Virtual ‘dig’ to uncover the secrets of the South Downs

Countryside surrounding Harting Down in the South Downs National Park
Countryside surrounding Harting Down in the South Downs National Park

SPECIAL plane equipped with cutting edge technology is being used next week to search for the lost archaeology hidden under the South Downs National Park’s ancient woodland.

While the South Downs are famous for Iron and Bronze Age monuments such as Cissbury Ring and Winchester Hill, a large part of the central areas of the national park lie under forests or woodland and almost nothing is known about their ancient history .

The Piper Chieftain survey aircraft will be using airborne laser technology (commonly known as LiDAR) to map the ground underneath 30,000ha of woodland between the river Arun and the A3.

The LiDAR survey is the start of a three-year Heritage Lottery-funded project.

Once the 3D map has been created, archaeologists and community groups will be recruited to investigate these sites further.

National Park Authority (NPA) spokesman Rebecca Bennett said: “It’s a unique opportunity to unlock the secrets underneath these ancient woods.

“There are a few archive aerial photographs of this area capturing a tantalising glimpse of features revealed by felling during the second world war, but there is so much we don’t know about the history of the people who lived here.”

“We have seen a marked increase in the use of airborne LiDAR surveys,” said Chris Boreland of Fugro, the virtual mapping company providing the service.

“A major benefit is the rapid collection of a high-accuracy 3D terrain model of the survey area that could take months or even years to undertake by conventional survey teams.

“Over the years Fugro’s FLI-MAP system has surveyed many heritage sites, including Neolithic funerary monuments, medieval settlements in Ireland, and UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites such as Stonehenge and St Kilda.

“The resulting datasets and imagery constitute an invaluable and spectacular research tool and an unparalled means of preserving our landscape and heritage”

James Kenny, archaeology officer at Chichester District Council, said: “We are delighted to be involved in this project. We know there is the potential for fascinating discoveries and it is exciting that we will soon know a lot more about this ancient landscape.”