Ben Robinson flies over the Broads where photos have revealed 945 previously unknown ancient sites, many of which have historians rethinking the history of the area.
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Nothing in our landscape is here by accident.
It's all part of the incredible story
of how people have shaped our country over thousands of years.
Every ridge, every bump, has a meaning.
I'm Ben Robinson.
And as an archaeologist, it's my job
to unpick the great story we've inherited.
From my perspective, the best way to do that is up here in the air.
Aerial photography is revealing a different view of the past.
I'm flying over the Norfolk Broads
to take a completely new look
at the history of one of our most iconic landscapes.
Could the aerial view force us to rethink
how long ago early humans first started farming here?
And challenge our understanding
of how people have shaped this place ever since?
The Norfolk Broads are a real challenge for archaeologists.
Much of the landscape is either flooded or intensively farmed.
So traces of settlement are lost underwater
or flattened by the plough.
But they don't disappear completely
because history leaves a footprint.
Crops will respond to any changes in the soil.
An ancient ditch or a pit that's been filled in long ago
will show up as different colours across the fields.
If you keep banking like this, this'll be absolutely perfect.
-I can see something now.
Just level up ever so slightly. Thanks, Sean.
This area is covered in crop marks.
They don't all show at the same time,
but they pop up at various points and places
where the conditions are just right.
There's prehistory, there's settlements, ritual sites
and Roman remains covering this river valley landscape.
It's almost like time travel.
Over the last few years,
aerial observation of crop marks in the Broads
has revealed a staggering 945 new archaeological sites.
And it's made us look again at some we thought we knew.
And it's crop marks that's led us here to Ormesby St Michael.
Not far from the seaside town of Great Yarmouth
is a sugar beet field which has completely changed our understanding
of how the Broads would have looked 3,000-4,000 years ago.
Until now, we knew Bronze Age people must've been in the area,
but no settlements have ever been found.
When archaeologists first started
looking at aerial photographs of this area,
they discovered a series of crop marks.
And right here, where I'm standing,
was something that looked like field enclosures.
There's nothing particularly unusual about that
because this area is covered in those sort of crop marks.
But actually, when the archaeologists got to work,
they got something a bit unexpected.
Nick Gilmour is one of the team
that carried out the excavation at Ormesby.
Nick, this is the plot from the aerial photographs
that you're working from
and I can see why you thought this could be medieval or post-medieval.
Something relatively recent.
Because it just looks too well-defined.
Too large-scale to be anything prehistoric.
When did you first realise that you were getting something earlier?
I think it was almost as soon as the bucket went in the ground.
Because within the topsoil off the trenches, we were finding chips
and waste flakes from the manufacture of flint tools.
And also, a good collection of the tools themselves.
And you've got end scrapers, side scrapers
and these sort of small thumbnail scrapers.
If the site really was 400 or 500 years old,
why have we got flints that are 4,000 or 5,000 years old?
And when you actually start digging in the ditches,
this sort of pottery starts turning up.
All the things we can usually use
to help date a piece of pottery aren't there.
And in the end, that's really what dates it.
It's just so slab-like and flat, and essentially boring,
that that's what middle Bronze Age pottery looks like.
It doesn't look much, but it's so rare, it's so fragile,
it's so precious, isn't it?
Just to have pottery of this date still surviving.
You're looking at this and you're looking at the flints,
and suddenly now, you're getting into a prehistoric mindset.
-It's not medieval, it's not post-mediaeval.
This is something much, much earlier.
Exactly that. So you suddenly start thinking to yourself,
you know, what's going on here? Have I got an unique site?
Is this the only middle Bronze Age enclosure in the Broads,
or is it that we just haven't found them yet?
And that's when you go back to the air photos
and, strangely, the more you look at it,
the more you then start seeing Bronze Age everywhere.
And you end up in this funny situation
of going from no Bronze Age to just it's coming out of your ears.
And, actually, it's over the whole of the Broads.
The Bronze Age buildings at Ormesby
would've looked something like this modern interpretation
at Flag Fen near Peterborough.
Now, obviously, Bronze Age houses
don't survive like this reconstructed one in this form,
but they do leave very distinctive traces of the post holes.
Of the pattern of posts, of the layout inside.
Did you get anything like that on your site?
Well, we did have two groups of post holes.
One of them was actually in a nice ring, similar to this.
This is really significant.
Wooden posts rot away.
But the holes they leave behind fill with rubbish from the floor,
such as charred grains and pottery fragments.
And all that material can be dated.
So we know the age of the structure.
Were your posts of about this size?
Pretty similar, in fact, yeah.
It doesn't look like the most substantial post,
but it can actually support quite a good structure.
Well, I'm told that this roof, when it's wet, weighs about eight tonnes.
Eight tonnes. Well, there you go. About a tonne on every post.
So it sounds to me like you've found
a very well-developed Bronze Age settlement at Ormesby.
Yes. Not only have we got evidence that people were living here,
but we've got evidence of what they were doing to support themselves.
So, as well as farming, they're also weaving.
And we've actually found fragments of loom weights, such as this one.
And if we look on this reconstruction,
you can see how it would fit in quite well
as being a fragment of one of these complete loom weights.
And one of the other big things that we found is
we managed to find a whetstone in another post hole.
If you've got a whetstone, you need something to sharpen on that.
Which means, in this case, bronze.
And in order to get bronze, you need copper and tin.
That must have come from somewhere.
You start putting in links to other settlements much further afield,
across, potentially, the whole of Britain.
So they're connected with the wider Bronze Age world
and they're starting to alter the world around them.
Well, they're having to manage the world around them.
It's really the beginnings of mass altering of the landscape.
Because you cut down a lot of trees to build one house.
And then that needs to be renewed.
These things don't last for ever.
And each time, you cut down more trees.
And then, you need space for your sheep to graze,
for your cattle to graze.
It's a real impact, a real change in the landscape
for, potentially, the first time in our history.
So we started off with a few crop marks,
but now we know that Bronze Age families
were living in what we now call the Broads.
And not just living,
but creating the infrastructure necessary for life.
The droves, the field systems.
They were connected with the wider Bronze Age world.
This really makes us think.
We've got other crop-marked sites that look similar.
Maybe there's an extensive pattern.
A Bronze Age world out there
that we're only just beginning to understand.
Archaeologists are now questioning the dating of hundreds of sites
that were thought to be much more recent.
With the evidence from Ormesby,
they're now re-examining aerial photos
to find out if they, too, are in fact Bronze Age.
And therefore, thousands of years older.
More than 1,500 years later,
long after the Bronze Age farmers had gone,
it was the Romans who took control and dominated the area.
Much of what they built has vanished.
But the view from above has allowed us to rediscover entire towns.
In 1928, an RAF crew
were flying over the former Roman town of Venta Icenorum,
modern-day Caistor St Edmund, just south of Norwich.
The early aerial photographs of this place
were a real breakthrough in aerial archaeology.
They showed the street plan beautifully
and remains all around the Roman town
that you can't see from the ground.
Look at that! Isn't that beautiful!
How well you can see the crop marks depends on the weather.
The dry summer of 1928 was perfect
for showing the streets of the town in the parched barley fields.
Recently, we've had much wetter summers,
so it's a little more tricky to make out.
Well, you can see the street pattern.
It's no wonder this photograph caused such a stir.
This is the Roman streets.
The hardcore of the Roman streets stopping the crop growing so well.
The detail is astonishing.
Individual buildings are showing up here.
Now, this obviously fired up the archaeologists.
They had everything laid out for them.
And it's no surprise that the following year,
there was a major campaign of excavation.
It was one of the biggest digs of the last century.
But by the time it was finished,
it hadn't answered a key question which is still puzzling us today.
Something went wrong at Caistor St Edmund.
It's one of the few major Roman towns
that didn't go on to be successful
in medieval times and the modern period.
What happened here and why?
To try to answer that question,
archaeologists want to find out as much about the town as they can.
Once again, it's aerial photographs that are leading the way.
In the 1960s, a series of aerial photographs
of the surroundings of the site
showed a set of triple ditches
that we hadn't previously been aware of.
You can see them here just running across the field as dark marks.
And more recently, other analysis of aerial photography
has shown that these ditches
are part of this massive circuit of defences
that seem to run around the site.
And we're fairly confident that the walls
are a later addition to the town.
You can see the streets extend outside the town on all sides.
And so, what we really want to know is what these ditches are about.
What they're doing, what they're for, what date they are
and how they relate to the town itself.
Heather, we're in one of these ditches of the triple-ditch system.
We're in the ditch nearest to the town.
We're just out of that plough zone, where it all gets mixed up.
This is exactly as the Romans would have left it in these first layers.
I can see quite a lot of animal bone. Yeah.
-Bits of sheep and cow...
-I've got a piece here.
..and goodness knows what.
And quite a lot of pottery, as well.
Yeah. I've just flicked this little piece out here.
-We're in a bit of a town dump, a bit of a landfill site.
I mean, that's its final use, isn't it? It's interesting.
The ditches have gone out of use.
And presumably, they're just a hazard or in the way
and being filled with rubbish.
Yeah, when you want to level the landscape,
you'll get rid of your rubbish and fill up the hollow land.
Lucky for us. Oooh, look at this!
That's a very delicate little vessel, that one, isn't it?
There's not much of it, but that's a tiny fragment of a drinking cup.
Yeah, that's really fine, isn't it?
Really fine ware for the table. Lovely.
You can imagine someone having a sip of wine after a hard day's work.
So all life is here, basically, in this tray.
There's a chance that rubbish thrown into the ditches
might provide evidence as to why Caistor was abandoned.
But it's a second site further away from the Roman town
on the other side of the river,
where an answer is more likely to be found.
What we're really looking for there
is what happened after the Roman town ended.
We want to know why there isn't a town here now.
Why is it just green fields with sheep in?
This is all crop mark data.
And you can see this really dense archaeology going on here.
That's incredible. There's a whole sort of framework,
field systems, it looks like.
But you think there might be settlement in amongst that, as well?
That's right. This is where we might find post-Roman activity.
I can see that you've actually got features starting to emerge here.
Yeah, we've got a series of what could be post holes
cut into the gravel terrace here.
And in the centre of the trench,
pretty much where we're hoping to find it,
we have what looks like a very large pit right in the middle,
where we were hoping to find evidence for our building.
So, yeah, that's looking quite promising.
So if we can prove this is what we hope it is,
then we can extrapolate and say,
"Maybe we've got a cluster of buildings here."
And we can go on to talk about having an actual settlement.
What they're hoping they've discovered
is an Anglo-Saxon building
which would've had a suspended wooden floor
and possibly a cellar beneath.
But these are notoriously difficult to find
because they leave so few traces.
Just a few post holes and a pit.
If you're lucky, the crop marks will give you a clue where to look.
So the aerial photography is absolutely crucial.
Come on, this looks really promising.
-Yeah. You're pushing me, aren't you?
-It does, it does.
It's too much of a coincidence.
There's too many factors coming together. It's got to be.
Well, we're going to dig this down.
We'll take out the rest of these two quadrats.
Once we've found our level, we'll go down very carefully.
We'll be sieving all the way down so we don't miss those small finds.
Hopefully, there'll be some glass beads or something exciting in there.
This is looking quite promising.
I'm trying not to get carried away,
but it does look as though we could have an Anglo-Saxon building here.
If we have got one, this will be a very important discovery.
The Romans left their mark.
But it was nothing compared to
what happened 500 years or so later in medieval times
when millions of tonnes of peat were dug out of the marsh
to provide fuel for people's homes.
We're on our way to St Benet's. It's a monastic foundation.
The monks came here to build a better world for themselves.
St Benet's is an important part of the story
because this area was one of the earliest places
where peat was dug in vast quantities.
It was these diggings that later flooded
to form the open water we call Broads.
Very little of the monastery survives.
From the air, you get a great view of how the site would have looked
as the surviving earthwork show up so well.
This gatehouse is a remarkable survivor from medieval times.
And the windmill built into it is just extraordinary.
What I'm especially interested in
is the earthworks I saw from the air.
These banks and troughs aren't the remains of buildings,
they're actually fishponds.
Now, fish was tremendously important to the medieval diet.
And even more so to monastic communities.
But these are among the best examples I've ever seen.
But I think there's an element of display going on here, as well.
I can picture the abbot coming down here with visitors and saying,
"Look what we've constructed! Look what we can do!
"See how well we look after our people."
The fishponds are impressive,
but the first thing people would have seen was the abbey church,
of which only the ruins are visible today.
This would have been quite an impressive church.
It would have stood out in the local landscape, like a beacon.
While it's very isolated today,
in the Anglo-Saxon period, in the medieval period,
the river is going to be a key way
for transporting people and goods around.
So this is actually likely to have been a highway,
right next to a highway.
And an awful lot busier than we see it today.
The latest aerial photos of St Benet's have revealed evidence
of a couple of additional buildings not seen before.
This is a protected site, so we can't dig.
But today, we're trying out something new.
A remote-controlled flying camera.
It's cheaper than a plane and can fly much lower,
enabling us to get a completely new view of the site.
And maybe also the buildings.
There's a hint of something going on.
What we're looking for are areas
where the grass is just showing a slightly different shade of colour,
responding to the archaeology below.
You don't want to get too close to the river.
Well, there's something in there, isn't there?
But they look like the sort of crop response you get on ditches,
rather than buried walls, to me.
What it would be nice to do is to turn him around
and come back the other way and just see if the light...
'Soon, we're seeing signs of the new buildings.
'This is obviously a good year for that part of the site.'
-Yeah, so this is...
-There we go. Perfect.
If you can keep him there, that's perfect.
This is the bit that then turned into the Chequers pub,
which is possibly the abbot's lodging.
That's definitely it!
-That's as clear as day, isn't it?
So, has Tim any idea of what they might be?
Well, given their location,
which is very close to the south side of the monastic church,
where you've got the cloister and,
obviously, the refectory and dormitory,
it could be something related to cooking.
So you could have a cookhouse, a bake house,
brew house, something like that,
that's associated with the living quarters of the monks, I suppose.
Now, they tend to be a bit detached because of the fire risk, of course.
Absolutely. Which would fit with this.
We've got a two-celled building.
You can see two little buildings
that are part of one rectangular structure.
It's intriguing, though, isn't it?
It's intriguing and frustrating, I think.
It would be nice to know a little bit more.
We got closer to the site than you can get with an aircraft
and there's definitely tantalising hints of features out there
that require investigation. No firm conclusions.
But no-one has ever seen the site in quite this way before.
Oh, there's the edge of the fishponds there. That's nice.
-Yeah. They're showing up well.
Oh, look at that!
No landscape ever stays the same
and the Broads are still changing.
From their industrial origins providing fuel,
the business of the waterways today is leisure.
But what many of those exploring the rivers and creeks won't know
is there used to be many more Broads than there are today.
Aerial photos are helping track down those that have been lost.
Hickling is a great place to try and look for lost Broads.
Because it was a much, much bigger Broad.
And the traces of that, if you look hard enough, can be seen all around.
There's bits of partially-reclaimed Broad,
bits that have been fully reclaimed.
But there are soil marks and little clues of its former extent.
Just circling round now.
Starting off from the known quantity of the Broad as it is today
and trying to work back through time.
There were two other Broads up here.
Gage's Broad and Wiggs Broad. And they've entirely disappeared.
There's nothing at all now in terms of open water.
Finding lost Broads is notoriously difficult.
Below me now is Horsey Windpump.
This area has some of the biggest expanses of Broads
anywhere in Norfolk.
Historian Tom Williamson has been using historic photos and maps
to look for the lost Broads.
Tom, this map is really interesting.
It's a transcript from a map.
And the thing that interests me most is that there's lots of water here.
Lots of things called Broads
that don't appear on a modern Ordnance Survey map.
Absolutely. And this surveyed 1794-1795, published 1797.
So actually, it's not that long ago.
In the great scheme of things, it's not that long ago.
-A couple of centuries.
-Where did they go?
Partly, they go through deliberate drainage.
But a lot of them, particularly sort of more inland,
they disappear through natural processes.
The Broads are artificial and they gradually silt up
and they get encroached on by marginal vegetation.
I mean, it's an ongoing process.
Now, I've been flying over this area
and you would think it would be quite easy
to spot these former great bodies of water.
Actually, not so easy.
A lot's happened over the years.
These earlier photographs, taken in the '40s,
it's these dark patches we're looking for.
I mean, these are dead giveaways, aren't they?
Yeah. That's Gage's Broad.
which is certainly still there in the early 19th-century.
It's shown on the enclosure maps for Hickling.
It goes rapidly after that, as far as we can tell.
What I like about the photographs is they don't lie.
The photograph is absolutely definitive.
There was a Broad here, there's no question about it.
-And this was its extent.
And by studying aerial photos, many taken by the RAF in the 1940s,
an incredible 39 areas of lost Broads
have been rediscovered, including Gage's Broad.
The landscape has changed so much,
I couldn't see anything of the Broad from the air.
Everything just appears dark green or wooded.
But on the ground, it's obvious
this area is very different to the farmland around it.
We're right in the middle of Gage's Broad, or what was Gage's Broad.
I mean, there's water and it's sponge-like now.
So you can see it's had a watery ancestry,
there's no doubt about that.
So right across here, you would have had water.
Um...a couple of metres deep or so,
at the time that map was made.
And in this case, we know why the Broad disappeared.
It gets enclosed by a parliamentary act in, I think, 1808.
At a time when food prices are rising fast.
It's the Napoleonic Wars, the French Wars.
And they put in the commissioner's drain.
They dig it right through, it just takes the water out.
-This is not gradual encroachment, not gradual loss.
This is a deliberate concerted attempt to very quickly
get this area into productive agricultural use.
Yeah. It's a classic example of that late 18th-19th century improvement.
You improve the environment to produce more food.
So we've seen how the transformation of the landscape
began in the Bronze Age,
was stripped for fuel during medieval times
and how we're continuing to shape it today.
There's one last question I'd still like to answer.
What happened to the Roman town of Caistor St Edmund?
And was it used by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors?
It's the final day of the dig there
and the last chance to retrieve evidence from the ground.
One of the nicest little things that have come out has been this tile,
-which you can see has got some paw prints in it.
Which we think are the paw prints of a puppy
that was clearly misbehaving as they were drying.
We also have this, which is...
a rather lovely spout on a mortarium, a mixing bowl, really.
And it's supposed to be a lion.
And the later they get, the potters start getting a bit mischievous
and putting thumb marks above them.
So they start looking like bats or...
It gives the impression of Mickey Mouse, really.
They just get bored with doing these artistic lions, you think,
and start creating havoc with them.
The finds are fascinating and have helped to prove
that the ditches were being filled in during the second century.
But they don't help explain
where people went to live after Caistor was abandoned.
For that, we need to head over to the other side of the river.
Last time I was here, there were just hints
that this might be an Anglo-Saxon feature. What is it?
Luckily for us, it has turned out to be
-an Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured building.
Which is wonderful.
It's a biggie as well, isn't it?
It is. It's quite substantial. Um...
we've got a lovely post at one end.
It's a big, er...sub-rectangular cut into the gravel.
From the middle of it, we've had this material.
Oh, yes! Wonderful. Well, there's no doubting that.
That's not Roman, that's brilliant Anglo-Saxon pottery.
What other finds have come out?
Um...well, we were always drawn to this field
-because of the occurrence of these.
Wonderful Anglo-Saxon coins.
Relatively few of them have turned up,
but enough to demonstrate quite a significant presence here.
These things are so rare, aren't they?
I mean, they didn't throw coins around like the Romans, did they?
I mean, you know, it's just truly incredible
to find something like this.
Again, it was the aerial photography that just gave that first hint
that there might be something different going on here.
This find takes the story of this site
forward in time, beyond the Romans.
And there's an interesting relationship here, isn't there?
Between the Roman town and what came after it.
I think we're looking at multiple little centres
of Anglo-Saxon occupation around the area of the town.
As far as we know, not within the walled area, but scattered around.
But...Caistor's an extraordinary and unusual site
because it has no modern occupation on top of it.
The only parallel sites in England are Wroxeter and Silchester.
And neither of those have really had
this scale of Anglo-Saxon occupation on them.
So really, having this here
significantly increases the importance of it as a site.
At West Stow in Suffolk,
there's a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon village.
This gives us a pretty fair impression
of how the Saxon settlement at Caistor St Edmund would have looked.
It was actually a great achievement from the archaeological team
to find buildings like this.
They're notoriously difficult to find.
What they've proved is that the Roman town was abandoned completely
and people returned to a simpler way of life, back to the villages.
My journey through the Broads
has revealed far more than I ever thought possible.
For the first time, we've found traces of Bronze Age settlement.
We've revealed lost Broads that only now exist
as faint traces on aerial photographs.
And we've discovered Saxon settlement.
And this is giving us a great insight
into the end of that Roman town at Caistor St Edmund.
There's a lot more out there to be discovered
and I can't wait for my next flight.
What I do know is that I'll be looking at the Broads
in a totally different way.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Archaeologist Ben Robinson flies over the Broads where aerial photos have discovered a staggering 945 previously unknown ancient sites. Many are making historians rethink the history of the area.
The fate of the Roman town of Caistor St Edmund has puzzled archaeologists for decades. It's long been a mystery why the centre never became a modern town. Now archaeologists have discovered a key piece of evidence. And near Ormseby, the first proof of Bronze Age settlement in the east of England has been revealed.