The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 113

Issue 113

July / Aug 2010


THE BIG DIG: Links of Noltland

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

MAIN FEATURE: Digging for (Invisible) People

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

Dig for Shakespeare

Literary critics may wonder if Shakespeare wrote all those plays, but archaeologists know where to find him.

The Varmints Show

An occasional series specifically for the website, showcasing pop music inspired by archaeology or heritage. The first of the series features Air-Raid Shelter (Pillbox) by The Human Cabbages.

More online features to follow


All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates real and reconstructed worlds, and Andy Burnham highlights ancient sites viewable from the roadside, including extra content.


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

on the web

Off – and on – the beaten street

About the CyArk Archive

As the web gets more powerful and applications more sophisticated, the opportunities grow to tour online in real and reconstructed worlds. Caroline Wickham-Jones reports.

Google Maps Street View has opened up a new world with great potential for the archaeologist. You can walk through both countryside and historic cities and experience site settings without the hassle of actually travelling. Try Avebury or Stonehenge: or, at the junction of Church Street and Chapel Lane, you can see the site of the dig at Shakespeare's house (feature, this issue).

Of course there are caveats. Sites must be visible from a public road, and you have to mentally remove the filter of more recent development (as we do when out in the field). But given the recent focus on the wider experiential aspects of archaeology this is surely something to make use of, as the Megalithic Portal has already done (see below).

There are other ways to experience the historic landscape online. Visualisation software is highly sophisticated. Virtual Heritage shows the potential for those with funding. Commercial companies abound (eg Asehs) but most control the time period and point of view, thus reducing opportunities for self-directed exploration: they offer the virtual world as an interpretive tool rather than as a means of exploration.

The Stonehenge world heritage site provides a good example of the virtual tour, courtesy of English Heritage (whose site has just been relaunched and much improved), and there is an effective, if clunky, walk through the Cursus. These and other virtual glimpses of the landscape around Stonehenge may be accessed through an interactive map, reminding us that not all landscape exploration has to be in three dimensions.

The phrase "historic landscape" may have been appropriated on the web by Cranborne Chase, but there are plenty of other good examples, from close to home at Kilmartin Glen to further afield such as Egypt.

Landscapes are not just visual. Auditory archaeology may also be mapped, while BAA at Heathrow Terminal 5 have mapped time. Popular applications may be found on YouTube. Most of these relate to Roman sites and cities, or other built heritage such as the Great Temple at Petra, Jordan, or, nearer home, Rosslyn chapel.

The impact of Google on our visual appreciation of archaeology extends beyond "the street". Some have developed the facilities offered by Google Earth for their own uses. The Sagalassos interactive dig, for example, allows exploration of the excavation site. The West Bank and East Jerusalem Searchable Map provides detail of the sites within a landscape. If it looks expensive, do not despair: CyArk hosts a range of digital documentation including 3D scans from around the globe and open source software that allows you to play with it.

Top Site: CyArk Archive

Others have taken the opportunity to upload 3D models such as Ancient Rome 3D (in conjunction with Rome Reborn at the University of Virginia), or modern archaeology such as the Acropolis Museum, built with Google SketchUp. Google seems to dominate the field by which we visualise sites in the landscape. Is this because they have laid some sound groundwork, or are we getting lazy?

Information-Checking on the Web

Caroline Wickham-Jones teaches archaeology at the University of Aberdeen

Taking a view on the past

Andy Burnham describes how contributors to the Megalithic Portal website created a map of over a thousand prehistoric and ancient sites visible from the roadside in Google Street View.

Google Street View Search

The Megalithic Portal database began some 12 years ago from my research into information on megaliths and prehistoric sites that was springing up all over the web. It was given an early boost by Aubrey Burl, who kindly allowed use of his location data for stone circles and rows. Over the years we have added megalithic sites of all sorts, and also cursus monuments, timber circles, holy wells, early Christian crosses and Pictish symbol stones. Web visitors can add their own locations and photos: this has proven wildly successful, and we now have over 50,000 sites listed worldwide.

Once a monument is in our web database, we can create links to other websites such as Defra's MAGIC Map, aerial views and now on-page Ordnance Survey maps thanks to its recent open data initiative. The Megalithic Portal software also locates images of the surrounding area from such sources as Geograph, Panoramio and Flickr.

Earlier in the year I was browsing our site listings in central London, and realised you could see the London Stone in Cannon Street on Google's Street View. I was intrigued by the possibilities: but there are few ancient sites in the urban areas that were covered at the time, so that was as far as the idea went. Then on 11 March, Google extended its Street View coverage to include 95% of UK roads. While most of the media reporting focussed on burglars using the service to plan crimes, or people caught fighting, I knew there was something useful we could do with this new technology.

Like many I had a quick look round my local area on Street View – and breathed a sigh of relief that shadow hid the unkempt hedge at my house. Then remembering the London Stone, I realised we could use the Megalithic Portal's database to pinpoint ancient sites all over the UK. We already had links from each of our site listings to maps of the local area, so it was a case of finding which sites might be visible from the road, then "teleporting" down, as it were, to within a few tens or hundreds of metres of each location and having a closer look.

I was soon hooked, driving up and down on the computer looking for ancient sites. I set up a competition to see who could find the most sites on Street View, as I was sure there must be many hundreds visible. My challenge was taken up enthusiastically, and not just in the UK. For Steve Watson distance has been no barrier to taking part. "I've been amazed how many sites are visible", he wrote from Australia, "I've managed to find some in France as well, Champ Dolent Menhir was a captivating find for me".

Amanda Gough from Cardiff is one of our keenest volunteers. "People probably don't realise they are driving or walking past ancient monuments on a regular basis", she says. "This gives you an idea just how many are still visible and waiting to be discovered."

Working together, in the four weeks of April we found over 1,000 ancient sites visible from the roadside. At the time of writing we are up to 655 in England, 352 in Scotland, 207 in Wales and 34 in Northern Ireland.

Our Street View discoveries are mapped on the website. From a country you can narrow down by county and type of site using drop-down selection boxes. A click on the coloured icons brings up a text link to each Street View page. You can change country via the selection box at the top to show Street View sights we have found in the UK, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and (36 to date) the US.

Andy Burnham is founder of the Megalithic Portal, which hosted a free activity day at the Brecon Beacons Visitor Centre on 31 July as part of the Festival of British Archaeology. Links to a selection of Google Street Views can be found below.

More Links for the MAGIC Map

Here are a few of Andy Burnham's favourite sites

And beyond Britain:

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