Mysterious prehistoric farmers and missing Roman road revealed

July 12, 2016

Decades of speculation on the route of a Roman road in southern England have ended but the research which confirmed its location has revealed the extent of prehistoric farming on the South Downs before the Romans arrived.

The discoveries were made after airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) technology was used to map part of the South Downs National Park hidden under woodland for hundreds of years. The work is part of Secrets of the High Woods, a three-year community archaeology project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, led by the South Downs National Park Authority in partnership with Chichester District Council and Historic England.

Trevor Beattie, Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park Authority, said:
“The LiDAR survey lets us peel back the woodland cover from National Park to reveal archaeology both hidden, and protected, by the trees. One of our biggest findings is the discovery of a vast area farmed by pre-historic people on an astonishing scale. Archaeologists are going to have to rethink the human story in this part of the country.”

James Kenny, Archaeology Officer at Chichester District Council, said:
“It’s exciting to see such extensive field-systems so well preserved which have probably lain untouched since the Romans left 1,600 years ago. But evidence suggests that they go back much further to before the Roman settled here.

“The find raises so many questions. Who was growing these crops and who was eating all of this food? We haven’t found signs of settlement so where were they living? The scale is so large that it must have been managed, suggesting that this part of the country was being organised as a farming collective on a very large scale.

“The degree of civilisation this implies is completely unexpected in this part of the world at this time – something closer to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians than current views of pre-historic Britain.”

When Britain was conquered in 43 AD, a great construction project took place across southern England which resulted in a network of roads – many of which survive to this day. For decades archaeologists and historians have speculated that there must have been a Roman road leading eastwards from Chichester towards what is now Brighton. The project has confirmed that Romans heading east would have left Chichester on Stane Street before branching east and following a typically straight course towards Arundel through Binsted Woods.

Helen Winton, Aerial Investigation Manager at Historic England, said:
“The recognition of the ‘missing link’ in the Roman road west of Arundel, by Fiona Small at Historic England, was a highlight in a project full of exciting results.

“The interpretations and mapping from the LiDAR and aerial photographs by the Historic England and Cornwall Council National Mapping Programme (NMP) teams clearly demonstrated what was long suspected – the South Downs National Park has one of the most remarkable archaeological landscapes in England in terms of the range, extent and time depth of the archaeological earthworks preserved in the woodland.

“The better understanding of the area provided by the project will greatly inform future management of this valuable resource.”

Stuart McLeod, Head of HLF South East, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players, this project has opened up the wonders of archaeology to many more people and it’s fascinating to now see the results of the in-depth work that has been taking place. The research sheds new light on the history of this area and will also help to ensure its protection in the future.”

Find out more in the Secrets of the High Woods exhibition, currently on tour across the South Downs National Park.