Peterborough circles

Archaeology: Looking beneath the surface

Buried underneath the fields surrounding Peterborough could be some of our most fascinating archaeology. Hannah Gray met archaeologist and aerial photographer Dr Ben Robinson to find out what lies beneath.

IT may lack the stones or the druids taking part in midsummer rituals, but there is very good chance that Peterborough has its own equivalent of Stonehenge.

If you were lucky enough to fly at 2,000 feet above the area around the A47 at Wansford, you may well notice some circles and lines in the crops which do not match the rest of the fields.

You would, more than likely be looking at buried prehistoric monuments.

The circles are thought to be barrows or burial mounds dating from around 2000 BC and the square a “henge” dating from around 3000 BC.

Henges had ceremonial and religious functions and were gathering places.

Unlike Stonhenge, here the upright parts would have been wood rather than stone, which is why they have not survived.

This site is still, however, of archaeological importance, according to Peterborough City Council’s historic environment manager Dr Ben Robinson.

“It’s quite remarkable that thousands of people could drive by this every day and have no idea that they’re driving past a historic landscape that is as important as the landscape around Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain,” he said.

As fascinating as they are, these markings are not the only ones to be found in the area. Ben estimates that there are hundreds in and around Peterborough.

These include marks left by Roman peat cuttings, clues as to where the Roman road Ermine Street ran, and a Fenland version of an Iron age hill fort.

On ground level they may be almost imperceptible, but up in the sky, aerial photography can show us what is underneath the crops in our fields.

Ben knows this more than anyone, as he is keen on flying and aerial photography and often takes to the skies at weekends and in the evenings in microlights to add to Peterborough Museum’s collection of pictures.

The flying is very much Ben’s hobby and he doesn’t receive any funding from the council to do it, but this hobby certainly helps with his day job.

“What aeriel photography does for us is it give us the ability to see below the soil and the landscape and to look back into ancient times and it is very much, on occasions like flying back to the past. At times the results are so spectacular you feel you are on a magic carpet that’s whisked you back to ancient times,” he said.

However, even if you are airborne, the mysteries of the past may not reveal themselves. Certain types of crops, for example cereals, show up the markings better than others and, generally, the markings can only be seen at certain times in the crop’s growing cycle, usually when it is in its final stage of growth.

When the conditions are right, the monuments become visible because the growth of the crop is affected by the archaeology underneath.

If the ancient site was filled with something nutritious, for example rich soil, then the crops are likely to grow taller than those around them.

On the other hand, if the site was gravely, for example a roadway, the area is not as nutritious and the crops show up because they do not grow as tall.

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4 comments on “Peterborough circles

  1. Tim Jones says:

    Somehow I’d completely missed this, so thanks for posting the story…

    “The circles are thought to be barrows or burial mounds dating from around 2000 BC and the square a “henge” dating from around 3000 BC.”

    …I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a square henge before, very interesting.

  2. saesferd says:

    Thank you for your comment, Tim.
    I only know of ‘King Arthur’s Hall’, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall which is reputed to be a Neolithic rectangular henge.

  3. sarsen56 says:

    Nice pages, very atmospheric, I like the idea of medieval socks, didn’t the museum of London once fill a warehouse with them when they dug the Thames waterfront?
    Re Stonhehnge: Members of the WordPress community who are interested in may like to see: http://sarsen56.wordpress.com

  4. saesferd says:

    Thank you for your comment sarsen56. I soon hope to post a picture of some Viking-style socks that I knitted a while ago. I know of a wide range of fragments of medieval textiles and clothing from waterfront excavations in London – the waterlogged conditions being ideal for preservation – but I’m not sure how many, if any, were from socks.

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