Amateur Archaeologists Studying Aerial Maps of the U.K. Spot Dozens of Hidden Historical Structures

The finds include prehistoric and Roman settlements, roads, burial mounds, farms, and quarries

LiDAR scan
Volunteers spotted dozens of previously unknown structures between Cornwall and Devon in southwest England. University of Exeter

With archaeology digs on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cooped-up history buffs are making their mark. As Steven Morris reports for the Guardian, volunteers tasked with scouring aerial surveys of England for signs of human habitation have discovered dozens of previously unknown structures after studying just a tenth of the data available. Dating from the prehistoric period to the medieval era, the sites are scattered between Cornwall and Devon in southwest England.

Per a statement from the University of Exeter—which organized search efforts through its Understanding Landscapes initiative—the finds include remnants of more than 20 miles of Roman road, 30 prehistoric or Roman settlements, and 20 prehistoric burial mounds, as well as hundreds of medieval farms, field systems and quarries.

If some of the southwesternmost sites are definitively identified as Roman, they will lend additional support to the notion that the empire’s influence stretched beyond the city of Exeter—long considered the endpoint of Roman territory in the British Isles, according to the Ipplepen Archaeological Project. Previously unearthed evidence for this theory includes traces of a Roman butcher business and a crafts center discovered in Ipplepen, Devon, last fall, reported Morris for the Guardian at the time.

The volunteers’ discovery of numerous sites of apparent archaeological significance may indicate that places such as Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, and Dartmoor, Devon, supported larger populations than previously assumed, according to the Guardian.

LiDAR map of Cornwall, England
A probable Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement (red arrows) and associated field system (blue arrows), as revealed by LiDAR data University of Exeter

Separately, another quarantined archaeology enthusiast recently spotted what may be an undiscovered Neolithic henge in southern Derbyshire, reports Esther Addley for the Guardian. Though experts won’t be able to confirm the find until the United Kingdom’s lockdown lifts, Lisa Westcott Wilkins, managing director of archaeology firm DigVentures, tells the Guardian that “we are very happy to say that this does indeed look like a ‘thing.’”

Led by archaeologist Chris Smart, the team of Exeter volunteers would normally assist with field surveys and excavations. But COVID-19 sparked a change of plans, leading Smart to ask eight amateur archaeologists to investigate a set of aerial scans captured in the Tamar Valley area between Cornwall and Devon.

“I knew we’d find some things but I didn’t think it would be so many,” Smart tells the Guardian. “The types of sites are what you would expect in this region but it’s the number that is so surprising. Dozens of sites have been found already, but it will be hundreds by the time the volunteers are finished. We’re seeing a much greater density of population than we thought.”

Once pandemic-related restrictions lift, the Understanding Landscapes group and its expert leaders plan on conducting in-person surveys of a number of the newly identified sites, according to the statement.

LiDAR scan of England
The potential finds date from the prehistoric period to the medieval era. University of Exeter

To conduct their at-home research, the volunteers study 3-D scans of a 1,544-square-mile area split up into 1,000 grids. Smart distributes a share of the grids to each participant; after studying their assigned scans for traces of human settlements, roads or manmade manipulation, volunteers spotlight points of interest that are then then cross-referenced with existing archaeological knowledge and historical maps.

The high-resolution topographical maps assessed by these armchair archaeologists were created via aerial LiDAR (light detection and ranging) surveys. LiDAR fires thousands of laser beams per second, using light that bounces back to create a detailed 3-D scan of its subject.

One of the advantages offered by the technology is its ability to remove vegetation and modern buildings from a map’s view. This omission makes it easier for archaeologists to spot remnants of ancient structures or earthworks, reports the Irish News. Past archaeological surveys conducted with LiDAR have unearthed long-lost ruins hidden by their impenetrable rainforest surroundings.

If the project’s opening weeks are any indication, more discoveries will soon follow.

“Searching for previously unknown archaeological sites—and helping to identify places for possible future study—has been not only gratifying but engrossing,” says volunteer Fran Sperring in the statement. “Although it’s a fairly steep learning curve for me … I’m enjoying every minute.”

Adds Sperring, “Archaeology from the warm, dry comfort of your living room—what could be better?”

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