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South Downs National Mapping Programme

Aerial surveys carried out on the South Downs form a programme of work designed to enhance our understanding of the archaeology within the newly created South Downs National Park.

Colour aerial photograph showing a lnadscape view with a mix of pasture and arable fields
The view looking north across Cissbury Ring towards Chanctonbury Ring on the edge of the South Downs escarpment as captured on 31-MAR-2004; the Weald lies beyond (NMR 23431/24) © Historic England

Past landscapes

Aerial photographs have revealed the earthworks and cropmarks of many prehistoric and later sites across the South Downs. Most widespread of all were the remains of prehistoric or Roman fields, sometimes called ‘Celtic’ fields. Some of the settlements, enclosures and tracks that linked them and the fields together were also seen.

Other prehistoric monuments include Bronze Age burial mounds and, along the ridges and spurs of the Downs, Bronze Age or Iron Age cross-dykes. These usually consist of a single bank and ditch, with the bank on the down-slope.

A number of terraces called strip lynchets have been seen on the scarp of the South Downs. These provide the main evidence for arable farming here during the medieval or post-medieval periods. As these steep slopes are difficult to plough, it may be that they were only cultivated during periods of food shortage due to population pressure, such as during 12th and 13th centuries.

Dewponds provide the best evidence of sheep rearing. These ponds, despite their name, were primarily filled by rainwater and were for livestock that would otherwise have had to be taken to natural water sources off the Downs.

A black and white aerial photograph showing the earthworks of Celtic fields as patterns of banks
This photograph, taken on 21-SEP-1946 shows the pattern of ‘Celtic’ fields across part of the South Downs. These small, straight-sided fields can be seen as earthworks picked out by light and shadow (RAF CPE/UK/1751 4108) © Historic England RAF Photography

Faint traces

Due to the post-war food shortage there were government incentives to plough up land for cereals. Historic aerial photographs show the widespread ploughing-up of downland.

This ploughing not only transformed large areas of downland to arable but also reduced or completely levelled many of the archaeological earthworks seen on earlier photographs. Where lynchets only survive as very slight earthworks they may still show well on lidar (airborne laser scanning). This records subtle differences in topography and displays them in a graphical form as with the image below for an area near the Severn Sisters. The cliff is shown as a black diagonal line, the sea blue and the land in shades of brown and green; the lighter the shade of green the higher the ground. The image is lit from the top left and this picks out the low banks of the ‘Celtic’ fields near the centre of the image running up from the cliff edge.

Colour image showing faint earthwork remains on a stylised landscape in shades of green
A lidar tile of the western end of the Seven Sisters. The cliff is shown as a black diagonal line, the sea blue and the land in shades of brown and green; the lighter the shade of green the higher the ground. The image is lit from the top left and this picks out the low banks of the ‘Celtic’ fields near the centre of the image running up from the cliff edge (Detail of LIDAR TV5296 Environment Agency D0087613 24-29-NOV-2007) © Environment Agency copyright 2007. All rights reserved

Defending the coast

The importance of Newhaven during the Second World War war is partly reflected in the layout of defences erected in 1940 that can be seen on aerial photographs taken that year. They include a series of slit trenches and barbed wire on the open ground to the west of the town and a short line of anti-tank blocks on the beach between West Pier and the cliff.

Additional defences such as the coastal battery and the beach scaffolding beyond East Pier can be seen on aerial photographs taken in 1942 and 1943. They also show a series of cylindrical fuel storage tanks, similar in size to gasometers that were built across the town.

Many of Newhaven’s wartime structures were camouflaged with material - possibly netting - that would have broken up their outline and helped to blend them into the landscape. Perhaps most visually dramatic of all are the many barrage balloons that were moored in and around Newhaven by this date.

Black and white aerial photograph showing the seashore with the entrance to the harbour and several barrage balloons at rest
A detail of a photo of Newhaven seafront showing gun emplacements and barrage balloons as seen on 05-SEP-1943 (RAF MSO 31111 O-3018) Historic England RAF Photography

The South Downs in wartime

The aerial photographs reveal the considerable impact the war had on this landscape. Initially this was in the form of anti-invasion defences but in 1942 the South Downs was requisitioned as an army training area. Shell craters, tank firing ranges and military roads give some idea of the range of activities carried out there.

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The groups of white lines seen on this photograph are trenches dug across this part of the Downs west of Alfriston. They are probably obstacles to prevent enemy aircraft using this area as landing strips. Some of the white dots that can be seen are shell craters from the army exercises that took place from 1942. US/7GR/LOC347 3021 02-MAY-1944. Historic England USAAF Photography

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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