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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

Alice Farnsworth is back, to answer another reader’s archaeological query. Don’t forget to send in your questions, and you may be lucky enough to get your own answer from Alice!

 

 

 


Q. As the old adage goes: ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints‘, but don’t footprints cause erosion to delicate sites? How can I minimise my interactions with our ancient sites, given that I feel visiting a site in person is the only way for me to truly experience it?

A. Ha! Yes, it’s true that footfall is a major cause of erosion at our ancient sites, especially at the more popular sites. For instance, the banks at Avebury have often been fenced off to allow the soil to recover from visitors.

There is no simple answer to this question. one way to minimise impact would be to only view sites from a distance (as enforced at Stonehenge), but I can see that this is unsatisfactory in many ways. Limiting your visits to sites that are much less popular with tourists would allow you to gain the interaction you seek. But remember that many of the lesser known sites are on private land where permission may be needed to visit them, or may be off the beaten track with the safety issues that that implies.

Ensuring that you only visit in periods of suitable weather will also reduce the impact of your visit, as fragile sub-surface archaeology can be unwittingly damaged when the ground is sodden. But beware if the weather has been too dry, as the ground underfoot may then crumble and erode, and again, archaeological evidence could be destroyed.

Of course, when visiting any ancient or historical site, you should always attempt to remove any rubbish left behind by others less considerate than yourself, and of course, ensure you do not leave any detritus of your own.

In short, enjoy your visit, and leave the site as you would hope to find it – in its natural state.


Rain is forecast that will significantly add to the standing water on Byway 12 at Stonehenge today – the stretch south of the A303 can be seen in the accompanying photographs taken during April.

It may dry off soon enough but everything the Wiltshire Council cabinet member for highways, transport, and waste, Bridget Wayman, stated about the Ridgeway at Avebury, when closing the route to motorised traffic for a further 21 days, also applies to Byway 12 south of the A303 at Stonehenge:

“The weather in recent weeks has left the surface of the byway severely rutted, and it is still holding water in numerous locations. There are globally important archaeological features on and immediately below the surface and they need to be protected from further damage.”

We might then recall that Highways England adopted Byway 12 in September 2016 as an access route for digging machinery in connection with the now abandoned western portal location for the Stonehenge tunnel, and in the coming weeks a repeat performance is expected, in the name of the Stonehenge tunnel scheme now totally discredited by ICOMOS UK.

Standing water on byway 12

Why then is Wiltshire Council rightly protecting the Ridgeway at Avebury, but failing to extend protection to Byway 12 in the Stonehenge half of the WHS (World Heritage Site)? Keep the diggers off Byway 12 please!

Like many places, the Ridgeway as it passes through Wiltshire has suffered from the intense periods of snow and ice in 2018 that has left precious archaeology vulnerable in the wet conditions. A section of this route near Avebury has though a knight in shining armour: Wiltshire Council has extended the annual prohibition of public motor vehicles which usually runs from 1 October to 30 April, for a further 21 days to protect the surface and archaeology from further damage. It has even been stated that if need be this prohibition of motorised vehicles could be extended further for another 21 days whilst remaining open for walkers, horses, and cyclists.

Bridget Wayman, Wiltshire Council cabinet member for highways, transport, and waste said:

“The weather in recent weeks has left the surface of the byway severely rutted, and it is still holding water in numerous locations.
“There are globally important archaeological features on and immediately below the surface and they need to be protected from further damage.
“We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and would like to thank the public for their understanding and co-operation.”

Credit: Wilts CC

Well done Wiltshire Council, credit where due and all that.

Source: http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/news/articles/byway-closed-to-aid-ridgeway-recovery

Like many places Cockfield Fell, near Bishop Auckland, has suffered from the intense periods of snow and ice in 2018 that has left precious archaeology vulnerable in the wet conditions. This Scheduled Monument has though a knight in shining armour. Lee McFarlane, an Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England, has been quoted as saying that:

“Cockfield Fell contains archaeological remains from the prehistoric period through to the 19th century and is a very important scheduled monument, which is protected by law.

“We are very concerned about the damage by 4×4 vehicles to the archaeology on the site and will be working with the landowner and the police to restrict vehicle access to ensure Cockfield Fell can be enjoyed by future generations.”

Image credit: Sarah Caldecott

Well done Historic England, credit where due and all that.

The Northern Echo

 

Here are a couple of before and after images of Boslow Inscribed Stone, St Just, Cornwall.

Image © C. Weatherhill

Boslow Stone previously.    [Image © C. Weatherhill]

Image © C. Weatherhill

Boslow Stone currently   [Image © C. Weatherhill]

Fortunately the Boslow site is being monitored by CASPN (Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network) in conjunction with Cornwall Council’s Historic Environment Service Officer who has already spoken to the farmer.

However, there are many thousands of ancient sites elsewhere which don’t have protection networks and are far more vulnerable. Budgetary constraints can mean  that unless they are alerted to a problem Historic England inspectors may not be able to visit more than once in several years, if at all. (The parlous financial reality surrounding all heritage guardianship is something which those who complain about having to pay to go to Stonehenge should perhaps take on board!)

So it’s pretty clear that conservation is often in the hands of the general public who are in a position to alert official guardians to problems as soon as they arise.

by Jimit

Further to my previous report 3 months ago I have just been back to West Kennet Long Barrow and my previous fears are beginning to be realised…..

wklb2

The stupid ‘Portholes’ are completely mudded over and a torch is now essential. The top is still fenced off so the new steps cannot be used so people are now eroding a new path to the top. The grass on the concrete is showing signs of stunted growth and browning already. Goodness knows what it will be like at the end of the summer.

Rant over….for now…

English Heritage (EH) have recently made a big splash in the media on the release of their latest ‘Heritage at Risk‘ register, which lists heritage assets deemed to be in danger from deterioration, damage, development or other threats.

When I contacted EH some years ago to enquire, I was told that the vast majority of Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs) in England are lucky if they are officially inspected once a decade. Some are never visited officially, and many can go 20 years or more without any official inspection. Frequently the responsible body will rely upon reports from landowners, the public or police regarding any damage that occurs to a site. The response given to a Freedom of Information request to EH earlier this year shows that what I was told nearly a decade ago still holds true today (check some of the ‘Last Visited Dates in any random spreadsheet in the reply).

But now we’d like to change all that, with your help.

HelpWantedSign

We know that many of our readers visit SAMs and other heritage sites on a regular basis, be it a local site that they’re familiar with, or a site that has been selected as the target of a day trip, or holiday visit to an unfamiliar area. All we ask is that when on such visits, you keep your eyes open for any evidence of Heritage Crime. What is heritage crime? Quite simply, as stated on the EH web page on the subject, it is “any offence which harms the value of England’s heritage assets and their settings to this and future generations”.

So how can you help? Firstly by taking note of any evidence. Pictures are always helpful. If you actually witness a crime being committed, the EH web page on reporting crime suggests phoning 999, but we’d say only do this if you will not be endangering your own personal safety by doing so. The first port of call for any crime will be the police, whether via 999 if a crime is in progress, or 101 if not (see the previous EH link above). If this all sounds familiar, we’ve previously highlighted these steps, here on the Journal.

But in addition, the relevant authority should also be informed, whether that be English Heritage or the National Trust in England, Cadw in Wales or Historic Scotland north of the border – see the contact links below.

It might also be worth recording your visit and any actions taken on one of the hobbyist web sites so that others can see what has already been reported – the Megalithic Portal has a useful Visit Log facility for registered users in addition to its site comments facility.

With your help, the integrity of many of these forgotten and threatened sites can hopefully be maintained, and any damage brought to the attention of the relevant people.

Useful Contact Links:

It’s a bit like the farmer with the fox, the hen and the bag of grain. Which are safe together? Conservation is sometimes about choices ….. rabbits do massive damage to bronze age barrows and Iron Age  hill forts, trees have often meant they have survived, but often the reverse…

Recently though, English Heritage has had to make an unusual choice: the removal of a beautiful stand of trees to protect a rabbit warren. The beech trees, on Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks are to be felled over a four-year period due to concerns their roots could start to damage an underground  medieval rabbit warren. A spokesman for English Heritage said they were working with the Quantock Hills AONB Service to manage the land, adding: “We agreed that the needs of this scheduled monument, which is at high risk, take precedence over the beautiful but relatively young trees.”

A local walker disagrees, saying he is “gobsmacked” and that it would leave the skyline bare for the next 20 years. He said: “I understand we need to preserve archaeological heritage but we should be thinking about protecting the areas millions of people recognise.”  EH and the AONB Service feel differently and say they intend to replace the trees. To add a final complication EH mention that “Unfortunately damage is already being caused due to erosion of the surface layers of the scheduled monument due to the herd of Exmoor ponies, which use the location for shelter.”

So should the ponies be shot?! ** Or the beautiful trees be cut down? Or the present-day rabbits be culled? Or should the fort and the warren be left to further deteriorate?

.

** No.

Exactly a year ago today we published this plea made by Heritage Action Founder Member Jamie Stone on a forum. We think it’s worth repeating – every year if necessary. How about saying something similar on your front page English Heritage?

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a digger destroying a stone row, a quarrying company destroying unique evidence of temporary camps around a henge, modern poems placed over a prehistoric landscape, a farmer allowing livestock to slowly destroy cairns or ploughing flat a round barrow, thousands of people stealing our heritage knowledge in the name of a hobby every weekend, landowners driving 4x4s across chambered tombs, tenant farmers flattening henges, 1000s of people denuding Avebury’s banks by not keeping to paths, unused roads being built over unique archaeology, 100s of people leaving tealights and garbage in barrows or one solitary person clambering to the top of a dolmen.

IT’S WRONG.

Don’t tell me it causes no damage. It doesn’t matter that in the greater scheme of things it’s practically irrelevant, because as the people that actually give a damn we should be setting the highest possible standard when we visit a site. We must do that because frankly, most people don’t know, they simply don’t realise.”

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