An aerial view of three circular enclosures known as henges with surrounding cropmarks of other archaeological features.
Archaeology

Explore England’s Hidden Past from the Air

Many archaeological sites are only visible from the air with little or no traces on the ground.

Over the decades our teams have patiently mapped thousands of archaeological sites from aerial photographs. Many sites are only visible from the air and to the eye of the skilled investigator, with little or no traces on the ground.

Here we unpack some of the hidden gems mapped by our flying archaeologists that you too can now virtually discover for yourselves with our Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer.

As featured in national and local press, we’ve recently made these interpretations of crop marks and other features available online for the first time. To whet your appetite, we’re looking at just some of the sites they’ve mapped and what they reveal about England’s past.

An aerial view of a village surrounded by traces of ridge and furrow field systems which have a corrugated appearance viewed from the air.
The long shadows cast by the low winter sun highlight the earthwork remains of medieval arable farming in Todenham, Gloucestershire. These earthworks, known as ridge and furrow, survive in fields that are now used for pasture. In places, modern ploughing has flattened the remains, but aerial photographs taken in the 1940s show that ridge and furrow once extended across most of the parish. 27345_010. © Historic England. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Farming

If you were asked to picture a typical traditional English farming landscape what would you think of? Perhaps the familiar patchwork quilt of small fields of crops and paddocks enclosed -depending on your locality- by hedges, fences or stone walls. Maybe this landscape would be studded with huddles of farmstead buildings clustered around a farmyard?

But our aerial mapping reveals that it hasn’t always looked like that. Take for example the traces of ‘ridge and furrow’ field systems seen across lowland England that have a corrugated or corduroy effect when seen from the air. These are remnants of a lost, more communal way of life: the results of generations of ordinary peasant families from the later Saxon period through to the end of the Middle Ages ploughing narrow strips of land allocated across big open, unenclosed fields. They farmed to survive and to support their lords, many being obliged by law to stay on the manors where they were born and work for part of the time on their Lord’s land.

As society and economics changed many land holdings were amalgamated and enclosed, or turned over to more profitable animal-rearing, especially sheep for wool.

A classic example of ridge and furrow is at Todenham, Gloucestershire.

Often below the ridge and furrow are traces of different, still more ancient field system such as the “brickwork” pattern effect of Iron Age and Romano-British agriculture. Within the fields are enclosures that may be cattle corrals or small settlement.  Our team has mapped an example of these ‘brickwork’ fields near Edenthorpe, West Yorkshire, which is now partly built over with modern housing.

A screenshot of aerial investigation mapping of field systems that have the appearance of a 'brickwork' pattern when viewed from above.
Frame Edenthorpe field systems . Extensive Iron Age/Roman field systems mapped from aerial photographs near Edenthorpe, West Yorkshire. Some of these features now lie under modern housing development. © Historic England.

At Grassington in Yorkshire, aerial mapping lets us see past the  ‘layer’ of traditional stone walls and field barns to expose a 100 hectare (nearly 250 acres) area of densely packed settlements, trackways and field systems dating from Roman to prehistoric times- right back to the Neolithic period at the end of the Stone Age.

An aerial photograph showing traces of a complex of field systems and settlements in a dales landscape.
Low sun reveals remains of prehistoric settlements and field systems near Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. 20845_050 25-NOV-2008. © Historic England Archive.

Defence

Aerial mapping shows the whole sweep of defence or military history in England from roman sites along Hadrian’s wall to now overgrown places associated with the World Wars.

Hadrian’s Wall itself is of course a famous monument standing above ground and the most visible feature of the World Heritage Site named after it- but viewed from the air we can see it was part of a wider network of Roman roads and temporary camps, like those first spotted on aerial photography from 1949 at White Moss, Cumbria. This bigger picture also enables us to see how the military sites fit in the wider landscape of settlements and fields.

A screen shot of aerial mapping of Roman camps; also present are prehistoric settlements and an airfield.
At White Moss, Hadrian’s Wall, the remains of two Roman camps (left) have been mapped from aerial photographs. Other features in the vicinity include prehistoric settlements and a Second World War airfield. © Historic England.

Using the modern technique of lidar (light detection and ranging)
we can ‘see beneath’ the vegetation that has overgrown sites such as the massive First World War training camps at Brocton and Rugeley in the Cannock Chase area of Staffordshire, revealing the foundations of the former camp buildings. The once teeming complexes were designed to house up to 40,000 people preparing for the battlefields of the Western Front. Historians estimate that 500,000 soldiers trained here during the conflict, but the buildings were taken down after the war.

In addition to the camps housing the troops there were practice areas including two opposing lines of trenches.

A split image derived from lidar survey with one half revealing a military camp normally hidden below vegetation.
In this lidar image of Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, the vegetation has been digitally removed to reveal some of the earthworks that show where First World War huts for a military camp housing 20,000 army personnel once stood. © Historic England: Source Fugro Geospatial BV.

Enigmatic ancient beliefs

Silbury Hill is a well-known prehistoric monument; it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe.

What is less well-known is that that evidence mapped from the air, followed up by survey on the ground, has demonstrated that later a considerable Roman settlement grew up at its foot around 2500 years after the mound was built. This settlement is a typical roman ‘ladder’ pattern in plan was possibly a road station on the Road to Bath, but it may have also been a pilgrimage site centring on the already ancient ‘hill’ and a sacred spring.

An artists reconstruction of a Roman period settlement at the foot of a massive prehistoric mound.
Reconstruction of the roman settlement at Silbury Hill by Judith Dobie, Historic England Archive, image reference IC245_016.

Aerial mapping has also given us new evidence about henge monuments. Henges are circular or oval earthwork enclosures, dating from around 3000 BC to 2000 BC, that’s to say constructed during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and early Bronze Age. Unlike defensive enclosures they have a ditch on the inside and a bank on the outside- so they not for keeping things out but for marking the space inside as special. Their exact function is still open to interpretation, but archaeologists generally think that these are sacred enclosures.

At Thornborough in North Yorkshire, there are no less than three henges close to each other. They had been partly damaged by past ploughing and their layout is less clear from ground level than other examples of such sites.

An aerial mapping project revealed new details about the layout and surroundings of all three henges, especially the northern henge, which is partly hidden by woodland. The project gave us a better overview of how other prehistoric sites such as former burial mounds (visible from the air as their outer ring-ditches) and mortuary enclosures relate to the henges. It also showed how the surrounding landscape has changed over time.

A screen shot of aerial mapping of three circular henge enclosures and nearby features.
A screen shot from the Aerial Mapping explorer showing the henges and surrounding features at Thornborough,North Yorkshire. © Historic England.

Over to you!

Is there ridge and furrow hiding where you walk your dog or took your lockdown exercise? Are there archaeological features near your favourite holiday destination? Why not take a look at what aerial mapping has revealed near you or in other areas of England that interest you? In the comments section let us know your ‘best bits’ of discoveries from the Aerial Mapping Explorer.

Further reading

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

5 comments on “Explore England’s Hidden Past from the Air

  1. artculturetourism

    Great post Robin! Many thanks from Art Culture Tourism based Nottingham.

  2. Really interesting, my parents farm has a fridge & furrow field, or the ‘up and down field’ as it’s officially known as 🙂

  3. Absolutely fascinating – off to explore the Aerial Map!

  4. Harold Tonge

    The prescience of shaped ‘howes’ in se Cumbria* often in near straight lines in what would have been woodland makes me wonder if they were secret signalling lines.
    * eg between Castle Howe at J38 and Castle Howe at Shap Wells Hotel some 5miles north are the rough pyramid shapes at Rampshowe and Buskethowe . – busket = basket?

  5. Daniel Longstaff

    Hi Robin. You have referenced Edenthorpe on this blog regarding historical sites from the sky.
    Edenthorpe is actually in South Yorkshire and not West Yorkshire. This area falls into the DN7 postcode in Doncaster. I hope this helps you keep. Kind Regards Danny.

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