Salisbury Plain Training Area National Mapping Programme project
The landscape of Salisbury Plain has been actively managed by the army for about 100 years, during which time most of the surrounding chalk upland has been subject to major agricultural activity that has levelled most archaeological remains. In contrast, sites from earliest prehistory survive on Salisbury Plain as well-preserved earthworks. The NMP project was aimed at recording not only the well-known isolated features, but the landscapes in between.
The Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) Mapping Project was an internal project forming part of English Heritage's National Mapping Programme (NMP). It grew out of earlier work by the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England, who had been active on the Plain since the creation of Archaeological Site Groups (ASGs) under the auspices of the Salisbury Plain Working Party in 1986.
Previously work had been very largely field-based and covered small areas at a large scale. For the NMP project all archaeological features surviving as either upstanding earthworks or visible only as cropmarks were recorded. The 1:10,000 transcriptions are available from the Historic England Archive (formerly the National Monuments Record Centre).
By using aerial photography dating back to the 1920s the survey mapped, interpreted and classified not only extant sites, but also those which have long since been destroyed by military activity or the steady encroachment of ploughing around the edges of the Plain. In spite of the long history of interest in the Plain over 1,800 entirely new sites, 43.7% of the records for the project, were added to the record.
Salisbury Plain Training Area is an operational training area still used by the army today. As a result access for low-level specialist oblique photography is heavily restricted and therefore, unlike other areas previously covered by NMP such as the Thames Valley, the majority of photographs covering the area are non-specialist vertical photographs (especially RAF and USAAF).
The uneven distribution of specialist cover, with a heavy bias towards the eastern zone, which is used largely for vehicle activity rather than live firing, is clearly visible in the distribution map of oblique photographs.
This is in stark contrast to the overall distribution of sites that can be seen to cover pretty much the whole of the project area. However, the use of vertical photographs, which had a more even distribution, helped to redress the imbalance from the lack of specialist reconnaissance.
Salisbury Plain in the twentieth century
In the 1930s OGS Crawford, the founding father of aerial archaeology, noted that Salisbury Plain had been so damaged by military activity that archaeological interest should be concentrated on the Marlborough Downs, with a view to designation as a National Park. Unfortunately his advice was ignored and the archaeology of the Marlborough Downs was systematically destroyed by ploughing, something clearly demonstrated by the results of other NMP projects in the region.
The presence of the military, destructive though it has been in specific areas, has helped to protect the Plain from plough damage. As a result it is now probably the best preserved area of upland in southern Britain, with earthwork remains of field systems, settlements and funerary monuments of various periods. On the Plain it is possible to walk along Romano-British streets in one settlement, through its fields and on, into the next settlement.
The image above taken 70 years before that above shows how little has changed on the Plain in that time compared with much of the rest of southern England.
The archaeological remains survive in remarkable condition despite the continued military activity. This is illustrated by the numerous extant Bronze Age barrows and later prehistoric field systems on Snail Down. Much of the damage is historic, with greater care and management of the remains being taken today.
A large number of new archaeological sites were identified in the areas outside the restricted training areas which have been ploughed and cultivated, the remains visible as cropmarks and soilmarks in arable fields and pasture.
A large numberof these new sites were enclosed settlements of presumed prehistoric date. This was an important finding as the Plain had previously been thought to hold very little in the way of enclosed prehistoric settlement.
As well as the individual sites, the production of transcriptions showing how all the various features related to one another in the landscape was highly valuable. This information helps to provide a context for future management strategies for all the archaeological landscapes on the Plain. In addition, it provides new possibilities for research into settlement patterns and land use from prehistory to the 20th century.
At an even broader scale the use of the data to produce distribution patterns has helped to highlight important findings such as the fact that Bronze Age barrow cemeteries appear to be positioned in proximity to water and also cluster near earlier monuments.
Other key findings from the project can be found in the report or the Salisbury Plain volume above.
The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.
For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.
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