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Secrets of the High Woods NMP

A recent NMP survey mapped remarkable archaeological earthworks in the ‘High Woods’ area of West Sussex and eastern Hampshire. This was part of the South Downs National Park ‘Secrets of the High Woods’ project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is a research and community engagement project to explore the archaeology, local history, biodiversity and the heritage of the ‘Wooded Estates’.

Specially commissioned airborne laser scanning data (lidar) revealed archaeological earthworks preserved in the woodland beneath the tree canopy. The NMP contribution included analysis and recording from both lidar data and aerial photographs. This provided an interpreted map of a complex and extensive archaeological landscape, suitable for use by local communities, researchers and managers of the historic environment.

Colour aerial photo showing an area of largely coniferous woodland bounded by arable fields with more fields in the distance
The Roman Road Stane Street, photographed on 18-JAN-2004, extends through and beyond Eartham Wood (mid-centre to top right of frame). Seen from the air, the woods conceal numerous other archaeological earthworks. (NMR 23350/02) © Historic England

A remarkable landscape revealed

The three dimensional lidar data was processed to provide a new aerial view of the area with the tree canopy removed and showing the ground surface beneath. Previously some archaeological remains in the woods had been explored on the ground, but the lidar data revealed the form and extent of archaeological earthworks over very large areas. This demonstrated what archaeologists had long thought - the ‘known’ sites were part of a much greater archaeological landscape.

Greyscale image showing an extensive field system made up of numerous banks. Reproduced by permission of SDNPA
A lidar image of the ground surface beneath the tree canopy of East Dean Wood. It shows the extensive prehistoric field system that is hard to appreciate on the ground and usually hidden from view from the air by the trees. Reproduced by permission of SDNPA. © SDNPA

The High Woods project area contrasts with the rest of the South Downs because it has a higher proportion of woods, many classified by Natural England as Ancient Woodland. The long history of woodland management has led to the remarkable preservation of extensive archaeological earthworks. Most other chalk landscapes in the south of England have been converted to arable use. Arguably, only Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, managed as grassland for military training, has similar extensive remains of earthwork boundaries, settlements and other features ranging in date from the prehistoric to the present.

Colour map showing extensive field system defined by red banks against a largely green background map denoting woodland
NMP mapping of a later prehistoric or Roman coaxial field system in Linchball Wood, Bepton. Background mapping Ordnance Survey © Crown Copyright

Aerial photographs provide a record of the area over the last 50 plus years by recording earthworks and also some buried archaeological features, revealed as cropmarks, in the non-wooded areas. This included settlements and funerary monuments such as Neolithic long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows.

Colour aerial photo showing a field of grass with three circular features seen as paler lines against a dark green background
The buried remains of later Neolithic or Bronze Age funerary monuments are revealed as cropmarks on this oblique aerial photograph taken on 21-AUG-1995 (NMR 15386/19) © Historic England

Lost and Found: Roman Road from Chichester to Arundel

The Roman road from Chichester to Arundel was a significant discovery for the High Woods project. Ivan Margary suggested two potential routes on his map of the roads of south-east Britain published in Roman Roads of Britain (1973). In the absence of any known remains, he suggested the road followed the course of the old Arundel Road. The Secrets of the High Woods NMP project used aerial photographs and lidar to map the road for much of its length. Some sections survive as a significant earthwork agger with side ditches visible and other parts were seen as cropmarks. Traces of possible quarry pits associated with the construction, maintenance and re-working of the road material were also identified. The road, as suspected by Margary, followed the course of Stane Street out of Chichester before branching east at Westhampnett. It then kept a largely straight course to within a couple of miles of Arundel, south of the not-so-straight old Arundel Road.

Old fashioned coloured map with annotations in red and green showing the course of the Roman road
The course of the Roman road through Binsted Wood on the alignment of the last section of the old Arundel road. Extract of mapping overlaid on the Yeakell and Gardener’s 1778-83 map of Sussex. Image © Dr Dominic Fontana University of Plymouth via Old Sussex Mapped website PERMISSION GRANTED ( Original held in WSCC HER.

The NMP contribution to the project

Aerial investigation and mapping specialists from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit and the Historic England Remote Sensing team carried out the interpretation, mapping and description of archaeological features seen on lidar and aerial photographs. This part of the project used Historic England National Mapping Programme (NMP) standards. The NMP contribution mapped a wide range of site types from all periods from the Neolithic to the mid-20th century. It also demonstrated both the great complexity and the intensity of use of the landscape within the project area.

2,298 sites were identified of which almost three-quarters were not previously recorded in the county-held Historic Environment Record databases or the National Record for the Historic Environment. Of the 2,298 sites identified and mapped, 80% were seen as earthworks – a very high proportion compared to the rest of the South Downs and elsewhere.

The Secrets of the High Woods project is using the NMP project data to help target fieldwork and research by project volunteers.

If you'd like to find out more about the results of the NMP aspects of the project read the report here.

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.

staff member Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter is an Investigator with Historic England. He joined the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in 1998. Since 2002 Edward has been involved in a number of multi-period aerial surveys across England; he has a particular interest in the various ways that these landscapes or the individual monuments within them are perceived.

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