Drones mapping, modeling historic site doomed by erosion

drones mapping modeling

Custodians of the Seaford Head coastal cliffs in southeast England know loss of their archeologically important site to erosion and rising sea levels is a question of when, not if, and as a result are using drones and other digital technology to thoroughly map and model the area before it’s gone.

Located on the East Sussex coast about 11 miles east of Brighton, Seaford Head sits amid a series of chalk cliffs marking the border of a broader natural reserve behind. The site plays home to several relics of distant and more recent historical periods, including a Bronze Age burial mound known as a bowl barrow, an Iron Age hillfort, and a reinforced concrete structure dating from the Second World War. Gradual erosion of the shoreline has long been a concern, but the local University College of London archeology division that oversees the preserve says global warming has been accelerating the threat – and ultimate loss – of the precious zone.

“In the last year there have been significant cliff collapses in the area, which are expected to increase in frequency and severity with predicted rises in rainfall and storm events related to climate change,” the unit, Archaeology South-East, says on a web page explaining its decision to use drone and other digital tech to map and model Seaford Head. “The project aims to assess and record the archaeology of Seaford Head before it is lost to coastal erosion.”

To do that, experts have been called in to pilot sensor-equipped drones to create 3D maps of Seaford Head. Ground-based tech is also being used to survey spots that provide visual signs of possible relics buried beneath. But UAVs are playing a central role in the effort to work up an exact data clone of archeologically rich area, which experts and interested citizens alike may consult and study after the ocean has reclaimed it.

“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,” explains Jon Sygrave, Archaeology South-East’s project manager. “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.”

The entire project is operating on a reported budget of $25,000 – a modest sum compared to the historical value of the archeological assets in the area. Work from the drone mapping and cloning of Seaford Head will be used in more ways than visual and data replicas. Visual and technical data will also be included in multimedia projects on the reserve, and in developing spoken word and other performances to keep the area alive in the minds of people – and help locals deal with the eventual loss of a treasured spot. 

“The project will produce films and podcasts to open up discussions about heritage loss, and help us understand how the public feel about change and loss of this kind, particularly where we have perhaps become disconnected with the heritage in our landscape,” says Anooshka Rawden, Cultural Heritage Lead at the South Downs National Park Authority. “We have the chance to rediscover lost stories.”

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