UK heatwave unearths prehistoric settlements

Experts have unearthed a litany of exciting ancient sites - only made possible because of the dry conditions

Iron Age Round, St Ive, Cornwall. The circular feature visible in the centre of this  photograph is probably a Round. Rounds were widespread in Cornwall in the Iron Age. These settlements consist of a circular bank and outer ditch with a single entrance and usually contained round houses positioned close to the edge of the outer ditch. Photo: Damian Grady. Copyright Historic England
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As sodden London commuters squelched into their offices following the return of unsettled weather this week, it was easy to forget the scorching heatwave that sent the UK into a frenzy last month. At its height, Londoners spilled out into the parks and cafés to lap up the sun as the English football team seemingly teetered on the impossible – before both the heatwave and the World Cup charge spluttered to an abrupt halt.

While the blazing temperatures seem to be over, their effects are lasting.

The exceptionally dry conditions have revealed pre-historic settlements in the form of crop markings - burial mounds and mysterious ancient monuments that had been hidden for thousands of years were caught on camera by aerial surveys.

The exciting discoveries were made possible because of a lack of moisture in the soil that left the land parched. The hot spell allowed experts an intriguing eye into thousands of years of English history.

Neolithic ceremonial monuments, Iron Age settlements, square burial mounds and a Roman farm are among the new findings.

Historic England, an organisation tasked with protecting the country’s ancient heritage, said its archaeologists had been making use of the summer heat and looking for patterns in crops and grass that could reveal historic secrets.

“The exceptional weather has opened up whole areas at once rather than just one or two fields and it has been fascinating to see so many traces of our past graphically revealed,” said Historic England chief executive Duncan Wilson.

Aerial photography of cropmarks was used to produce archaeological maps to determine the significance of the discoveries. This in turn assisted experts deciding how best to protect these vital sites from future development or damage caused by agricultural activity.

Prehistoric ceremonial landscape near Eynsham, Oxfordshire. The cropmarks reveal buried remains of later Prehistoric (circa 4000BC-700BC) funary monuments, together with a settlement. This site is known and is protected as a scheduled monument, but there are features, such as a circle of pits that have not been visible for years. Photo by Damian Grady. Copyright Historic England.
Prehistoric ceremonial landscape near Eynsham, Oxfordshire. Damian Grady / Historic England

The oldest discoveries were of two Neolithic ‘cursus’ monuments which usually date from between 3,600 to 3,000 BC, found near Milton Keynes. These types of monuments are regarded as one of the oldest types in England and some 100 have been found by archaeologists over the years.

Their exact function still remains a mystery but the monuments are generally thought of as enclosed paths or processional ways. They may also have served to demarcate or even act as a barrier between different landscape zones.

In Derbyshire and Yorkshire, ancient Iron and Bronze burial mounds were also unearthed. In Yorkshire, the shape of the cropmarks, known as square barrows represent the ditch surrounding a burial mound. These are sometimes associated with elaborate burials with exotic grave goods such as chariots. Despite being well-explored, Historic England says Yorkshire has the potential for new revelations.

These were just some of the unusual crop patterns found that indicated the presence of historic structures. In each case the remains are revealed as differences in colour or in the height of crops or grass.


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While the recent discoveries revealed by the UK’s heatwave can only be fully appreciated from the air and, perhaps, could even seem slightly underwhelming to the naked eye, archaeologists are incredibly excited about the findings.

“This has been one of my busiest summers in 20 years of flying and it has been very rewarding making discoveries in areas that do not normally reveal cropmarks,” said Damian Grady, who oversaw Historic England’s aerial reconnaissance operations.

“This is the first potential bumper year in what feels like a long time. It is very exciting to have hot weather for this long,” added Mr Grady’s colleague Helen Winton.

The baking temperatures across England, and northern Europe, allowed archaeologists to locate sites spread across England rather than just a localised region, emphasising the continental reach of the heatwave.

“This spell of very hot weather has provided the perfect conditions for our aerial archaeologists to ‘see beneath the soil’ as cropmarks are much better defined when the soil has less moisture,” said Mr Wilson, the Historic England CEO.

“The discovery of ancient farms, settlements and Neolithic cursus monuments is exciting,” he added.

His team were particularly prolific in finding new sites in Cornwall. They gained a better understanding of the continuity and range of settlements over the last 4,000 years in Cornwall, south west England via the discovery of an Iron Age Round. These settlements consist of a circular bank and outer ditch with a single entrance and usually contained round houses positioned close to the edge of the outer ditch.

It’s quite possible these findings will become more frequent as climate change rears its head. The summer's heatwave was described by scientists at the World Weather Attribution as “remarkable,” but not unexpected.

A report conducted by the WWA said the “probability to have such heat or higher is generally more than two times higher today than if human activities had not altered climate”.

“Due to the underlying warming trend even record breaking events can be not very extreme…with global mean temperatures continuing to increase heat waves like this will become even less exceptional,” the report added.

It will not be the last year that the fierce sun and drying earth combine to give up the secrets of the past.