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Suffolk Coast National Mapping Programme

An examination of aerial photographs, to National Mapping Programme (NMP) standards, provided a comprehensive record of archaeological features that are visible on aerial photographs in Suffolk's coastal zone, river estuaries and the surrounding areas

The NMP project formed part of the Suffolk County Council Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey (RCZAS), which also involved a field survey project of the inter-tidal areas.

Colour aerial photograph showing low lying sandy promontory, partially grassed over, with sea, rivers and pools of standing water
The dynamic nature of the coast, as seen on 23 April 2004 at Orfordness. Areas of the coast are experiencing ongoing accretion. The formation processes effect the survival and visibility of archaeological features (NMR 23434/03). © Historic England

Intertidal, coastal and estuarine archaeology

The archaeology of the Suffolk coast has been influenced and affected by a variety of factors. These are both historical, such as the medieval drainage and reclamation of the salt marsh, and on-going such as coastal erosion and accretion, river dredging and housing development.

The NMP project was particularly focused on the coastal and inter-tidal zones, where sites are often located in areas that ground-based surveys find difficult to reach. Reviewing historic photography dating from the 1940s onwards enabled the recording of features in zones that have since been lost to erosion or obscured by shifting river silts.
On the eroding coast most features surveyed related to coastal anti-invasion defences from the Second World War, whilst in the areas of reclamation there were Roman salt production sites and features relating to post medieval drainage.

In the inter-tidal zone of the estuaries timber structures of varying dates were recorded along with post medieval oyster pits. On the higher ground above the estuaries, fragments of extensive prehistoric or Roman ditched field systems were visible as cropmarks.

The project also mapped and recorded some of the archaeology that is located inland of the coast and estuaries in order to give a broader understanding of Suffolk's coast. Therefore it has been possible to accurately record, for the first time, some of Suffolk's earliest historic landscapes that were visible as cropmarks on the aerial photographs.

The NMP results paint a picture of a coastline with a complex topographical and archaeological history and with huge potential for further research.

Colour aerial photograph of sea and sand with sunlight reflecting off it. A large
A wooden fish trap in Holbrook Bay in the Stour Estuary photographed on 17-APR-2003. Comparison with other fishtraps in Essex suggests that it could be of Saxon date (NMR 23065/24). © Historic England

A brief but dramatic effect

The Second World War had a large impact on the Suffolk coast. Following the invasion of France in 1940, extensive coastal anti-invasion defences were rapidly constructed that stretched almost continuously along the coast.

It is possible to see these defences in great detail on contemporary wartime photographs, ranging from anti-aircraft gun batteries to barbed wire barriers and pillboxes.

Most of these defences were quickly removed once the war ended, but it is important that the complexity of their original form has been recorded to help us understand what remains today.

B&W vertical aerial photograph showing coastal area with beach full of pits, lots of small cubes then other banks and ditches
WW2 anti-invasion defences north of Aldeburgh, on 17-DEC-1941. The defences on this stretch of coast included a minefield, rows of anti-tank cubes, barbed wire and an anti-tank ditch (RAF/2A/BR167 V 0006-0008). Historic England RAF Photography.


The publication 'Suffolk's Defended Shore' examines the remains of the coastal defences.

Suffolk’s Defended Shore: Coastal fortifications from the air

Suffolk’s Defended Shore: Coastal fortifications from the air

Published 15 July 2007

Presents an illustrated history of the development of military defences on the Suffolk coast using data collected as part of the English Heritage national survey. This survey included examination of modern and historic aerial photographs.


Suffolk RCZAS - National Mapping Programme report

Suffolk RCZAS - National Mapping Programme report

Published 31 December 2005

The Suffolk Coastal NMP project involved the interpretation, mapping and recording of all archaeological features visible on aerial photographs in the coastal and estuarine areas of Suffolk.

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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