Citizen Scientists Needed for ‘Beacons of the Past’

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The ‘Beacons of the Past’ project team are calling for public participation to help identify potentially thousands of newly revealed archaeological features in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Beacons of the Past is a National Lottery funded project aiming to discover more about the Chilterns Iron Age hillforts. The project manager is Dr Wendy Morrison, Senior Associate Tutor in Archaeology at the Department.

There is full training offered – those interested in taking part should visit the Online Citizen Science Portal, at: chilternsbeacons.org. It is accessible on smartphones and tablets, and can be used while visiting sites.

New imaging brings old sites to light

The project recently flew a bespoke LiDAR survey of the Chilterns – the first of its kind in this area, and the largest high-resolution archaeological survey ever flown in the UK.

LiDAR, standing for ‘Light Distance and Ranging’ is a survey technique that has been used by archaeologists for nearly 20 years. It has aided in the discovery of new sites and is particularly important for its ability to show archaeology beneath tree cover. It has the power to reveal previously hidden landscape features in three-dimensional clarity.

The technique works using a plane-mounted laser scanner which sends out millions of pulses of light towards the ground and detects the reflections. From this data a highly accurate ‘point cloud’ is created of everything the light has hit on the earth’s surface. The points are then ‘classified’ for whether they are vegetation, buildings, or the ground surface; all of the above-ground points are filtered away, leaving us with a ‘digital terrain model’ of the bare earth, which allows us to start to detect archaeology.

Encompassing 1400 square kilomtres, the survey offers the potential to reveal thousands of new archaeological sites across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

The Chilterns AONB is located across four counties and only a stone’s throw from London. Perhaps best known for its chalk streams and leafy woodlands, it also boasts a large number of prehistoric earthworks such as hillforts and burial mounds, with 20 known hillforts and potentially more which the survey may reveal.

Get involved

Following the completion of the survey, the project team are hoping for the public’s help – to view and interpret the results of the data gathered by the LiDAR visualisations. In many cases these will be people who may have spent decades exploring the Chilterns landscape or those who live in it, and who will bring a unique perspective to the project. 

The team will offer comprehensive training and tutorials to teach LiDAR interpretative skills, allowing users to decipher the results of the data and enter the findings on an online Portal (a web-GIS and heritage asset management system). 

Project Manager Dr Wendy Morrison said: 'This will enable anyone in the world to discover new archaeological features in the Chilterns from their computer. Encouraging people from all walks of life to engage with a resource that is usually accessible to a handful of researchers will open up the landscape for greater understanding and appreciation, and when we appreciate and understand a place, we begin to take more active roles in caring for it.'

Funded by a £695,600 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a number of partners such as the National Trust, Chiltern Society and local authorities, Beacons of the Past is providing a real focus for community and public involvement through techniques such as remote sensing and survey, practical excavation, and research, as well as a programme of events and educational activities.

Results will be used to further engage communities with their heritage, through work in schools, with youth groups, public talks and workshops. The new discoveries will be made available to the relevant Heritage Environment Record officers in the four counties and will also help heritage managers, archaeologists and policy makers to consider how they look after the Chilterns landscape.

Dr Ed Peveler, Landscape Heritage Officer for the Chinnor-based project, said: 'This is a fantastically exciting project, and I can’t wait to see how people interact with the LiDAR data. This is a dataset which unveils so much history in our landscape, and frankly is just huge fun to play with. People are going to be finding things hidden in plain sight across their usual stomping grounds.'

Stuart Hobley, Area Director London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: 'The Chilterns is full of ancient history but there could be still much more left to discover. Thanks to National Lottery players, this project is an incredible opportunity to get involved in making new discoveries and to potentially rewrite the history of this beautiful landscape.'

Find out more information about Dr Wendy Morrison and our courses in Archaeology.

Published 14 September 2019