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Archaeological Landscapes

The "terrestrial landscape" is a treasure-trove of visible and hidden clues about the past. We discover buried and above ground archaeological sites and landscapes using aerial photography, lidar, geophysics, earthwork analysis and excavation.

These techniques help us understand the patterns and development of  the landscape from prehistory through to the 20th century.

We use archaeological survey and observation to promote understanding of what makes England’s countryside so varied and special. This knowledge helps people to value and protect our historic environment.

Colour aerial photograph showing moorland, pasture, woods and the southern edge of the Lake District in the far distance
The varied landscapes viewed south and east from Kendal including the Lyth Valley, Morecombe Bay, the Irish Sea and the southern edge of the Lake District (NMR 28374/039). © Historic England

Landscape from coasts to mountains

The "terrestrial landscape" is the whole country from the coast to the highest mountains and everything in between. At Historic England we use the term mainly to describe the landscape beyond the limits of modern towns and cities.

Urban development extends across only 10.6% of England, so there is a lot of ground to cover. Therefore, much of our landscape work is strategic, addressing areas affected by major forces such as global warming, coastal erosion, or changing use of the countryside.

Whether the subject is a whole landscape or just one particular monument within it, the aims are the same: to identify and understand the evidence, share that knowledge and ensure that our heritage is appreciated and properly conserved.

Colour aerial photo of an arable field where buried ditches, marking out enclosures, show as darker green areas in the crops
A discovery from aerial reconnaissance in South-West Cambridgeshire. Buried remains of extensive Iron Age and/or Roman settlement and land division revealed from the air as cropmarks (NMR 27042/41) © Historic England

A treasure-trove of clues

The landscape is an astonishing repository of evidence about the past and is highly varied across England. Our countryside contains many different clues to past land use within and beneath the current patterns of fields and villages.

Identification and understanding of archaeological remains is essential for informed heritage management – we cannot protect something if we do not know where, and what, it is.

We use analytical earthwork survey to explore and understand above ground archaeological remains. Extensive buried remains are revealed as cropmarks on aerial photographs or through geophysical survey. These provide clues to past settlements, farming regimes and burial practices. Excavation, archaeological science, or collection of artefacts from the surface provides further evidence of how people lived, farmed and buried their dead.  Ideally, we combine information from many techniques to better understand the evolution of a landscape. When collated in a historic environment record, it becomes part of the archaeological record – available to all – and can inform decisions about future change.

There are usually three approaches when studying landscapes:

Colour aerial photograph of a light aircraft flying over an arable field with archaeological cropmarks in the Thames valley
Archaeological prospection using a light aircraft to look for buried archaeological remains revealed as cropmarks. This site near Down Ampney in the Thames Valley was photographed on 06-JUL-2006 (NMR 24511/003). © Historic England

Large area surveys: hidden heritage and landscapes

We identify and record archaeological features over large areas, through a combination of aerial reconnaissance and investigation of photographs and airborne laser scanning (lidar) data held in national and local archives.
Large area mapping and assessment collates the information from numerous aerial sources and depicts the form and extent of archaeological information from different periods and with differing levels of visibility on the ground.

The composite map encourages a layered view of the landscape, where the aerial evidence, and information from other sources and survey techniques, provides glimpses of the changing use of an area over thousands of years.
This is an important viewpoint in terms of heritage protection which considers all known aspects of past land use in the context of managing future change.

Information from large area projects can be used for research and further work using different techniques. When incorporated into historic environment records, the aerial photograph and lidar mapping provides essential information on the extent and nature of archaeological sites to inform management and the planning process.

It also allows us to identify sites over large areas and then focus on key elements of the landscape. These can then be targeted for the application of other techniques, including analytical earthwork survey, geophysical survey and small-scale excavation.

The knowledge gained from this can then be used to identify appropriate heritage protection measures at local, regional and national levels. All the results of the projects are fed into historic environment records to assist strategic planning and management initiatives.

A range of strategic large area projects identify, record and improve understanding of sites and landscapes across England, using National Mapping Programme (NMP) standards. Historic England staff work closely with Local Authorities, and other partners to ensure projects are focused on key areas potentially under threat from agriculture, strategic development, or where there is simply a lack of knowledge.

Colour photograph showing a man using GNSS survey equipment on a grassy field near the coast with the sea in the background
Archaeological investigation on the ground leads to new discoveries, as here at Stoupe Brow on the Yorkshire coast, where a detailed survey of the earthworks reveals the plan of an 18th-century alum works. © Historic England: Photo Dave Went

Surveys to understand archaeology on the ground

National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS) methods were devised to explore how combined techniques can be used to address heritage protection across large areas. The projects cover different types of landscape with different challenges for archaeological survey and different heritage management issues. 

Related areas of research

Coastal survey

An area of particular concern is England’s coastline, frequently subject to dynamic forces, and increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. Historic England supports a particular programme of integrated landscape survey – the Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment – which aims to provide complete coverage of a one kilometre band above low water around the entire English coast.

Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC)

Historic Landscape Characterisation- or HLC-  draws together information from historical maps, aerial imagery and archaeological records to provide a broad view of the whole landscape and the extent to which its present appearance is a reflection of the past.

The resulting maps and interpretations, usually created for individual counties, offer a powerful tool for those concerned with the big decisions about tomorrow’s landscape, as well as a valuable aid to further areas of archaeological research.

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Historic Places Investigation

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