Would you like to learn more about the history of your area whilst under lock-down?
There are many freely accessible internet resources for archaeologists and over the next few weeks we'll reveal a few of the more useful sites to get you started.
Each week we'll list one or two sites which will cover mapping, historical records and images from the past. Hopefully these will give you a greater insight into your area and who knows what secrets you might uncover?
Our first links are to the Heritage Gateway sites, which allow you to search for information about every recorded historic site and building in each nation. These websites offer free access to national and local records. Just type in the place of interest and hit 'Search' - you might be surprised at the results!
Our second series of links covers archive offices. These are the storage places for all sorts of documents, objects and audio and video recordings. A huge amount of this material has now been digitised and is available to the public for research, although sometimes there may be a small charge.
First we have the National Archives, ‘the guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents’:
We are usually more concerned with local archive organisations and here in the West Midlands we have access to several including:
Most areas will have an archive office in a nearby town or city but if not, there will certainly be one covering the relevant county, for example...
Although a visit to the office will usually be necessary to view records directly, an on-line search will show what documents are held in each collection, including a brief description. The important collections held by these offices include a huge amount of information for those delving into our past, so why not look up your local archive office and dig around in their records?
A vital source of information for archaeologists is mapping, so for the third link we can explore the resources that provide us with those maps.
Maps have most likely been in existence for thousands of years although the oldest surviving one, the Babylonian Map of the World (the Imago Mundi), dates to around 750 BC and can be found in the British Museum.
Ever since man has settled and farmed land, boundaries have become more and more important and one way (along with many others), to indicate ‘ownership’ has been to have some form of acceptable,visual, portable ‘representation’ such as a rudimentary map to indicate who owns what. Natural features such as rivers and mountains are fairly straight forward markers but sometimes an agreed line of posts or boulders are used and symbols for these can be shown on a map.
Early maps of the UK started to take shape in the 16th century with many places, rivers and roads being depicted giving us some idea of their location in relation to each other, prominent features and places of importance. These maps can be used for comparison purposes as some of the old villages shown may not exist any more.
Although many excellent accurate maps exist in local archives of country estates and some towns they cannot be relied upon to show all the towns and villages in the locality and it wasn’t until 1801 when the Ordnance survey produced their first series of one inch to one mile maps that the whole of the UK was covered.
This first series can be viewed via the following link by just typing in the name of the place of interest, click on the map and select the OS First Series Maps:
As mapping techniques improved dramatically during the 19th, the OS produced very accurate large scale maps of the whole of the country and these can be viewed via this link:
Just type in the place name and view the maps!
Why are these maps useful? For comparison purposes you can see how your area has developed over the years maybe from an agricultural village to an urbanised town. Road networks (some Roman) can be traced and so too can canals to indicate how the industrial revolution changed the country in the 19th century. Courses of rivers have been changed, land use has changed (e.g. redundant railways), quarries and mines have been abandoned but their road networks are still visible. The first series OS one inch to one mile map probably give us the best idea of how things were in agricultural Britain before the industrial revolution changed things for good with many large cities and towns quickly developing due to manufacturing.
Probably the single most important tool employed by archaeologists for discovering sites over the last 90 years has been the use of aerial photography. Sometimes features of a site on the ground are faint, interrupted or just too large to make sense of but if the same site is viewed from above, either vertically or obliquely then the whole picture can change dramatically.
Earthworks, crop marks and parch marks can outline or highlight something hidden underneath the ground and when viewed from above can be seen as part of the bigger picture in the landscape. This is typical when e.g. ditches have been dug and later filled in over time and due to the build up of deeper soil allows crops to grow longer and taller which means it does not ripen as quickly as the surrounding plants. The same principal applies to crops on top of buried stone foundations which means those plants ripen more quickly because they have access to less water and shallow soil.
Initially, aerial photography was very expensive as specialist equipment was needed to go and get the images but over the last 20 years or so things have changed dramatically. You may be interested to visit a couple of web sites just to do more background reading on the subject before launching yourself on to your own patch.
Probably the easiest resource to get aerial images from is Google Earth which is free to download and use. The images are exceptionally good and the whole of the UK is there just waiting to be explored. All you need to do is type in your town, village or city and off you go. You can zoom in or out or even go to street view.
If you want to download Google Earth Professional (which is now free), you can access historical satellite pictures (and also some ex RAF images dating back to 1945) and this allows you to look at some areas during different seasons so a comparison might be able to be made regarding the crops and their state of ripeness.
The final session in this series looks at a few more recent innovations which have been added to the archaeologists’ tool kit.
The first of these is Airborne Laser Scanning (or LIDAR-Light detection and Ranging), which is an active remote sensing technique used to record the surface of the earth specifically the topography of large areas of terrain and objects appearing on it. A Lidar system calculates how long it takes for the light, usually from an airborne laser to hit an object or surface and reflect back to the scanner, the distance is then calculated using the speed of light.
This particular website is for house finding but the Lidar map is free to use although the resolution is not best quality (you have to pay for that privilege).
If you click on the link, go on search and then type in the following grid reference, you will see how useful Lidar is when it outlines a surface object.
SJ 9020 1069
This point is on the A5 Watling Street (Roman road) near Gailey Island. Right in the centre of the image there is a rectangular enclosure with the A5 running through it and this is the settlement of Pennocrucium, a day’s march from Wroxeter. Immediately to the SE of this settlement there is a square enclosure which is the fort. If the area is examined more closely several other interesting features may be noticed.
I think this demonstrates very nicely the value of LIDAR to archaeologists.
The second innovation came about thanks to metal detectorists and their finds. Ever since detectorists came on to the scene in the late 1960’s, many interesting (and sometimes valuable) finds have been made but unfortunately not all were recorded and their value to the historical record was lost. Since the late 1990’s, a scheme has been in place to encourage detectorists to get their finds professionally identified and recorded and this is called The Portable Antiquities Scheme. Ever since its inception the number of finds recorded has increased dramatically.
Within the site there is a searchable database which allows access to all types of finds, historical periods and places, although the majority are metal finds occasional non metallic objects are listed. This is well worth a look as the information held is quite recent and up to date.
Finally, I have included another recent innovation now free to use and this allows access to Archaeological Reports online. Professional reports are usually a complete document containing all sorts of useful information that someone else has spent ages producing, poring over research documents (a lot of which were not available to the public) and engaging specialists to give advice and opinions so that a complete picture can be given about an archaeological excavation. Someone somewhere has spent a lot of money producing these reports so it would be a shame not to make use of them.
These are just two examples but there are many out there on the web so all you have to do is a quick search on Google for ‘archaeology reports online’ and see what comes up!
I hope this series of ‘lockdown links’ has been of some use and has encouraged you to go and find out about your local town or village. You never know-you might be sitting on an undiscovered Bronze Age Roundhouse!