While some people are spending their time in lockdown analyzing the latest Netflix has to offer, others are examining images more technical in nature – and they’re making archaeological discoveries by the dozen. 

A team of remote volunteers working with the UK’s University of Exeter have combed through a battery of data-derived topographical maps of the Tamar Valley and found Roman, prehistoric, and medieval sites, all previously undocumented: parts of two Roman roads, 30-some prehistoric or Roman large embanked settlement enclosures, prehistoric burial mounds, and medieval farms, field systems, and quarries. 

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The red arrows indicate a probable large Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement, defined by a bank (the pale line) and ditch (the darker line) © University of Exeter

Part of the university’s Understanding Landscapes project, the effort relies on LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data that’s collected during aerial surveys and used to create detailed maps, without vegetation or buildings to get in the way. The laser technology, cross-referenced with historic maps and known archaeological records, lets armchair Indiana Joneses examine the shape of the land itself to spot any historical remains. 

Though the project’s current focus is the Tamar Valley, its scope “has been extended to include a broad swathe of land between Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, Plymouth and Barnstaple – about 4000 sq.km in all,” team lead Dr. Chris Smart said in a news release, adding that he expects his volunteers to find hundreds of new sites in the coming weeks if they continue on at this pace. 

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In top image, the blue arrows point to an extensive pattern of medieval open-field furlongs and strip cultivation, which were later hidden by the landscape transformation seen in the image below. The small irregular enclosures, marked with yellow stars, sit on either side of the north-south river channel and could have been small paddocks around medieval farms or hamlets. The small square enclosure marked with a red arrow appears to pre-date the medieval landscape and might be of Iron Age or Roman date © University of Exeter

“Ordinarily we would now be out in the field surveying archaeological sites with groups of volunteers, or preparing for our community excavations, but this is all now on hold,” he said. “I knew there would be enthusiasm within our volunteer group to continue working during lockdown – one even suggested temporarily rebranding our project ‘Lockdown Landscapes’ – but I don’t think they realised how many new discoveries they would make.”

For Fran Sperring, a regular volunteer, there’s been “a fairly steep learning curve” but the work has been worthwhile. “Searching for previously unknown archaeological sites – and helping to identify places for possible future study – has been not only gratifying but engrossing,” she said in the release. “Archaeology from the warm, dry comfort of your living room – what could be better?”

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