Spectral pleasure gardens and the ancient routes of hunter-gatherers are only some of the forgotten gems coming to light
We buckle in, the engine roars to life, and we begin creeping across the airfield; wings wobble alarmingly with acceleration, then that stomach-dropping lurch pulls us away from the ground. Rising skywards, nervousness distils to anticipation for the priceless views of the great Clun-Clee ridgeway in south-west Shropshire. It’s 2003, deep in AE Housman country and my first experience of aerial archaeology. My undergraduate dissertation was exploring the meagre record for the last prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the region, and I wanted to see the lie of the land. Flying over swelling hills I’d pored over in cartographic form and trudged across on foot was exhilarating, even though we didn’t discover any new sites that year.
If we’d gone up this summer, it might have been a different story. Right across the country, hundreds of archaeological sites are literally transpiring from the soil, as grass and crops become desiccated after months without rain. Deeper soils hold on to moisture longer, so plants growing over buried features such as ditches, walls or even old flowerbeds will dry out at different rates. Archaeologists have quietly spent decades developing a whole gamut of “remote-sensing” methods that allow us to visualise the skin-thin layer of sediments covering Britain’s bedrock. Its wrinkles and lumps contain our deep history written across fields, meadows and hills.