Surveying the Landscape in Archaeology

Just because I hardly ever post about my work for confidentiality reasons, yesterday when I was out hiking in Assynt I took some photos of a few things I saw in the landscape that archaeologists doing a landscape walkover survey would investigate. Basically, an area of land that has been put forward for development will have  archaeologists go and look at it, to see if there is any visible archaeology which can give an idea of how much archaeological work is going to be involved before construction takes place.The unusual thing about the Scottish highlands is that traditionally very little of it has been cultivated, so a lot of what’s called ‘upstanding archaeology’ - structures that haven’t been destroyed or removed for farming - still survive. Doing a survey in the lowlands is often pointless for prehistoric archaeology, because anything that was once there has long since been destroyed to open areas up for farming and development.

I really enjoy surveying, on a gorgeous day with great visibility it’s like a fun hike, only you’re working in a set area to a deadline. The views are almost always spectacular (yay, Scotland!). They can be extremely challenging too though - we did one earlier this year in thick fog, which meant doing tiny traverses to make sure we covered the entire area, which was a mile by a mile over rough mountain terrain in an area with no phone signal - an accident could have had severe consequences. Orienteering is a pretty valuable skill, and your physical fitness has to be pretty good. I’d say the most tricky places to do these surveys are in areas of modern forestry, where decades ago trees were planted across huge swathes of land with no regard for underlying archaeology. Looking through those, in the dark and with all that root disturbance and vegetation coverage, is seriously tough.  

Anyway, the things above are some of the typical sites you’d expect to find! The first - a chambered cairn - was on the Ordnance Survey map, and is an already known site. The second is a modern creation - located just outside someone’s house, so probably an aesthetic structure, or a modern grave marker. The third is an old drystone wall, forming a square field enclosure. This will date to the 19th or 20th century, but may sit above older field boundaries. The last is a typical ‘potential’ site - something that won’t be seen on older editions of maps, like the stone wall, and hasn’t been recorded on modern OS maps. These are what we’re generally looking for - and they can be tricky to find! We would measure its dimensions, photograph it, and plot it into a GPS so that its details can go to our local historic environment record. This is a cairn of some kind - burial or clearance. Pretty cool! If only all our survey days were like this.