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The race to record the historic archaeology of Seaford Head, East Sussex in the face of ongoing coastal erosion

The Iron Age hillfort at Seaford Head has stood watch over the English Channel from its clifftop location for two-and-a-half millennia.

Sadly, it is now doomed to collapse into the sea with parts of the site already lost and climate change accelerating its downfall.

Archaeologists are now in a race against time to unlock its secrets.

A team from University College London have spent recent weeks surveying the ancient monument with drones and producing 3D models of it in the hope of not only learning more about Seaford Head but producing a template for the hundreds of other historic monuments along the British coastline set to disappear beneath the waves.

Seaford Head courtesy of UCL

Seaford Head fort, which also contains a Bronze Age burial site and dates to around 600 to 400 BC, perches atop the Seven Sisters headland of the same name between Brighton and Eastbourne.

Despite being known to archaeologists for centuries, it has only had investigative work done on it twice, in the late 19th century by Augustus Pitt Rivers and again in the 1980s. These surveys have done little more than date the fort and barrow.

This latest survey is not designed to reveal those mysteries, so much as identify them and decide what further archaeological work should be done and can be justified with constrained resources.

A key plank of the survey work is drone photogrammetry, which involves taking multiple aerial photographs of the site, merging them using advanced software and georectifying them so that they are to scale and measurable. This allows archaeologists to create a 3D model of the site and identify sites of potential interest.

The drones are also used to survey the cliff face itself which, due to previous collapses, already provides a cross-section of the fort. Whatever the results, time and tide are working against his team. On average, the coast at Seaford is retreating by 20 inches a year.

That figure, however, masks a pattern of cliff falls followed by months or even years of stasis. The UCL team cannot predict when the chalk might next give way but it could take with it another large section of the fort. 

In March 2021, a large section of the Seaford Head cliff face collapsed following heavy rain, leaving behind an enormous mound of debris reaching into the seawater. Elsewhere on the clifftop, large cracks have appeared, portending further losses.

The site has now been placed on the Heritage at Risk register.

Climate change is likely to accelerate this process. Increasingly rough weather conditions and rising sea levels are all expected to eat away at Britain’s coastline and the ancient monuments dotted around it. 

Because of the precarious nature of coastal heritage, the study undertaken by Archaeology South-East at Seaford Head is designed to produce results quickly and cost-effectively.

The pilot project is also intended to spark a discussion among a general public perhaps unaware of how much of its heritage is about to plunge off a cliff face.

With sea defences potentially costing millions of pounds, as well as sometimes being disfiguring, few at-risk sites realistically can be saved from disappearing.

The project will produce a podcast series, bringing in institutions such as the National Trust, as well as films discussing the protection of heritage.

Links:

University College London Seaford Head website news:  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology-south-east/seaford-head

Phys Org website and Seaford Head article: https://phys.org/news/2021-12-drones-capture-coastal-heritage-lost.html

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