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.
Terrestrial landscape and the heritage record
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.
Even so, you might be surprised to know that urban development extends across only 10.6% of England, which leaves us with a lot of ground to cover.
Therefore, much of our work is strategic, addressing areas of the landscape affected by major forces such as global warming, coastal erosion, or changing use of the countryside.
But 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.
Together these activities form part of Historic England’s Action Plan and previously fell under those parts related to Identifying Terrestrial Assets using non-intrusive survey .
Our work usually involves looking at large areas using aerial investigation and mapping to provide a framework for more detailed ground based work.
Our surveys to identify archaeology currently exploring ways of doing this in parts of the Lakes and Dales, West Wiltshire and South-West Cambridgeshire. Other re cent landscape-scale projects include the Hoo Peninsula, Mendip Hills and North Pennines. We also contribute to strategic work on the coast.
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.
We discover our hidden heritage through a variety of techniques. The most common features are archaeological earthworks and buried remains. The latter may be seen as cropmarks on aerial photographs or through geophysical survey.
Other types of evidence are recovered through excavation, archaeological science, or collection of artefacts from the surface. These clues build up a picture of past settlement, agriculture, ceremony, industry, warfare, status and display.
Identification of these remains is essential for informed heritage management – we cannot protect something if we do not know where, and what, it is.
Ideally information from many techniques is combined 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.
Historic England promotes use of different techniques to investigate the terrestrial landscape and identify significant aspects which add to our understanding of the past.
We explore many aspects of the landscape dating from prehistory through to the twentieth century. This includes investigating key discoveries within these landscapes in greater detail.
Historic England’s specialist teams include experts in aerial reconnaissance and survey, analytical field survey, geophysical survey and all aspects of landscape archaeology. Our projects apply and develop national standards for new technologies and techniques. We fund surveys by others and support training amongst universities and amateur research groups.
Related areas of research
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)
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.
Characterisation and aerial survey, in particular, reinforce Historic England’s commitment to the principles of the European Landscape Convention and have also been deployed frequently, with other forms of landscape archaeology, to inform management within England’s most highly valued and protected landscapes.
Working under our ‘Joint Accord’ with the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) authorities, we have conducted investigation projects in almost all of these protected landscapes, including some of their most recent additions and extensions.
Historic Places Investigation
Also of interest...
Discovering our hidden heritage through remote sensing, aerial reconnaissance, aerial photograph mapping, lidar and geophysics
Current Historic England projects use a landscape-based approach to identify and characterise archaeological features
Historic England experts use airborne remote sensing methods to identify, record and monitor the condition of heritage assets
Historic England experts investigate how geophysics and specialist survey methods can be used to learn about heritage assets
Landscape Survey: the recording and analytical methods we use when investigating sites and areas on the ground.
Historic England surveys are leading to a deepened understanding of the past landscapes of Lancashire and Cumbria.
The changing archaeological landscape of west Wiltshire, impacted by development and agriculture.