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What lies beneath?

Have you ever wondered what lies beneath the places you live, work, or visit? Here is an introduction to how you can find out more about the history and archaeology of your local area.

Roman brooch registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme © Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

What we know about the history of a place comes from a wide range of sources. Before archaeologists let their spades touch the ground, they start by finding out what is known about an area already, and what has been found nearby. This is called a desk-based assessment, and is something you can try out for yourself too; in many cases without even leaving the comfort of your own (internet connected) home. The following are some of the most useful resources that are publically available:

1. Historic Environment Records (HERs)

HERs, formerly Sites and Monuments Records, should be your first point of call for detailed information about areas in England. They are used by local authorities for planning and development purposes, but are very useful for archaeologists, local historians, and the general public too. HERs hold information about known archaeological sites, buildings, landscapes, finds and other aspects of the historic environment. They usually also contain information about investigations that have taken place already, and may give details about past research. HERs are usually held by local authorities, and many are searchable online through Heritage Gateway website. You can also access them through local archives or record offices. A similar source of information is the English Heritage Archives, which can be searched online through Pastscape or in person at the English Heritage Public Search Room and Library in Swindon.

2. Aerial and satellite images

Aerial photography has been an important source of information in archaeology since the First World War. With the freely available satellite images provided by services like Google Earth, we no longer need to hire a light aircraft to get access to such images (which is lucky for most of us!). Height differences caused by buried walls or mounds show up very well by shadows cast in aerial views. Structures below the ground - walls, ditches, ruins - affect the soils that cover them and how plants grow, and we can see this as differences in colour from the air. But be careful - sometimes very recent tracks and plough marks can look suspiciously like ancient archaeological features! Thousands of historic aerial photos are now also available online through the Britain from Above project.

3. Historic maps

Most local record offices and/or public libraries hold substantial collections of historic maps. Look at as many maps as possible for the area you are interested in. How do they change over time? Are there any villages, settlements, or buildings that don't exist anymore? Many old maps also show the location of archaeological features like 'tumuli' - earth mounds, usually burial mounds - which may since have been destroyed. Another thing to look for is evidence for older place names, which may be different from names used in an area today.

4. Place names

Place names can often give us important clues to the history of a place. Some names may tell us about the people who originally settled somewhere, or what went on at a particular place; the name of the village Thingwall in Wirral for example, comes from the old Scandinavian words meaning 'assembly field'. Place names ending in –by (Derby, Kirkby, Ingleby) also tell us about a Scandinavian past, whilst names like Hastings and Reading, with the ending –ingas (meaning ‘people of’ or ‘dwellers at’) are thought to date back to early Anglo-Saxon settlements. It is important to remember that modern versions of a name can be misleading, so it is best to look for early versions and spellings in historic maps and documents wherever possible. To find out more, try looking up names in a place name dictionary.

5. The Portable Antiquities Scheme database

The Portable Antiquities Scheme is a project funded by the DCMS encouraging the public to voluntarily record archaeological objects they have found. A staggering 850,000 objects are currently in the database, and you can search and view these items online here. Try searching by period or area - can these objects tell you more about when and how the area was used? 

Want to find out more?

Throughout the country, there are vast numbers of local history societies that you could become a member of. Have a look at the list produced by Local History Online to see if there is one near you. If you want to take part in an archaeological excavation, you can check the listings of digs taking on volunteers provided by Current Archaeology. To learn more about archaeology in general, try a course such as the 'Introduction to Archaeology' summer schools run by the University of Bristol.