Discover the Downs from Above
- 08 August 2023
The National Trust looks after thousands of archaeological sites and landscapes, but just because we manage them doesn’t mean we yet know everything about them. Thanks to new technologies and opportunities like the one provided through Changing Chalk we can continue to learn, understand and better care for sites on a larger scale.
New report provides a key to the history of the Downs
As part of Changing Chalk’s Downs from Above project, Historic England has used aerial imagery to map hundreds of archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic to the Second World War across 192 square kilometres of the South Downs on the outskirts of Brighton.
The resulting new report reveals the rich history of the area and the ways in which the activities of our ancestors have shaped the landscape whether by ancient burial, farming, leisure, military activity, and industry. It highlights sites with a tangible link to the past, connecting people to their area and fostering a sense of place.
You can download the full report from the Historic England website here: Changing Chalk: Downs from Above. Aerial Survey of the South Downs north of Brighton | Historic England.
Aerial photos and Lidar
Historic England’s aerial investigation team analysed more than 9,500 aerial photographs as well as recent airborne laser scans (lidar) - a technique that uses an aircraft-mounted laser to build a 3D digital elevation model of the ground below - to locate, identify and map marks in the landscape which represent the thousands of years of human activity the Downs have seen. The results cover a wide variety of archaeological features ranging from small chalk pits to vast prehistoric field systems, and burial mounds to hillforts.
1940s aerial photographs provided a useful overview of the 20th-century military activity on the Downs, as well as a unique snapshot of the open grassland before conversion to arable.
The project results contribute a lasting legacy allowing people to better understand the form and extent of this archaeological landscape. It will both inform future management and inspire further archaeological investigation of this special area.
New interactive map
Alongside the report is an interactive map which encourages people to discover and connect with this landscape and its remarkable past. People can explore and engage with the Downs through time and contribute their own knowledge, adding data to the map to share their thoughts or report discoveries. They can also comment on the condition of the feature as it exists on the ground, and consider the interpretation of it based on the aerial photography.
You can investigate the mapping data here: Downs from Above Portal (arcgis.com)
So what can we see?
Farming – Dewponds for sheep
Dewponds are man-made drinking pools for animals, and are situated across the South Downs on ridges, hilltops and within combes.
Historically, sheep had a prominent place in farming not just for the wool and meat they provided but also for their role in manuring the arable fields, a system known as sheep and corn farming.
Devil’s Dyke and all the fun of the fair
Devil’s Dyke and its commanding viewpoint has been attracting people for millennia. The location of a defensive hillfort in the Iron Age, by the Victorian era it drew crowds of tourists.
The expansion of the railway in the mid-19th century opened up many places to the wider public, including Sussex. The countryside and coast near Brighton became of a place of refuge and recuperation to the middle classes as the health and recreational value of the seaside was recognised. The first holiday destinations were born, and activities and attractions were developed to amuse those with money and time on their hands.
In its heyday, Devil’s Dyke boasted lawns, tea pavilions, two bandstands, a 7-ton replica naval gun and even a zoo amongst its attractions. The Dyke Hotel, built around 1831, and the surrounding ridge was home to an adventure park with fairground attractions occupying much of the interior of Devil's Dyke hillfort. There were a series of fairground adventure rides, including a rollercoaster and an aerial ropeway where thrill-seekers traversed the Devil’s Dyke in a metal cage suspended from a wire strung between two metal pylons on either side of the valley. Shadows of these attractions can be seen on the lidar images.
Second World War – Shoreham training camp and agriculture
In September 1914, thousands of troops arrived into Shoreham Station, much to the shock of the local residents. Bad weather meant many soldiers were billeted in local houses overnight until a vast tented encampment was established in Buckingham Park and Oxen Fields. Thousands more men arrived over the following days and the construction of a hutted camp began in earnest on Slonk Hill. The remains of the First World War training camp at Shoreham survived as earthworks into the 1940s and are recorded on Second World War RAF aerial photographs.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the growing military presence on the Downs led to roads being closed and farms evacuated. The chalk upland eventually became a training ground and staging post for the D-Day invasions in 1944. The Downs were slowly opening back up to the public before the end of the war, as the threat of invasion lessened. By 1947, with rationing ongoing, many areas of traditional grass downland were converted to arable fields to provide food for the nation.
Routes and tracks - the movement of people
The traces of many tracks, hollow ways and paths cross both the Weald and the Downs. These represent fragments of a complex network of routeways from many periods which are remnants of historic human, and stock, movement through this area.
A feature of the northern face of the South Downs and the opposing south face of the North Downs are deeply incised tracks and paths. In this part of the country, they are known as ‘bostalls’ – a Sussex name for incised routes, probably drove ways, which lead up the steep northern scarp of the South Downs from the Weald onto the open Downs. These were used to move sheep and other livestock to and from pastures to market, and routes to the coastal region.
Industry - Chalk Pits
Historically, Sussex is known for an abundance of raw materials that fed many industries. In the medieval period the Weald became a centre for ironworking and glassmaking and later for brick and tile making. Chalk extraction and lime burning have also left their mark on the landscape.
Offham, to the north of Lewes, operated a large chalk pit from 1809-1890. At its peak of production, Offham chalk pit had four lime kilns, which processed the chalk into lime which was transported away by river.
Settlements and agriculture
The location of early settlements and land farmed by our ancestors can be seen as cropmarks and earthworks across the Downs. Soil accumulated along the field boundaries during ploughing leaves raised banks known as lynchets. Later prehistoric or Roman lynchets, such as those on Balmer Down, survive up to 3m high but many others have been almost completely levelled. Many of these earthworks may be difficult to see on the ground but can be more easily identified on lidar images.
What the archaeologists are saying
National Trust Heritage Officer and Changing Chalk’s lead for the Downs from Above project, Gary Webster commented: “This mapping gives us a unique way to understand the Downs, and our heritage on them. Not only are new features being discovered, but the true character of existing features are being recognised for the first time. This new data is a great resource, both for amateurs and experts alike, to get onto the downland and really see what is just below their feet. We hope it will inspire a host of new projects in the area, allowing us to delve deeper into our shared past.”
National Trust archaeologist, James Brown added: “Not only has ‘Downs from Above’ mapped new archaeological sites for us, it has enhanced previously-known sites, giving us a better understanding of how they relate to each other and overlay each other revealing a story of how humans have adapted the Downs for their needs. This improved understanding allows our teams on the ground to better manage our sites balancing the preservation of nature and heritage to preserve it and celebrate it with our visitors.”
Matthew Oakey, Aerial Survey Principal at Historic England, commented: “The airborne laser scanning (lidar) was particularly valuable in identifying low earthworks of the extensive prehistoric and Roman field systems that cover the Downs. Later evidence for agriculture was seen in the remains of sheep farming that formed a key part of the medieval and post-medieval economy of the area. Enclosures to protect the sheep and ‘dewponds’ to water them are scattered across the Downs. Chalk pits and quarries for local lime are a remnant of the long-gone industrial past. We found that 1940s aerial photographs provided an amazing snapshot of 20th-century military activity on the Downs, as well as showing how the area looked when it was open grassland for sheep before large scale conversion to arable in the post war period.”
Want to get involved?
If this has inspired you to find out more and explore the heritage of the Downs, virtually and on the ground, why not get involved?
To get involved in investigating this landscape alongside a team, or have questions about how to use this data, contact Gary at email@example.com.