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Identification of Terrestrial Assets by Non-Intrusive Survey NHPP Activity 3A4

Research carried out 2011-2015, focused on detection and interpretation of archaeological remains. We mainly used non-intrusive survey techniques over large areas, recording thousands of new archaeological sites. This formed part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

Photograph of a light aircraft engaged in aerial recconnaissance over a cropmark site
Historic England aerial reconnaissance of a cropmark of a late prehistoric settlement in the Upper Thames Valley near Down Ampney. 24511_003 6 July 2006 © Historic England

Scope of the activity

A key stage in heritage protection is the discovery and understanding of the significance of archaeological sites and landscapes. The projects under NHPP Activity 3A4 achieved this by three main methods:

  • A national programme of aerial reconnaissance: discovering and recording archaeological sites visible as cropmarks, earthworks and structures.
  • A national programme of mapping and recording from aerial photographs and lidar (airborne laser scanning) and other remote sensing data.
  • Multidisciplinary surveys of selected historic landscapes and sites.

Image showing mapping of features identified from Aerial photographs onto a base map
Air photo mapping by Cornwall HES of the area to the west of Dorchester © English Heritage. Base map © Crown Copyright and database right 2012. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100019088

Protection results

This Activity aimed to ensure that sites and landscapes were properly recorded and understood in terms of their significance.

The protection of archaeological remains or “assets” relies first and foremost on knowing about them, either individually or as components of broader historic landscapes. The programmes outlined below have mapped an area equivalent to 4705 square kilometres, resulting in the creation of 16,720 new monument records and significant updates to 4,853 records. These findings are made available to all those with an interest in understanding and conserving the historic environment. Direct protection results include the supply of information for designation, the planning process, and land management agreements.

Image showing detailed mapping of a site using a combination of aerial survey and ground survey techniques
Gossipgate Romano-British village, Alston, Cumbria; mapped from the air using lidar and interpreted through detailed earthwork survey on the ground © Historic England

Project areas

Identification of assets from aerial reconnaissance

Aerial reconnaissance is a cost effective method of identifying archaeological sites, carried out over large areas. We operate two reconnaissance centres, one from Swindon and one from York.

Four teams of locally based fliers funded by the National Heritage Protection Commissions Programme further enhanced this. Local flier projects were based in Cornwall, Essex, Herefordshire and Shropshire: areas that are not always easy for our teams to cover. In addition, in Essex a survey of online sources, such as Google Earth, was used to add to the information on sites in the Uttlesford and Epping areas to the Historic Environment Record (HER).

To make flying time as efficient as possible, a variety of photographs were taken to support a number of NHPP measures at the same time, including: discovering new sites, monitoring the condition of monuments and designed landscapes, architectural recording and landscape characterisation (NHPP Measure 3, 4 and 6).

The key results of this activity were new discoveries and records of nationally and locally significant heritage assets and landscapes and an archive of aerial photographs for use in a number of NHPP and other initiatives. Records for the sites are available on the PastScape website).  

Identification and contextual understanding from aerial photographs/lidar mapping to provide base level protection

Much of the archaeological information on aerial photographs was not previously been systematically included in local or national records. Through NHPP, archaeologists made information available by interpreting and synthesising information on lidar data (airborne laser scanning) and thousands of aerial photographs.

Our project teams mapped the extent and form of archaeological remains to build up a picture of extensive landscapes and so provided a deeper understanding, aiding better protection, of the historic environment.

Projects normally used National Mapping Programme (NMP) methods. Staff based in Swindon and York offices and commissioned bodies worked on projects from all around England.

We completed the following national mapping programme projects during the NHPP plan period 2011-2015:

  • North Cotswolds. (Completed 2012).
  • Hull Valley and Chalk Lowlands. (Completed 2012).
  • South Downs Beachy Head-Lewes. (Project completed 2013).  
  • Hampshire Downland. (Project completed 2013).
  • North York Moors Phase 2. (Project completed 2013).
  • Marden Environs, Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire. (Mapping completed).
  • North Devon AONB. (Project completed 2013).
  • Cumbrian Terrestrial Minerals Resource Assessment- see also Activity 2D4 on mineral extraction impacts. (Project completed 2013).
  • Norwich-Thetford-A11 Growth Area. (Mapping completed).
  • New Forest Remembers (in conjunction with a project to record Second World War sites).
  • Yorkshire Henges. (Project completed 2013).
  • South East Warwickshire and Cotswolds Higher Level Stewardship Target Areas. (Mapping completed).
  • South West Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment for Dorset NMP and Devon NMP Components- see also activity 3A2. (Mapping completed).

The main products of NMP are archaeological maps, monument records and reports available from Historic England or the relevant local Historic Environment Record. Find out about the projects or download the reports from the Historic England website.

Integrated survey of target historic landscapes and assets

Within the NHPP plan period, up to 2015, there were surveys within significant but poorly understood or threatened landscapes. These National Archaeological Identification Surveys (NAIS) used mapping from aerial photographs and appropriate targeted ground techniques such as geophysical survey, analytical earthwork survey, architectural survey, field-walking, cartographic and documentary research, excavation, scientific dating, and environmental sampling.

Choice of techniques and sites for groundwork depended on the specific issues and research questions for the chosen area, and were informed by the initial aerial mapping stages.

The main aim of the initial NAIS projects is to develop methods and produce guidance on best practice for recognising and identifying archaeological assets on a landscape scale, leading directly to heritage protection. Protection results will be measured in terms of the knowledge fed into archives, databases and publications suited to those engaged in future planning and management initiatives, but may also include recommendations for statutory designation.

  • NAIS Pilot 1 Upland – Lakes, Dales and Arnside. Stage 1 (air photo mapping and analysis) completed.  Work began on targeted ground-based work using the aerial evidence as a starting point.  
  • NAIS Pilot 1 Lowland – West Wiltshire. Work completed on Stage 1 air photo mapping and analysis.

Earlier projects such as the ‘Mendip Hills’, ‘Miner-Farmers of the North Pennines’ and ‘Hoo Peninsula’ provided examples for the further development of integrated survey approaches. Experience gained from these projects will be incorporated in the NAIS methodology and inform resulting guidance.

Other multidisciplinary surveys completed as part of the Plan are:

  • The Lake District National Park Survey, which in 2012 resulted in a book Cairns, Fields and Cultivation: Archaeological Landscapes of the Lake District Uplands, published though Oxbow.
  • Stiperstones Hills Survey, Shropshire. The report, a revision of an earlier study from 2006, is concerned with management of the monuments in the area. It has been archived with Historic England, the Archaeology Data Service and with Shropshire Historic Environment Record.
  • Marden National Mapping Programme Enhancement. The report of the Geophysical Survey is available online through the Historic England website.

Modern photograph showing a geophysical survey cart with ground penetrating radar in use at Stonehenge
Historic England geophysical team survey the Stonehenge environs using ground penetrating radar, one of the techniques used in 3A4 projects. © Historic England

Links to other activities

The key protection results of this activity included support for the work of local authorities but also for national issues included in the NHPP such as:

It also supported initiatives of other bodies such as the Selected Heritage Inventory for Natural England (SHINE).

A group of Roman specialists gather on the earthwork remains of Whitely Castle, surveyed as part of the Miner- Farmer project
International Roman specialists congregate on the ramparts of Whitley Castle: a Roman fort investigated on the ground, from the air and using geophysical equipment as part of the Miner-Farmer project. © Historic England
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