The Flying Archaeologist

After many years working in heritage and archaeology Ben Robinson joined English Heritage as a Team Leader and Inspector of Ancient Monuments in 2009 and is now a Principal Heritage at Risk Adviser. Ben talks to us today about presenting BBC Four’s new series The Flying Archaeologist.

I have a challenging and immensely rewarding job working with colleagues, owners, local authorities and grant-aiding organisations to prevent our most vulnerable and most important buildings and archaeological sites from being lost. But last year I was given a different kind of challenge. I was given the opportunity to present a short series of programmes that combine two passions of mine – archaeology and flying. It all stemmed from a short film I made with BBC East a few years ago about my ‘aerial archaeology’ hobby. The BBC liked the idea of looking at heritage from a different perspective, and set about researching some suitable programme themes.

The production team went straight to Helen Winton, Aerial Investigation and Mapping Manager at English Heritage, whose team creates new maps of our heritage – detailed surveys of important and threatened areas of landscape that then serve as a basis for conservation and research (National Mapping Programme). Their work has been wide-ranging and there was plenty of subject matter to discuss. Eventually, however, it was decided that the series would focus on four places – the area around Stonehenge, The Norfolk Broads, Hadrian’s Wall, and the Hoo Peninsular in Kent.

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Filming at Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall.

These are very different landscapes and special in their own distinctive ways, but they share one thing in common. In each case the mapping of historic features from the air, often requiring the examination of tens of thousands of aerial photographs, has changed our understanding of their heritage. It has also raised significant new questions about them.

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This chalky soil mark is all that gives away the position of a newly discovered neolithic burial mound at Damerham in Hampshire.
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Important excavations at a neolithic long barrow (burial mound) at Damerham are being undertaken by a volunteer team led by Martyn Barber (of English Heritage) and Helen Wickstead.

One of the joys of filming the series was getting some quality ‘air-time’ in helicopters and light aircraft over some of the most intriguing and inspiring places in the land. Another was meeting so many people whose work I had read about, or with whom I had corresponded, but not actually met before.

I was struck by the dedication of people, including several English Heritage colleagues and retired English Heritage colleagues, who spend their free time unravelling hidden aspects of our past. A love of heritage is in the blood and its difficult to resist the temptations of a ‘busman’s holiday’ – I certainly enjoyed mine!

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Ben Robinson, pilot Sean Callaghan, and Cessna at Old Sarum after a trip around Wiltshire.

Ben Robinson is Principal Heritage at Risk Adviser at English Heritage (East Midlands). The Flying Archaeologist programmes will be shown as a series starting on Monday 29 April at 8:30pm on BBC Four. 

8 comments on “The Flying Archaeologist

  1. Ben Robinson

    Nice to hear from you Mike. I think the question is best debated by David Jacques, the Amesbury excavation director, and Stonehenge scholars such as yourself. However, my personal view is that this site provides very important new information about the way this landscape and its resources were exploited by mesolithic people. Preservation is excellent and I am sure it will yield highly significant environmental evidence and perhaps structures too, if they were ever built. Evidentally it does not represent a short episode of occupation, but rather sustained/repeat activity over a long period. I think it also gets us closer to the people responsible for those intriguing posts beneath the car park at Stonehenge.

    The long barrow at Damerham is simply a great example of a very large and decently preserved site that everybody seems to have missed until Martyn Barber had a good look at the aerial photographs, then visited the site on the ground, and thought again.

    • Hi Ben,
      My name is Patrick J Gregg and I watched The Flying Archaeologist some time ago now and just seen you again on BBC4 presenting The Last Journey of The Magna Carta King. I am the author of the official Magna Carta pop/rock anthem which is now on amazon and iTunes.

      I would be delighted to send you a copy of the pop/rock anthem titled The Glorious 800th which includes a 2nd track titled When I Am King.

      I work for Sir Robert Worcester who is the Vice Chairman of Magna Carta Trust and the Chairman of Magna Carta 800th Committee.

      If you could give me a postal address I can send the CD out to you.

      Kind Regards
      Patrick J Gregg

    • Alistair Hawtin

      Good to see you raising the profile of archaeology in general and aerial archaeology in particular, Ben. It’s a long way you’ve travelled from Sutton to Sutton Hoo!

  2. Andrew Faupel

    Hi Ben I watched your program on Hoo recently in which you showed the airship hangers at Kingsnorth. I don’t know if you are interested but one of those hangers was moved to Rochester airport in 1939 and forms part of the BAE site today. My father has pictures of the hanger being re-built from 1939.

  3. Hi Ben
    Great publicity for aerial archaeology ;o)
    Added impetus for the children, students and others in our National Scheme:

    We had hoped to fly our near infra-red cameras and thermal imagers from within the fence at Stonehenge, but have received no response:

  4. A. Shariff

    Hi Ben.
    Nice work. wonder whether you are the same person I met in Bristol?

  5. Dave Clapham

    Hello Ben.
    I’ve started watching your programme about the last days of King John.
    Are you sure that if you travel North East from Framlingham you arrive at King’s Lynn? I think you’d just get damp?

  6. Not my field, but given metal detectors which claim a range up to 1km and
    50m depth, could you not consider a project to fly over possible sites
    of the treasure lost in or near the Wash a few centuries back?

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