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Thursday, 14 May 2015

A View From The Air: Aerial Survey With The Royal Commission

Safely landed at Haverfordwest Airport (K. Davies)
I’m a current PhD student at Swansea University, studying digital heritage and archaeology in Wales. Through Swansea University I was offered a heritage skills training placement with Toby Driver at the Royal Commission, giving me the opportunity to gain experience of the aerial survey work that the Commission carries out. Aerial survey includes monitoring the condition of scheduled ancient monuments across Wales to ensure they are not being damaged, as well as searching for previously unidentified archaeological sites from parch or cropmarks. Cropmarks appear when archaeology under the surface affects the growth rate of plants – for example plants growing over a ditch may grow taller than those around them as they can get more nutrition, whilst plants growing over a buried wall may be stunted, particularly during drought periods. This allows archaeologists to interpret the marks visible and suggest possible further investigative work. Information about these sites is made available to the public through the Royal Commissions online database Coflein.

As part of my week long placement I was given the chance to go on one of the Royal Commission’s aerial reconnaissance flights. Now it has to be said that I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times – but this was an opportunity not to be missed!  The weather was clear and sunny, with barely any wind, perfect for taking to the skies. I was quite nervous when we arrived at Haverfordwest airport, and the four-seat Cessna is by far the smallest plane I have ever been in, but after meeting the pilot and completing the safety checks I was ready to go. Once we were in the air my nervousness was (almost) forgotten; the views were incredible!

Pembrokeshire from the air (K. Davies)

Our first port of call was the current Dyfed Archaeological Trust community excavation at St Patrick’s Chapel in Whitesands Bay. They had asked us to get some aerial shots of their ongoing excavation of the early Medieval cemetery and chapel, which had been exposed during the winter storms of 2013-14. From the air the site looked great, and we got some fantastic photos of everyone hard at work. The dig continues until 22 May 2015 with daily tours for anyone who wishes to visit the site.

Excavations at St Patrick’s Chapel, NPRN: 305394, AP_2015_1168

From Whitesands bay we headed south along the Pembrokeshire coast, and around Ramsey Island.  The sea was so clear that we kept an eye out for any ancient wrecks or fish traps that may be visible, though we didn’t spot any on this trip. We passed several impressive Iron Age promontory forts, including Clawdd y Milwyr (St David’s Head Camp) complete with circles of roundhouses inside, and took photos to update the records. We carried on over Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock, and got photographs of the beautiful gardens at Picton Castle, before heading back to land in Haverfordwest. It was an amazing experience – but I was glad to make it back to land in one piece!

Dinas Fach promontory fort (K. Davies)

We got excellent photographs to update the records, including some by me during my placement, and ensure that the ancient monuments of Wales are fully protected from human or natural damage. We didn’t discover any new archaeological sites on this trip, though every year the Royal Commission identifies dozens of previously unknown sites. However there were good signs of early crop differentiation so far this year thanks so the warm spring, so if we have a dry summer watch this space…

By Kelly Davies, Swansea University

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