Patterns under the plough – recent aerial reconnaissance on the claylands

Landscapes once considered unresponsive to aerial investigation are revealing new sites, changing our understanding of the patterns of human settlement.

Recent assessment of aerial photographs from our national reconnaissance programme recorded exceptional numbers of previously unknown buried archaeological sites and landscapes. These are in areas once thought to be largely devoid of activity in the past and unresponsive to aerial prospection today, such as the claylands of eastern England.

Aerial photo of enclosures near Ravensden, Bedfordshire.
Four different prehistoric or Roman enclosures in close proximity, overlain by traces of medieval ridge-and-furrow, near Ravensden, Bedfordshire. © Historic England, 27082/040

Analysis of aerial photographs in fact suggests that during the later prehistoric and Roman periods, the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire claylands were extensively settled and managed. On the Suffolk clay meanwhile, where the dominant evidence begins in the later medieval period, distinctive patterns of continuity and change connect sites old and new.

Aerial photo of settlement at Bozeat, Northamptonshire.
Complex settlement remains near Bozeat, Northamptonshire, probably spanning the Late Iron Age and Roman periods. © Historic England, 27053/047

Recognising the scale of ancient settlement in such areas has taken some time, but the last 20 years or so in particular have seen a considerable increase in the number of archaeological sites discovered as cropmarks on clay soils, particularly across central and eastern England (see, for example, Mills & Palmer 2007).

However the summer of 2011 proved exceptional for our aerial reconnaissance team. For example, on a single day – 29 July 2011 – Damian Grady, our aerial photographer responsible for covering the southern half of the country, located and photographed 186 previously unknown archaeological sites. Multiple flights were required because the cropmarks appeared in different locations through the year as ground conditions changed. Over 1,500 new sites were recorded in this flying season alone, most of which were on the claylands of eastern England. The monument records that resulted have already been made available on the PastScape website.

Aerial photo of settlement at Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire.
An area of settlement probably comprising a long and complex sequence of development, spanning the Late Iron Age and Roman periods, near Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire. © Historic England, 27060/008

This new information shows that occupation of the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire claylands has considerable time-depth. Most new sites were apparently of Iron Age or Roman date, although there are plenty from the medieval period as well.

The diversity in the plans of these now-buried settlements and boundaries is striking. Sites identified include discrete enclosures, often with several different forms occurring in close proximity, as at Ravensden, Bedfordshire; large settlement sites, often complex and of several phases, as at Bozeat, Northamptonshire and Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire; and enclosures strung along linear ditches, as at Stevington, Bedfordshire. Our rapid recording programme identified a landscape full of enclosures and boundaries, suggesting the need to demarcate settlements and tracts of land throughout the later prehistoric and Roman periods. Mapping and analysis at a landscape scale will be required to understand the significance of these sites.

Aerial photo of enclosures at Stevington, Bedfordshire.
Prehistoric or Roman enclosures attached to a lengthy, sinuous linear ditch, near Stevington, Bedfordshire. © Historic England, 27054/048

Aerial reconnaissance revealed a slightly different story on the Suffolk claylands. Cropmarks indicated a now-buried landscape of dispersed medieval and post-medieval settlements linked by droveways, as at Onehouse. Intensive periods of ploughing, particularly during the agricultural revolution and the second half of the 20th century, were part of a re-ordering of the landscape so extensive that it at first appeared to be a complete break with the past. Identification of buried sites from the air, however, provides tangible evidence that the farms, fields and tracks of earlier generations have not been entirely swept away by the plough.

Aerial photo of buried farmhouse enclosures at Onehouse, Suffolk.
Two buried farmstead enclosures revealed as cropmarks in Onehouse parish, Suffolk may be contemporary with the late-15th-century Shepherd’s Farm, on the right of the photograph. © Historic England, 27028/025

These hidden survivals mirror the pattern of historic working farms found elsewhere in the region, where dwellings, if not completely isolated, are loosely arranged around greens or along lanes. You can experience the possible look and feel of these lost places at Thurston End, Hawkedon; here, buildings are dotted between areas of pasture, woodland and hedgerows, which define boundaries and tracks. Cropmarks indicate similar, but now buried, arrangements of tracks, boundaries and farm enclosures, as seen at Cowlinge, north-east of Haverhill.

Aerial photo of Thurston End, Suffolk.
The properties that constitutes Thurston End, Suffolk includes the Grade I-listed, 16th-century buildings of Swan Hall (foreground) and Thurston End Hall. © Historic England, 29144/042

The 18th and 19th centuries saw great changes in British farming.

In Suffolk this often meant an increase in arable at the expense of pasture. In places, field boundaries were removed or straightened to create more convenient areas for ploughing. At Depden, near Bury St Edmunds, cropmarks on the aerial photograph illustrate changing field layouts. Earlier boundary ditches (often with wide hedgerows) were replaced with narrow straight boundaries which in turn were covered over with a pattern of larger fields between pockets of woodland.

The relatively poor draining quality of the soil meant the inhabitants of Suffolk’s claylands dug ditches to enclose their settlements and to define their fields and lanes. The cropmarks show that ‘lost’ lanes or droveways were  often wide, and usually defined by substantial ditches. This suggests a relatively enclosed landscape with controlled movement between farms and fields. Although such substantial ditches seem to have gone by the 19th century, some tracks persist until then and are depicted as undefined footpaths on the Ordnance Survey maps, for example of Cowlinge, Depden and Onehouse.

Aerial photo of possible farmstead enclosures at Cowlinge, Suffolk.
Four possible farmstead enclosures near Cowlinge, Suffolk can be seen along the angular trackway. More settlement enclosures were recorded over a distance of 1 km to the south-west. © Historic England, 26833/030

The potential longevity of routeways can be seen at Milden, to the south of Lavenham, where cropmarks show a number of interconnected tracks. These appear similar to later prehistoric droveways, though they remained integrated with later elements in the landscape, such as the surviving track leading to Milden Hall. Part of this track was also used as a parish boundary, providing further possible evidence of early origins.

It is the all-important ditches that have provided a glimpse of a medieval and post-medieval landscape with potentially much earlier origins than previously recognised, as well as unexpected continuities into the present day. Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s famous portrait of Suffolk rural life, says that ‘the clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written’; our aerial reconnaissance programme has discovered new evidence of these patterns, left by the men and women who lived in and worked this landscape.

Aerial photo of cropmarks at Depden, Suffolk.
Two phases of former fields can be seen as cropmarks at Depden, Suffolk. The curving boundaries and winding trackway were replaced with straighter field boundaries during the 18th or 19th centuries. Their position was somewhat influenced by the earlier fields they replaced, but they were themselves swept away when these fields were amalgamated in the second half of the 20th century. © Historic England, 27268/018

Traditionally, the areas with clay soils in England have suffered from a relative lack of archaeological attention. The reasons for this are many and varied. They include perceptions about where people were likely to have lived in the past, and barriers to the relative visibility of sites. From the 19th century onwards, people thought the more easily tilled, less densely wooded chalk downs were more suited to the capabilities of the earliest agriculturalists. The ability to clear forests and plough heavier clay soils was believed to require the kind of agricultural and technological progress not evident until the Roman period, if not later.

Cyril Fox’s landmark publication The Personality of Britain epitomises this view and states that ‘all human communities throw off groups and families below the poverty line of their particular culture, who scratch a miserable living how they can in less desirable areas. Evidence of such will certainly be found from time to time on the clays’.

Views like these were in decline by the 1950s but there were difficulties in redressing the balance, particularly as far as aerial reconnaissance was concerned. The moisture-retaining properties of clay soils meant that levelled archaeological sites were less likely to have an effect on the crops growing above them. This problem was exacerbated by the masking effect of the remnants of later periods, and by types of land use that were less conducive to the formation of cropmarks. Most notably the conversion of substantial areas across the claylands from arable to pasture in the medieval and post-medieval periods left them covered in earthwork ridge-and-furrow under grass.

However, our recent reconnaissance shows that given the right conditions, arable land on clay soils can reveal the presence of buried archaeological sites. The problem is that the right conditions occur less frequently than on the better-draining soils. Our ability to see buried sites and landscapes from the air is dependent to a considerable extent on the conversion of traditional pasturelands to arable. Targeted reconnaissance in the right conditions will continue to identify new sites; the next step is to explore these landscapes further, reviewing aerial photographs, mapping the form and extent of the sites, and analysing them in a wider context.

Aerial photo of trackway at Milden, Suffolk.
The irregular lines of the trackway seen at Milden, characteristic of later prehistoric routeways. The existing track to Milden Hall crosses the top left hand side of the image. © Historic England, 27014/004

About the authors


Historic England staff member Martyn Barber

Martyn Barber

Martyn Barber has worked in Historic England and its predecessors since 1990, moving to the aerial survey team in 2002. Most recently he has worked on the (recently published) Stonehenge Landscape Project. He is a Senior Investigator in the Historic Places Investigation Team.

Photograph copyright Sarah McCarthy


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.

Further reading

Aerial reconnaissance at Historic England

Blythe R 1969 Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. London: Penguin

Fox C 1959 The Personality Of Britain: its Influence on Inhabitant and Invader in Prehistoric and Early Historic Times, 4th Edition. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales/Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru

Mills J and Palmer R 2007 Populating Clay Landscapes. Stroud: Tempus

PastScape, site information available online.

This page was first published on 12 January 2016

Was this page helpful?

Related Publications