Farming the Historic Landscape

Why is arable cultivation damaging?

(D) Where ploughing erodes soil, archaeology – such as this prehistoric field system on Cranborne Chase – will also be damaged. Measures to protect soil will benefit archaeology. Photograph: English Heritage NMR 18460-19.

(E) Well preserved remains can be surprisingly close to the surface.This Roman mosaic in Warwickshire has been scarred by one episode of deeper than normal ploughing. Photograph: Bryn Walters.

Arable cultivation damages archaeological remains by levelling out earthworks (ancient ‘humps and bumps’ visible above the surface of the field), by cutting through and churning up below-ground remains, and by eroding protective layers of soil. This problem is intensifying as the mechanical power of farm machinery increases. Some types of cultivation are particularly damaging.  These include cultivation of previously unploughed land, stone clearance, sub-soiling and growing of root crops.

Even regular cultivation to the same depth can result in damage to archaeological deposits. This occurs particularly where the management of an arable field, combined with factors such as slope and soil type, leads to thinning of the plough soil and increasing cultivation of the sub-soil.

Situations where this risk is greater include archaeological sites located on:

  • Light soils vulnerable to soil thinning from water and wind erosion, especially when coupled with deep cultivation and/or autumn sowing
  • Heavy soils requiring drainage, sub-soiling and deep cultivation
  • Peat soils which are especially vulnerable to drying-out and shrinkage as a result of drainage and subsequent wind erosion
  • The top or middle of slopes vulnerable to the down slope loss of topsoil
  • Land where compaction leads to the thinning of soil depth and loss of topsoil through run-off.
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