Besides seriously putting strain on both nature and human activity, the exceptional heat wave that hit Europe in the summer of 2018 also had an unexpected positive effect, to say the least. Surprisingly, it turns out that the real winner of this extreme heatwave was archaeology!
High temperatures and almost no rain resulted in a major drought which then helped reveal quite a lot of secrets: archaeological remains that had been hidden for centuries but managed to resurface and become visible in the middle of the fields in strange shapes created by plants and other vegetation.
This discovery was possible due to the very nature of what was buried. Vegetation grows differently over certain structures, such as stones, then it does over the soil, which can contain ditches or holes. Over ditches, crops can grow taller, their roots can grow deeper and they can ripen a bit later. However, over solid structures, crops can be shorter, their roots can be shallower and they can ripen earlier.
A recent example in Ireland
This phenomenon has been perfectly illustrated by the recent discovery of the remains of a cromlech - a circular megalithic construction made of large stone blocks - which was unearthed in July 2018 in Ireland, around 5,000 years after it was built. In addition to this one incredible example, hundreds of other archaeological sites were also revealed by the heatwave the very same year. These sites include villages dating back to the Iron Age, tumuli with perfectly equal and perpendicular sides and even a Roman farm, all of which were found in the middle of the British countryside.
'This spell of very hot weather has provided the perfect conditions for our aerial archaeologists to ‘see beneath the soil’ as crop marks are much better defined when the soil has less moisture,’ explains Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, a non-governmental public organisation responsible for the preservation of British heritage sites.
‘The discovery of ancient farms, settlements and Neolithic cursus monuments is exciting. The exceptional weather has opened up whole areas at once rather than just one or two fields and it has been fascinating to see so many traces of our past graphically revealed,’ he added on Historic England’s website.
Yet there are still some unsolved mysteries
Among other exceptional monuments, archaeologists have also discovered two Neolithic ‘cursus’, undoubtedly the oldest to ever have been unearthed in the country. These are oblong-shaped monuments, discovered in the north of the county of Bedfordshire and were probably built 3,000 to 3,600 years before our time… But their use is still shrouded in mystery today.
Other traces are even more complex to interpret. In Cornwall, archaeologists found an interweaving pattern of strange geometric figures - round- and rectangular-shaped - although how they are connected is still not really clear. Experts believe that some of the shapes may date back to structures from the Bronze or the Iron Age, whereas others may be a result of more recent activity.
This isn’t the first time that the heat has revealed traces such as this. Back in 2011, the high temperatures allowed archaeologists to discover around 1,500 sites, most of which were in the east of England. These sites proved to be very informative and beneficial. Now that the heatwave has revealed these sites, we bet the upcoming extensive interpretation work will have archaeologists sweating profusely!