundreds of thousands of people undertake in England each and every year.

Using the Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer , virtual tourists can gain an important big-picture perspective. This tool integrates the various archaeological features that decorate the English countryside, allowing them to be seen “not just as individual sites, but as part of complex, multi-period landscapes,” in the words of Historic England.

A LiDAR aerial mapping project undertaken by the National Trust on the Wallington Estate in Northumberland, England, has identified 120 new archaeological features, including prehistoric sites from as early as 2000 BC. (National Trust)

A LiDAR aerial mapping project undertaken by the National Trust on the Wallington Estate in Northumberland, England, has identified 120 new archaeological features, including prehistoric sites from as early as 2000 BC. ( National Trust )

Unlocking the Immense Potential of LiDAR

One tool that has dramatically expanded the capacities of aerial archaeology is called LiDAR, which is an acronym that stands for Light, Detection, and Ranging. This sophisticated technology uses laser scanning to create three-dimensional and precisely calculated images of the Earth’s surface, often revealing hidden underground and above-ground ruins in the process.

Data gained through the use of LiDAR has already been added to the Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer database. In the long run, this exciting technology will dramatically expand archaeological knowledge about what lies beneath the surface of the English landscape, especially in areas that haven’t yet been fully surveyed (about half of English territory).

A recent project that is revealing LiDAR’s immense capabilities is taking place at Wallington Estate in Northumberland . The National Trust has been using lidar technology to survey the 13,500-acre (13-hectare) site, to identify the best location for the planting of 75,000 trees from species native to Britain. At the same time LiDAR is revealing fascinating details about the history of the farmstead and has so far detected the existence of ruins and other features that can be traced back as far as 2,000 BC.

With the assistance of LiDAR, archaeologists have found the remains of early farming systems at Wallington that were in use before the 18th century, including signs of “ridge and furrow” cultivation techniques. More details about previously discovered Iron Age camps and hillforts have been disclosed through via laser imagery, and the imprints of pathways that may have been traveled in prehistoric times have also been detected.

“This is an exciting moment in the 5,000-year history of this special estate,” exclaimed Mark Newman, the National Trust’s archaeological consultant. “All these discoveries will be investigated further to ensure none are impacted by the upcoming planting plans, and to preserve their archaeology for future study.”

As this project and other projects utilizing LiDAR continue, all the new revelations will be added to the interactive Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer system. This empowering tool has come online at just the right time, as Historic England is now ready to provide the public with unprecedented virtual access to the constantly accumulating English archaeological record.

Top image: More than 500,000 high-res digital images, such as this aerial photo of Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, were used for Historic England’s virtual archaeological sites map.  Source: Dave MacLeod / Historic England

By Nathan Falde


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