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Using Drones to Capture Coastal Heritage Before It’s Lost

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Seaford Head, a nationally important heritage site at increasing risk of coastal erosion related to accelerating climate change, is being investigated and recorded under a new initiative involving Archaeology South-East, part of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology.

Improved understanding is a necessary first step in managing the loss of an archaeological site. The Seaford Head Project is trialing ways of achieving this, including 3D modeling and surveying the site with drones.

The project will also trial the use of podcasts and videos to engage local communities in a conversation about coastal change and how they feel about the eventual, inevitable loss of historical sites.

The team and their partners have begun capturing the nationally important archaeology of Seaford Head, East Sussex before it is lost to coastal erosion. The headland includes an Iron Age hillfort and provides the iconic view of the Seven Sisters cliffs, which have seen significant cliff collapses in the last year.

The erosion is expected to increase in frequency and severity with predicted rises in rainfall and storm events related to climate change.

Jon Sygrave, project manager for Archaeology South-East, said: “Seaford Head is a striking and beautiful site featuring archaeology of multiple periods, including a Bronze Age bowl barrow (a type of burial mound), an Iron Age hillfort, and a Second World War reinforced concrete structure.

“Using a combination of non-intrusive archaeological techniques, we are assessing and recording the threatened heritage on Seaford Head. This includes desk-based analysis of historical maps and aerial, topographic, and geophysical surveys and could result in the discovery of previously unknown heritage assets.

“A crucial part of this is using a drone to capture archaeological features exposed in the cliff and accurately map the site’s earthworks to create a 3D model of Seaford Head, preserving its complex heritage for future generations.”

The investigations at Seaford Head will be used to provide a case study and template for other heritage agencies, landowners, and community groups facing similar threats to their local heritage to help plan and deliver local responses.

The project is funded by 18,975 pounds from Historic England with contributions from the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA). It draws together the expertise of UCL archaeologists from Archaeology South-East, artists, and videographers, along with several key stakeholders, principally Seaford Town Council, the SDNPA, and Historic England.

Marcus Jecock, Senior Archaeological Investigator and Coastal Lead at Historic England said: “Coastal erosion is not a new threat, but climate change is accelerating the rate at which erosion is happening and thereby the rate at which archaeological sites of all types that exist around our coasts are being lost — often without proper record.

“The hillfort on Seaford Head is a scheduled monument, meaning the archaeology here is recognized as nationally important. We, as a nation, cannot build sea defenses to protect every stretch of coastline against erosion, so earlier this year Historic England added the site to the Heritage at Risk Register in recognition of the threat it faces.

“At the same time, we have commissioned Archaeology South-East to map the visible, above-ground remains in detail and to conduct a geophysical survey to give us a picture of buried features within the interior. Funding this work will help us make informed decisions on the long-term management and recording of the monument, before it falls completely into the sea.”

An important part of the project is to engage the community with the findings and include the public in conversations about heritage loss between experts and policymakers.


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