Widecombe History Group Talk on Archaeology from the Air

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Archaeology of Devon from The Air.

By Frances Griffith

Once again our Group had the pleasure of talk given by someone who was so enthusiastic about her subject and had so much knowledge, and the ability to talk in such an interesting manner.

Frances Griffith is Devon County Archaeologist and has for years now pursued that career with the additional use of aerial photography in furthering her knowledge and powers of discovery. Aerial photography in conjunction with various natural phenomenon like vegetation variation, frost, snow and the low elevation of the sun can show up an amazing amount of natural features that are not visible when simply walking over the countryside.

Some sites that are visible on the ground can show up further details when viewed from the air.

For example, many fort like sites and their position in The Royal Victualing Yard at Plymouth show up well when be seen from the air. One can appreciate how well designed it was when built c1820’s to control and organise the supplying of the Royal Navy. The castle at Devils Point, the batteries built in the 1890’s. Second World War batteries and even the sites of searchlight emplacements of W.W.II, these were so placed as to sweep across the waters of Plymouth Sound to watch for enemy submarines or landing parties, could be seen in some of the photographs shown to the meeting. One picture showed the many developments of one site over a period of about 200 years.

Totnes from the air shows things that are very difficult to appreciate from the ground. For instance the layout of the buildings, surrounding the Norman Castle, is Saxon in style and the curve of the old street formation can still be seen, and how Totnes has grown spreading down to the river Dart up to The Middle Ages. The Medieval layout is also visible so the development of Totnes can really be appreciated from these aerial photographs. By the 16th century Totnes was one of the richest towns in the country. In 1980’s some of the earliest porcelain ever found in South West England was discovered in Totnes.

The archaeology of Dartmoor is very evident as one walks the moors, so many of the artefacts in the countryside are made of Granite. Starting with the reeves - Prehistoric field systems 1500 BC, for instance those on the area of Corndon Tor. Some most splendid, stone rows, hut circles, standing stones and places like Cranbrooke Castle 1000BC showing the outer banks all take on a different aspect when viewed from above. Round houses, fields, droveways etc that are partially covered by vegetation are difficult to appreciate, but from the air their courses can clearly be seen.

The method of taking an aerial photograph then transcribing it on to an Ordnance Survey Map and following that with an examination of the area on foot to get the finer details, was explained. An example was shown to the meeting, the reeves, circles and stone rows thus examined brought out further details that could be missed purely by terrestrial survey.

A slight powdering of snow can make many formations show up very clearly. The Houndtor site was shown and there is still much more research needed to ascertain whether all the visible evidence is from the same era. Detailed work on tin mines can also be benefited from aerial photographs. A beautiful slide of the Iceworks near Sourton was shown and all the details of that site could clearly be seen. Frances then showed scenes of other parts of Devon including some Medieval strip field systems and the later more rectangular field layouts, that may have been areas taken in from moorland, prior to cultivation. Currently all Devon is being surveyed to capture the field layouts and so help researchers understand the development of field systems better.

The ‘subsoil’ has a great effect on the vegetation. The old theory that Dartmoor was the main Prehistoric habitated area of Devon and the rest of the County was covered with impenetrable forest, is now called into question. In fact it is the other way round. Off Dartmoor the ground was and has been cultivated for a longer period and it is now from the air that the underlying conditions of the fields show up. Archaeology is an ongoing study and always under development.

During recent years field hedges have been removed and their remnants can also show up so there has to be a careful study undertaken to calculate what is very old, and what has been undertaken in more recent times. For example the old meandering of streams and rivers, early ditches and reeves need comparing with the comparatively modern activities of modern agriculture, even remnants of WWII, searchlight standings, gun emplacements and even more modern pipe and cable laying, it is therefore important that careful analysis of the evidence is done. The same area can be surveyed on the ground or from the air at different times of the year and under different climatic conditions and states of growth of vegetation and various other things like the time of the year can effect the findings. A ditch filled with organic material can encourage stronger growth, a buried stone wall or trackway and drainage can cause withering of plant life, all this can have an effect on vegetation and show distinctively different strengths of growth. Some hedges have actually been built around old sites to avoid disturbance, these too are difficult to see on the ground. Interpretation of these signs are what makes this such an interesting science. Some sites have a variety of different periods of work within them. This makes one realise that as different societies came along, in many cases they used the same sites, possibly because of the position of the site, either from a defensive position or the availability of good building materials, perhaps the ideal site for stockades for livestock or from it being a fertile area, the options are numerous. Some old sites have had their stones removed and reused for other purposes, road building, or for improved housing during the last 2000 years, early recycling!

Present day firms involved with electricity, water, gas etc are very conscious of their activities and always notify the Authorities of where they propose digging trenches for pipes and cables, the routes are always examined with great care prior to work commencing. Good and detailed plans of any areas excavated are most important. Roman sites in South West England are now taken very seriously and there is still ongoing research into Roman activity and expansion. Some excavations have thrown up far more advanced buildings than at first thought to have existed, some buildings with great entrances with large gatehouses have been found complete with the remains of postholes. Signal places and smaller forts are also evident. Much more is still coming to light. The serious side of her work can be described as trying to persuade people to do what they sometimes do not want to do or not do what they wish to do, all in an effort to preserve or at least examine with great detail anything that lies in the way of their proposed works, be it pipe laying or road and communication extension.

Frances stated that there are no new sites as such, they are old sites that have so far not been recognised. It is our heritage that is worth securing. Civil engineering and archaeology can appear to be in conflict but that is not really true, Civil Engineers tend to inform the Archaeology Department of proposed works and areas under consideration early, so that detailed examination can take place well before the machinery need to move in. The archaeologists are not then pressurised and the planners can amend their plans well before the expensive works commence. Planting on areas that have not been previously planted can cause damage, agricultural activity like intense pig farming can disrupt the soil up to two feet deep. In recent years there has been a lot of cooperation between landowners and the DCC. It has been found that when landowners and farmers are informed of sites on their land, most are very interested and keen to do their bit for conservation.

Finally it is felt that our ancestors must have been a community working together, to achieve the parallel field system on Dartmoor laid out in such a fantastic manner. The fields all terminate at a terminal reeve beyond which must have been the common or communal land. The divided land used by individuals, the common land shared, much as the commons today, some of which had been enclosed during previous centuries.

All this dates from at least the Second Millennium BC and probably long before that and deciding what is centuries old and what has happened more recently will occupy the minds of Archaeologists for many more centuries to come.

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