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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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Discovering archaeology

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.

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

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)

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.

Protected landscapes

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.

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Group of people standing on a stony mound
Historic Places Investigation

Research Group

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