Volunteers examining aerial surveys from home have shed new light on previously unidentified archaeology in south-west England.

LiDAR scan and photo of an area with an archaeological feature
Volunteers have identified this probable Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement (red arrows) and associated field system (blue arrows). [Image: University of Exeter]

The work is part of a project called ‘Understanding Landscapes’, which is run by the University of Exeter and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Launched in 2017, the project set out to use a combination of field- and desk-based activities to help communities investigate the history and archaeology of two areas of Devon and Cornwall, with a focus on their Romano-British and medieval occupants.

When the COVID-19 outbreak put a halt to field-based activities like survey work and excavation, volunteers were instead asked to study topographical maps of the Tamar Valley (the border between Cornwall and Devon) and surrounding areas. Covering an area of 4,000km2, the maps were created using LiDAR data from the Tellus South West project and the Environment Agency. They were then split by project leader Dr Chris Smart into 1,000 grids, which were given to volunteers to try to identify human-made features. Any new discoveries were cross-referenced with existing records and historic maps to find sites that had previously been missed.

This research has already identified 20 prehistoric burial mounds; 30 prehistoric and Roman settlements; more than 30km of a Roman road that appears to connect the major forts of Calstock, near Tavistock, and Restormel, near Bodmin; and hundreds of medieval farms, field systems, and quarries.

The precise locations of these are being kept secret for now to protect them, but it is intended that a sample of the sites will be examined by geophysical survey once lockdown is lifted. It is also hoped that it will be possible to integrate the new information into the Cornwall and Devon Historic Environment Records’ existing databases, and perhaps to expand the project over more of south-west England.

Other discoveries have been made across the country by amateur archaeologists studying LiDAR data at home during the COVID-19 lockdown, such as the identification of a possible Neolithic henge in southern Derbyshire by a participant in DigVentures’ online archaeology course – just one of many examples of the diverse ways people are getting involved in archaeology under these unusual circumstances.


This news article appears in issue 365 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply