Aerial Reconnaissance in England, Summer 1995

By Featherstone, Roger; Horne, Peter et al. | Antiquity, December 1995 | Go to article overview
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Aerial Reconnaissance in England, Summer 1995

Featherstone, Roger, Horne, Peter, MacLeod, David, Bewley, Robert, Antiquity


The successes for archaeological aerial photography in 1994 were reported in Antiquity (Featherstone 1994), and for 1995 we can report even greater discoveries. The drought in 1995, in England especially, attracted coverage in the national media (television, radio and newspapers) and their interest was not just about discoveries but about the purpose of the surveys. The RCHME is now proceeding with an integrated strategy to produce a national map of England which involves the examination of aerial photographs for mapping (at 1:10,000 scale) and the creation of computerized records (see Edis et al. 1989 and Bewley forthcoming). The information from these maps is then fed back into the aerial survey programme, as well as being distributed to all the relevant Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) and English Heritage. In recognition of this approach and the exceptional conditions prevailing in 1995, a grant was provided by English Heritage to assist the RCHME reconnaissance programme.

Although our purpose here is to report on the immediate discoveries of 1995, it is important to emphasize that the photographs form part of a national programme of survey. The full impact of most of the photography will not be realized until the sites and landscapes have been interpreted and mapped.


The summer of 1995 was one of the hottest and driest since records began. Unlike the famous drought year of 1976, which followed a dry winter, the summer of 1995 came after a particularly wet winter. By early June, meteorological data were indicating significantly high Soil Moisture Deficits (SMDs) over much of the country. From then until the second week in September when the drought ended, soils throughout England had SMD figures in excess of 100 mm and a few areas exceeded 150 mm.

The principal difference, compared with the previous year, was that the drought was more severe during August and this had a much greater effect on crops in the north and grassland areas north and south. The SMD figures, provided by the Meterological Office, are used alongside the overall strategy of complementing existing survey programmes as a guide for targeting reconnaissance.

Staff of the RCHME's Air Photography Unit (APU) based in both Swindon and York flew approximately 288 hours between April and the beginning of September and recorded more than 2870 sites, some of which were large crop-mark complexes. Additionally, regional flyers carried out an (estimated) 120 hours of reconnaissance (Figure 1).

In southern England, good crop marks were developing by late June especially in the Cambridgeshire fens and the Cotswolds. During July soils over chalk also began to produce good crop marks. Further reconnaissance was focused around the recently closed USAF airfield at Upper Heyford and a number of new `banjo' enclosures were found. These complement others found in the surrounding area in previous years (Plate 1). This new distribution fills an otherwise blank area and greatly enhances our understanding of settlement in this area during the Iron Age.

Another focus of survey was to the north and west of Peterborough, where one of the more interesting discoveries was a possible Neolithic causewayed enclosure near Upton, Cambridgeshire (Plate 2).

During August, as the drought intensified, the grasslands of the southern chalk downs began to parch and revealed new archaeological sites in numbers comparable to those of 1976. Reconnaissance focused on the chalk and ranged from the Isle of Thanet in the east to Dorchester, Dorset in the west. These areas have been subjected to intensive survey for more than 60 years, yet it was still possible to record hundreds of new sites; this is partly as a result of land-use changes and different varieties of crops, for example peas (Plate 3).

Not surprisingly, by far the most common type of feature found were the ring ditches of plough-levelled barrows.

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