Every silver lining has a cloud

Like much of the world, the UK has been undergoing a summer of drought—not as bad as Russia and some other spots, but pretty noticeable nonetheless. Parts of the Northwest show rivers and lakes at their lowest level since the 1960s. We’ve had a bit of rain recently, but, still, the first half of 2010 was the second driest in nearly a century. But there’s an upside. It’s great for archeologists. The ground is so dry that contours that would normally go unnoticed are now pretty visible. As Reuters comments,

From Roman forts to Neolithic settlements and military remains dating to World War Two, English Heritage has been busily photographing the exciting discoveries from the air.

Known as crop marks, the faint outlines of unseen buried structures emerged because of the length of the dry spell, leading the national conservator to label 2010 a vintage year for archaeology.

The outlines show up when crops grow at different rates over buried structures. Shallower soils tend to produce a stunted crop and are more prone to parching, bringing to light the new features.

“It’s hard to remember a better year,” said Dave MacLeod, a senior investigator with English Heritage.

It’s pretty cool, actually—Britain has this great history that goes back thousands of years, and we’re learning more about it every day. Too bad we had to learn about it this way.

8 replies »

  1. Oh, that’s easy. It’s a prehistoric circular enclosure discovered in the East Riding area of Yorkshire, about three or four hours north of London. The rectangular area around the enclosure is probably a stone wall. About 60 such sites were mapped from the air in this area in just one day. It’s been a remarkable year for this sort of stuff. And they’re all over the place. The long vertical strips are actually the paths used by tractors and combines.

    Go here, and then use the link on the right hand side of the page to track the stuff on aerial surveys. Fascinating. I love this little island. So many ghosts!

    • I really need to travel more…. One of these days, my wife and I (maybe with the kids, maybe without) will get cheap tickets non-stop from Denver to Heathrow and then bebop around Great Britain and Ireland at a minimum.

      Still, every time I read about things like this, I’m reminded of my basic anthropology classes and one of my history classes. I wasn’t much on the cultural anthropology – the prof and books made it seem too “Let’s study these poor backwards people so we know what we were like before we became civilized…” – but the physical anthropology was a blast. So was the history of early civilizations, with an emphasis on the environmental factors that drove their civil engineering. Fascinating stuff, and it’s nice to be reminded of it.

      Thanks, wuf.

  2. Brian, you’ll have a great time. You have no idea. Go here, check out when it was built, and then read the second paragraph very carefully. In fact, the ONLY day when sunlight can penetrate the passage into the chamber is the winter solstice–the passage angles down and then up, so normally the sunlight is blocked from entering the chamber. And then think about the mathematical and engineering sophistication required to do this five thousand years ago on some island in the North Atlantic.

    We stumbled on it our first trip to Ireland in the 1970s–it had just opened up, and no one quite knew what to make of it. Pretty cool.

  3. Sweet…not the drought of course. I don’t think that we give our ancestors enough credit. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially when we have examples like Newgrange, the Pyramids and the megalithic temples in Malta…among many others world wide. I don’t even think that archeology gives our ancestors enough credit. Maybe it’s just coincidence that major temple sites match constellation maps, but we are talking about people who could calculate sunrise on the winter solstice and then build – out of solid rock – around that calculation. People who could move slabs of rock beyond the capacity of the most modern construction cranes, with tolerance that should make ISO 9001 blush. Civil engineering that has kept pyramids square, plumb and level for thousands of years.