If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 30 August 2010

Crop Markings

This exceptionally warm and dry (for recent UK values of warm and dry, of course) has been a boon to another group, apart from bikers: archaeologists. While we are out burning up the miles, carving out the bends and generally enjoying the fun to be had without worrying about waterproofs or wet grip, the archaeologists were up in the sky, photographing crops.

When something, be it a Roman fort or a Bronze Age hut circle, is buried there is usually nothing at all to see. But when the weather gets dry for a long period, the plants above it respond very visibly to the amount of water available to their roots. And where the soil is thinnest (for example over an ancient wall), the plants struggle and look parched. Conversely, where there is more moisture, perhaps in the vicinity of an ancient rubbish tip or post-hole, the plants are greener. And so dry weather makes the presence of historic features underneath the surface landscape much more visible. You don't have to rely on bumps and ditches any more; even land that has been ploughed will betray evidence of building or habitation as long as the ploughing hasn't been too deep.

The Telegraph reports that this has been a bumper summer for archaeology. A new Roman camp has been found in Dorset, and 60 sites were found in one area of East Yorkshire in just one day. I have to say I am really excited about this. I got interested in the Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval periods during my studies, and then was lucky enough to live in East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, where the evidence of our forebears is all around you if you know where (and, crucially, how) to look.

I can remember being ridiculously excited one day while I was cycling home from work one autumn. (Cycling is great for seeing stuff that you miss on faster modes of transport.) I saw something in a field out of the corner of my eye and stopped. The field to the left of the road was brown earth, and had just been ploughed. Across the field, in a dead straight line, was a line of a whiter colour then the rest of the soil, perhaps 3 or 4 metres wide. The Romans had a big presence in the area, and I wondered if it was the remains of a Roman road, and bits of the road base had been brought up to the surface by the recent ploughing of the field. Two days later, it had vanished again as the soil was weathered by the wind and rain. I checked on a map, and sure enough the line of the 'road' headed directly towards York. We didn't have the Internet then, of course, or I would have chased it up further, but a steady job and a young family meant that other commitments intervened and I never researched it.

If I could go back to 18 and choose again, I would choose archaeology.

The key text for me (recommended by a friend when I was an adult) is The Making Of The English Landscape by W G Hoskins (1955, but still in print). Celtic field-systems, lost villages, ruined churches and ancient drainage systems: it will either bore you to tears or switch something on in your head that you won't be able to turn off.

It's archaeo-porn.

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