Plymouth Archaeology Society

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Lecture Reports

Out from the Shadow of Dartmoor

25 Years of Air Survey and Post-reconnaissance in Lowland Devon

1st December 2008

Frances Griffith

When Frances Griffith first came to work in Devon, the only known pre-historic sites were on Dartmoor.  In 1983 she initiated the Devon Aerial Reconnaissance Programme, and this talk celebrated its 25th anniversary. Many of you will know her book ‘Devon’s Past – an Aerial Survey’ published in 1988. She is now working on a new one in conjunction with Eileen Wilkes entitled ‘Pre-Historic Devon’.  In her lecture she showed us photographs of crop marks indicating numerous previously unknown prehistoric sites.  She described how some excavations had resulted from these discoveries and outlined the efforts she and her team have made to ensure that sites are preserved for posterity. Her work has also uncovered many Roman sites which have helped to substantiate Eileen Fox’s theory that the Roman occupation did not stop at Exeter, but extended westward at least as far as the Camel and the Fal.

Professor J.K.S. St Joseph had been the first to undertake regular reconnaissance flights over Devon from his base in Cambridge. However most lowland farms in Devon have long leys followed by a year of cultivation.  This means that they have neither retained their earthworks nor been the subject of regular field walking, so the number of prehistoric sites has been underestimated. Crop marks are the result of using different soils to in-fill or because of a buried feature. These may affect the plants growing there when the crop is demanding moisture.  Some crops are more vulnerable than others and the marks may be invisible when other seeds are sown.  If the land is under grass then the feature may only be seen under exceptional late summer droughts, such as that of 1984. She and her pilot, Dickie Dougan must have flown over one site near the end of the runway at Exeter Airport hundreds of times before it became visible.  

Dickie found the hill fort at Raddon, but the excavation only came about when it was crossed by the entrance road to a new reservoir. A complex including a giant enclosure was discovered at Nether Exe because the area containing a cursus was sown with beans. This explained the numerous flint implements found by John Uglow over a life time. A transect will shortly be cut at a site Frances has found at Broadclyst when a sewer is put in.  At Bow, she believes this ceremonial site may be the place that gave rise to all the ‘nymet’ place names. Mount Folly has, of course been the site of one of the longest running community excavations. Now in its fifth year, many members of PDAS have taken part in the excavation. It is a huge landscape where more than 2,000 pieces of pot have provided evidence of trade from Spain, France and up and down the Channel, all between 300 BC to 300 AD.

All the sites Frances finds are recorded on what was the ‘Sites and Monuments Register, but is now called the ‘Historic Environment Record’ and everyone is welcome to make an appointment and come and use it. However few of these sites are listed and many of them are under threat from ploughing.  When a site is identified, one of her team goes out and looks at the site on the ground hoping to encourage the farmer to bring it under benign management.  Only if someone puts in a planning application will there be an excavation first. They are encouraging such farmers to take part in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, but even this has a limited life. An interested and preferably enthusiastic farmer makes all the difference, particularly if he keeps a site under grass and hopefully preserves it for future generations.

Joan Price