June 23, 2024

Bronze age burial mounds, Roman roads and deserted medieval villages are among almost 13,000 previously-unknown ancient sites and monuments that have been discovered by members of the public in recent months, it will be announced this week.

Truck drivers and doctors are among more than 1,000 people who participated in Deep Time, a “citizen science project” which has harnessed the power of hobbyists to scour 512 sq km (200 sq miles) of Earth Observation data, including high-resolution satellite and lidar – laser technology – imagery.

Participants were searching for ancient features across three distinct landscapes: the Peak District, an area spanning Derbyshire and Yorkshire; Wallington in Northumberland; and Purbeck and Studland in Dorset.

They have found 262 possible Bronze age barrows and three Roman roads, among other discoveries. The project is a partnership between DigVentures, an archaeology social enterprise, and the National Trust, which owns and manages large areas of those landscapes.

Maiya Pina-Dacier, a senior archaeologist with DigVentures, said: “We’ve now got the preliminary results in and they’re really impressive. Our citizen scientists – or ‘Pastronauts’ as we call them – identified 12,802 ancient sites and monuments that were previously unknown.”

Pina-Dacier said the discoveries were particularly exciting because “all of this was achieved within just three months and included local, national and international citizens, many of whom had never done any archaeology before”.

Dr Brendon Wilkins, founder and co-chief executive of DigVentures, said: “Thanks to our Pastronauts, we were able to map much larger areas, in much greater detail, and much more quickly than professional archaeologists alone could have done.

“I’m really excited by the scale of the features that have been found … We can go out now into the field, with many of the participants who have helped us find these sites … field-check them and potentially also excavate them. It’s the prehistoric landscape that’s emerging from beneath the modern field system.”

Founded in 2012, DigVentures enables public participation in archaeology. Thousands of people are drawn to its activities. The archaeologists have not given precise locations of the latest discoveries to deter illicit excavations.

The project, which is funded by Innovate UK and the Heritage Innovation Fund, also relates to the impact of the climate crisis on our landscapes: “the interconnectedness between our historic environment and our natural environments”, Wilkins said, noting that mapping archaeological and ecological “assets” can better plan reforestation work, for example, without damaging existing archaeology.

He added: “To meet its net zero goals, the UK needs to transform at least 700 sq km of land a year. Citizen science programmes like this can directly support these efforts by helping to map and increase our understanding of the landscapes in question before work begins.

“All three landscapes that we searched are already being impacted by climate change, and the National Trust is doing a huge amount of work in each of them to implement nature recovery and landscape resilience measures, such as reforestation, coastal defences and carbon sequestration.”

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Tom Dommett, head of historic environment at the National Trust, said: “Climate change already affects some of our most distinctive landscapes, and we’re taking significant steps to make them more resilient. We’re absolutely thrilled by the huge collective effort that went into this project from citizen scientists to help us do even more of this work.”

The National Trust cares for 123 sq km of land across the Peak District national park, within an area that has been occupied since the Mesolithic. Searching for its archaeology – including Palaeolithic cave sites – supports plans for conservation and habitat restoration, to help slow the effects of climate breakdown.

The Purbeck and Studland mission area covers 35 sq km of National Trust property on the Isle of Purbeck, which was already known to be home to a huge variety of ancient sites and unique habitats, now vulnerable to rising sea levels and rapid coastal erosions.

Dr Martin Papworth, the National Trust archaeologist for the south-west, warned that coastal sites would disappear in “as little as 30 years”, which means that the area’s monitoring and management are crucial. This project has involved identifying previously undiscovered sites before they are lost.

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