The Flying Archaeologist: Revealing lost worlds

Friday 19 April 2013, 10:16

Ben Robinson Ben Robinson Presenter and Archaeologist

Tagged with:

I love flying as much as I love archaeology, so it was fantastic to get the opportunity to present The Flying Archaeologist series for BBC One and BBC Four.

At English Heritage, my role involves the challenging task of tackling heritage at risk; that is everything from the buried remains of Roman villas to important listed buildings that find themselves on the brink of extinction.

The four areas we visited in this series, Stonehenge and the River Avon, Hadrian's Wall, the Norfolk Broads and the Hoo Peninsula are all very different, but each is very special in its own distinctive way.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

A bird's eye view casts fresh light on the archaeology and history of Britain

That's what makes our country so interesting - so much heritage and variation packed into such a small place. So what is the connection between flying and archaeology?

Two apparently unconnected disciplines actually meet in the niche domain of aerial archaeology.

The term encompasses all research that involves looking for historic remains from the air, and on the ground, scrutinising historic aerial photographs, or analysing the results of cutting-edge techniques, such as light detection and ranging (LIDAR) on a computer.

English Heritage's painstaking efforts to map all the significant archaeological features visible on vast collections of aerial photographs really is revealing lost worlds.

It's not too bold to claim that this small sub-discipline has done more to reveal the rich history of the English landscape than any other investigative technique that we have developed over the last 100 years.

And yet this contribution to understanding our past is not nearly as well-known as it should be.

Hoo Peninsula A reconstruction of the network of trenches discovered on the Hoo Peninsula along the Thames

So the idea of The Flying Archaeologist series is to show how our knowledge of some of our most iconic landscapes, and those more hidden corners of the country, is being transformed by the aerial view.

Now, you might think this would be a relatively easy TV task. Fly around, find wonderful things, and film them.

However, many of the most exciting aerial discoveries are exciting precisely because they do not reveal themselves easily.

They require a combination of the right crop cover, dry weather and good light, and being in the right place at the right time with a camera. 

In the wettest and least sunny summer on record, we had to abandon filming on Hadrian's Wall in June when, after days of rain, we were caught in one of the most catastrophic flash floods ever to hit the area.

Hadrian's Wall Excavations at a civilian settlement near Roman auxiliary fort Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall

It's hard enough to get access to the tightly-controlled military airspace around Stonehenge at the best of times - and we also had the exceptional sporting calendar to contend with in the south.

The massive anti-terrorist aerial exclusion zones thrown up around the Olympic events made usually accessible places forbidden for most of the summer.

So getting a helicopter and small aeroplane loaded with cameras and crew, in the same place at the same time in reasonable weather, and managing to fly despite the restrictions was a significant achievement in its own right.

You'll see some of the intriguing things I spotted from the air during the filming. Ultimately, however, plans and theories generated by the aerial perspective need to be tested on the ground.

Archaeologists sifting through items found at a dig New evidence has revealed traces of human settlement 3,000 years before nearby Stonehenge was built

It was great, therefore, to meet archaeologists who are doing just that. The dedication, skill, and in some cases, the community effort being harnessed to explore and explain our past is a joy to behold.

It may sound trite to some people, but I think poring over maps that show hidden landscapes, or flying over ancient sites, trying to interpret how it all fits together and thinking back to life in the distant past is about the closest we can get to time travel.

Ben Robinson is an archaeologist and the presenter of The Flying Archaeologist.

The Flying Archaeologist will be broadcast at 7.30pm on Friday, 19 April on BBC One with four different episodes shown simultaneously in four select English regions. All four episodes will then be available on iPlayer for seven days on most platforms.

The series will be broadcast across the UK on BBC Four starting with episode one at 8.30pm on Monday, 29 April. For all programme times please see the broadcasts page.

More on The Flying Archaeologist
BBC News: Hadrian's Wall: Aerial photographs 'could change history'
BBC News: Network of World War I trenches discovered on Hoo Peninsula 
BBC News: Norfolk Broads: Bronze Age evidence 'everywhere'
BBC News: Stonehenge occupied 5,000 years earlier than thought

BBC Four Collections: Archaeology At The BBC: Explore archive programmes charting the BBC's first ventures into archaeology programming, available online to watch in full. Included are the popular Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? series and programmes featuring legendary archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Tagged with:


Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Great, looking forward to this programme as live in Cliffe, the memoirs of elderly residents re WW2 are being recorded by the Cliffe History Project. Some tunnels at Cliffe used as air raid shelters WW2. Looking forward to this programme. I know exactly where it is just had no idea what is was.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I have to admit I do not understand the accompanying article on Stonehenge which states that there was occupation "5,000 years earlier than first thought".

    If I remember the research I did prior to teaching a class on Stonehenge, there is evidence of a wooden structure (partly covered by the existing car park) that dated back to roughly 9,000 BC. I also remember patiently explaining, around the same time, to antiquarians in my home village of Mellor, near Stockport, that as a rule, monuments do not erect themselves, ergo where there are structures there are people somewhere nearby.

    It is certainly true that knowing that people were in and around the area does not tell you where said people were, so this new work is unquestionably highly exciting, but they can't be both known to have been there for many decades and newly discovered. Only the location of further monuments, camps, settlements, work sites and hunting grounds can be newly discovered, surely.

    Again, I'm not criticising the series or the work being done, as it looks to be stupendously exciting and important. I'm not even necessarily questioning the article, as carbon dating has come a long way and the original dating of the post holes might well have been inaccurate for all kinds of reasons - contamination was a big problem back then. But there needs to be some reconciliation or the conclusions look weird.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    carbon dating is totally innacurate as was its predecessor. man has been on earth just over 6,000yrs. therefore estimates as 9,000yrs, 7,500yrs. etc are meaningless

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Pure chance, or fate that I saw this programme. Our default channel is BBC London. My husband saw it advertised and recorded it thinking it might be good to watch. How right he was. The man killed in an explosion at the ammunition's factory in Cliffe was my great-grandfather. His gravestone at Cliffe Church was show. Quite a tingling experience considering I wasn't expecting to see it

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @chodgson What a small mind you must have, unable to comprehend deep time, both past and future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Have a look at the aerial photography techniques for kids:
    using kites, rubbish bags, balloons and water rockets.
    All part of the work of the West Lothian Archaeological Trust:

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    None of you listen and then evaluate apart from one person:


    The truth regarding anything at all is all around us right now. The fossil record shows us there was no evolution of anything. It is so easy to believe that this and that evolved from one thing to another yet there is not one single piece of geological evidence that shows the changes that Darwin expected to see that proves anything. The explosion of life in the fossil record and the event of 'the flood' as is explained in Biblical texts fits far too precisely for those who refuse to believe in anything. If such people want to believe that we are a simply the result of a bunch of randomly put together particles then rather than waste time trying to tell those who know better and trying to do things in the name of science, why not do what the greatest of scientists did? Isaac Newton knew the world around him was created - he wanted to find out how it worked. There is nothing at all wrong with that, I really do not need to write more.....

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    @Duckpond - what evidence do you have to make such a comment because there is stacks and stacks of evidence to back up what 'chodgson' wrote?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Here's the thing: this was a good, balanced programme that I'd been looking forward to. It pretty much hit the spot in a way that was more academically-minded that the other populist programme that's just ended after 20 odd years... However, when filming got underway at Vespasian's Camp, there was the preamble narration about the fact that the woodland had been in private ownership for 400 years, which was followed up by an ominous comment along the lines of " it's remained safe from treasure hunters...". What does that actually mean? I wonder if Ben can elaborate? I can only assume the inference was about metal detectorists? I think it's true to say that the MDs have, in some cases, been their own worst enemies, but speaking as one who reports every find to the PAS, has a strong relationship with my local museum (Verulamium), and has donated a substantial Roman find a few years ago, I find it irritating that the broad-brush approach still persists and seems to apply to all. IF indeed that was what the comment was referring to, that is... Some of us are actually really decent chaps who just want to help record history responsibly and in a small way. Go ahead and prosecute the idiots who illegally dig up SSSI's, scheduled monuments and the like by all means, but DON'T tar us all with the same brush, please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It's been a while since I last read such an informative and intriguing post. This is just great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Many thanks to you all for your comments. It is great to get feedback.

    Karen, I am glad you saw the programme. It will be repeated in the BBC 4 series that has just begun. It was a very moving experience to see the gravestones of those killed at the Cliffe explosives factory. I imagine that everybody was affected by such tragic and sudden deaths in such a small community.

    Hi to 'The Seeker'. Thank you so much for your comment. It is difficult to get the balancing act right and I am glad you enjoyed the programme. The 'treasure hunters' comment was intended primarily to reinforce the fact that this particular spot at Amesbury had been safeguarded by its owners for a very long time. Therefore it had escaped the attentions of the less skilled antiquarians and disreputable barrow diggers who did a lot of damage to the heritage of the region over hundreds of years. I have worked with metal detectors and detectorists since my very first job in archaeology and well appreciate the benefits they can bring to the discipline. I share your concerns about illegal metal detecting though. Good on you for working with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I am confused why some people persist with computers or the internet when they believe they know all they need to know from one small book, there would seem better uses for their time such as asking their god to do away with such scientific distractions.
    Meantime for those with a wish to know about the real world there is the fascination of sharing new insights gleaned with improved technology of a history all around us we cannot normally see. Will definitely be watching all of these episodes and hopefully they will lead to more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I have a theory about early man's reason for his burial rites.
    When they migrated north out of the seismic active Rift valley, Africa, their memory went with them, of the fact that life was sustained by water and death was associated with fire and destruction by volcanic eruptions.
    So migrating to Britain, meant that by building barrows on hills for their dead, they hoped to evoke the Being, that created eruptions, to return the body to the earth. Later, when they realised that no eruptions would occur, they set about creating their own craters, stone circles; much more convenient than having to transport the corpse to high places.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Just a small question. When are you going to take a look at the wealth of archaeology in and around Aberdeenshire and the Hill of Corsegight in particular? T.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    just watch the clip about the Amesbury river, quite charming, unfortunately my mood was completly spoilt by the creationist nonsense you have allowed on the message board, perhaps I shouldn't be so exercised by it, but giving such arrogant ignorance any form of credance is very upsetting. To the matter in hand so many TV archaeology programmes are spoilt because the seems to be some expectation that an archaeologist will spout forth some madcap theories, based on little more than crude arthropological comparisons. I was rather relived to hear Julian Richards dissing such approaches on this evenings BBC Ancestors Bones review.
    So many TV archaeologists seem to have caught Francis Prior bug of making underwriting pre-historic mans behaviours in the light of their own predjudices and hope you can make the evidence support the fantasy. Parker Pearson is on his second great new Stonehenge theory in four years, now that the land of the living land of the dead guff has proven to be nothing more than hot air.

    As someone who was lucky enough to speak of archaeology with Richard Atkinson, imposing anything of ourselves or are own experiences on the lives of the pre-historic people is doomed to fail, other that at the most basic of levels

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Just watched the Stonehenge episode on iplayer-fascinating stuff & engaging presenter.This seems an accessable & intelligent programme for everyday history enthusiasts such as myself. I hope they make another series, I would be interested to see archaeological sites in Yorkshire & Isle of Wight from the air.


Page 1 of 2

This entry is now closed for comments

Share this page

More Posts

Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero: An audience with the sultan

Thursday 18 April 2013, 08:58

Frankie: A character with her own soundtrack

Friday 10 May 2013, 10:32

About this Blog

Get the views of cast, presenters, scriptwriters and crew from inside the shows. Read reviews and opinions and share yours on all things TV - your favourite episodes, live programmes, the schedule and everything else.

We ask that comments on the blog fall within the house rules.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?