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NAIS South-West Cambridgeshire

The project covers an area south and west of Cambridge and will look at how remote sensing data can be used alongside the results of developer-funded archaeology to inform heritage protection and planning.

It is the third in a suite of new projects designed to integrate aerial mapping with other techniques of archaeological investigation. The aim is to identify the most significant sites and monuments and improve understanding and protection of the historic landscape as a whole. It is due to be completed in 2016.

The south-west Cambridgeshire landscape

Our knowledge of the archaeology of south-west Cambridgeshire and adjacent parts of north Hertfordshire is currently patchy. While the area west of Cambridge has seen a number of large development-led investigations, there is little remote sensing data to fill the gaps between these, whereas further south more cropmark sites are known but there is less excavation evidence.

The project area covers a lowland landscape stretching from the Fen edge to Therfield Heath, and including the valleys of the Cam (or Rhee) and the Bourn Brook. Despite the amount of recent development, the area has seen less systematic survey than the Fens to the north.

The project area is topographically and geologically diverse, presenting challenges to the use of remote sensing techniques. The northern half of the area largely comprises Jurassic clays, partly covered by glacial till, while the southern half is dominated by chalk. A band of Gault and Upper Greensand separates the two major geological zones.

Known heritage assets in the area range from Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows to Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, medieval moated sites – many of which survive as earthworks – the 18th-century designed landscape of Wimpole Hall, and 20th-century military activity.

In recent years large-scale excavations at Cambourne and Northstowe have revealed a higher density of later prehistoric and Romano-British occupation on the claylands than was previously suspected.

Colour aerial photograph showing cropmarks of a possible Roman villa in an arable field
A possible Romano-British farmstead showing as cropmarks on the clay east of Hardwick, photographed on 9 July 2010 (NMR 26834/010) © Historic England

Protecting Cambridgeshire's heritage

Threats to the archaeological resource, especially in the northern part of the project area, include the likelihood of future development around the new towns of Cambourne and Northstowe, and on a smaller scale in several of the historic villages.

Major transport routes in the area, especially the A14 and A428, are likely to be upgraded, while there are proposals for a new railway line between Sandy and Cambridge. The project will have a particular focus on contextualising the results of past and ongoing developer-funded work, in order to inform future planning for housing and infrastructure.

In other parts of the project area, especially on the chalk soils in the south, the main land use is arable agriculture. Arable farming reveals buried archaeological features such as cropmarks but can also degrade earthworks and other archaeological sites, as shown by the number of scheduled monuments at risk from ploughing in the area.

The results of the project will aid management of this landscape by enhancing the local Historic Environment Record (HER) and other databases, and by raising awareness of its archaeological potential among curators, academics and local communities.

Greyscale image showing stylised landscape with agricultural activity from different periods
Lidar-derived image showing agricultural activity east of Conington, with earthen banks overlain by medieval ridge and furrow (top right) and more recent fields. LIDAR TL3566 Environment Agency last return 4 May 1999 © Environment Agency 2014

Stage 1 aerial mapping

The first stage of the project comprises aerial investigation work undertaken to National Mapping Programme (NMP) standards. This work is ongoing but it has already begun to reveal many interesting sites and landscape features in the northern part of the project area:

  • A narrow band of cropmarks follows the length of the Bourn Brook. The nature of the archaeology is defined by Iron Age/Roman linear trackways following the course of the brook, abutted by numerous rectilinear enclosures.
  • The glacial tills over clay north of the A428 would not usually be conducive to the formation of good cropmarks, but the summer of 2013 yielded moderately good results. The archaeology comprises nucleated multi-phase settlement complexes with no obvious indication of surrounding field systems. Most are thought to be Iron Age and/or Roman in date.
  • In the north of the project area the peats, sands and gravels along the fen edge reveal a complex cropmark landscape, including a group of Neolithic/Bronze Age funerary monuments as well as Iron Age/Roman field systems and settlements.
  • Earthworks largely comprise medieval ridge and furrow, accompanied by settlement remains around most of the existing villages, as well as numerous moated sites.
  • The area has also revealed a network of slight linear earthwork banks, mainly visible on lidar but with some examples noted as soilmarks on air photographs. Some of these features exceed 5km in length, extending across several parishes, and are subdivided by additional banks, presumably of later date. They are most likely early medieval in origin as they appear to respect the known Roman roads and have visible associations with existing (and earthwork) settlements.

Aerial photograph of earthwork remains in pasture surrounded by ploughed fields
Great Childerley, photographed on 11-JAN-2014, is one of the best preserved examples of the medieval settlement remains which survive as earthworks throughout the project area (NMR 27910/01)

Next steps

The aerial photographic mapping will be completed later in 2015. After this a programme of ground-based fieldwork will be implemented in order to better understand selected features of the types mentioned above, and possibly also to look at areas that appear blank on the aerial photographs. In the meantime a few earthwork sites in the areas already mapped will be subject to analytical field survey.

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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