Colour aerial photograph showing a pattern of darker green lines on a background of a yellow in a field under crop
The multiperiod landscape at Standlake, Oxon photographed on 24-AUG-1990 (NMR 4609/33) © Crown copyright.HE
The multiperiod landscape at Standlake, Oxon photographed on 24-AUG-1990 (NMR 4609/33) © Crown copyright.HE

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.

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.

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:

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. We have recently reviewed our technical standard for how we go about this.

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.

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.

Research questions about the archaeology of the deeper past

Research will have impact if it helps us bring together and synthesise the evidence recovered both from a quarter century of archaeological reports, and from the 4,000-5,000 new investigations carried out by the sector each year. It will examine the breadth and diversity of monument and settlement types and help to establish new priorities for fieldwork within the wider context of cultural research into past societies.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What is the grand narrative of the first 99% of human habitation of what is now England?
  • What new settlement or monument types are being discovered through survey or field investigation, and what should be there but has not yet been identified?
  • How can the sector ensure better co-ordination of our understanding to aid in the conservation and management of an irreplaceable resource?
  • How can we better investigate, understand and apply existing statutory protection to more challenging types of monument, such as those lacking defined structures or only surviving as ephemeral evidence, and which are most vulnerable?
  • How can we improve public understanding of the archaeology of the prehistoric, Roman and early medieval periods in a way that inspires a modern audience, and helps its protection and management?

If you would like to collaborate with us in answering these questions please contact [email protected]. For other enquiries about this area of research please use the contact below.

Research Reports Map

Explore our research reports with this map which is an on-going project that allows access to the majority of research reports produced for place-based projects. It covers most types of non-invasive surveys, including scientific analysis, such as tree ring dating and archaeobotany.

Research Reports Map

Archaeological Investigation