Flying high: work experience with Shropshire HER

This week, Victoria James has been on work experience with Shropshire Council’s Historic Environment Team. Here she tells me about what she has been getting up to…

This week I’ve been on work experience with the Historic Environment Team at Shropshire Council, and although the archaeological work going on here isn’t always necessarily hands-on, it’s still as fascinating as ever. The team maintain and compile the Historic Environment Record (HER), which covers every single aspect of the historic environment – including archaeological sites, historic buildings, structures and landscapes – over the entirety of Shropshire.  Much of the work is desk based, but this week one of my tasks has involved working with some of the aerial photographs taken by the team for the HER.

Double ditched Iron Age enclosure and field system, Patten Grange. Much Wenlock. Copyright: Shropshire Council

The team use aerial photography to gain a greater understanding of the archaeology of the county, where past uses of the landscape leave a small trace for the archaeologist to decipher. A key element of this is the formation of cropmarks, which can tell us a lot about what’s going on below the surface. Ditches and walls buried underground affect the crop yield in different ways, as ditches allow the crop to grow better and in a darker colour, whereas buried walls negatively affect crop growth and mean a lighter colour of yield. Although this can be hard to see from the ground, crop marks are clear to see from aerial photographs, which then allow the team to identify areas of archaeological interest and show this to the people working on the land above it.

For me, this was fascinating, as I had no idea that crops could tell us so much about what had happened on that site years before or how aerial photographs could be such a massive help in discovering what’s buried underneath the land. I got to look at many aerial photographs and pick some which will eventually be put to use on the Discovering Shropshire’s History website.

SGetting in the plane

Getting ready to take some aerial photographs on Wednesday. Copyright: Giles Carey

Not only did I get to see some of the previous aerial photographs which had been taken, but during my week of work experience part of the team actually went and took some more. This involved some members of the team getting the opportunity to fly over the county and view the land below, as well as taking some aerial photographs themselves.

Another thing I got to do on work experience was help out reorganising just some of the many books and files that the team has. There were lots of books and files dating back many years from all different topics – although almost all focused on archaeology, buildings or the history of Shropshire – and I had to organise some of these to make them easily accessible to anyone who might need one, which is a likely possibility at any point, given that the team has a variety of things that they have to do.

Additionally, I got to read through an updated version of Pevsner’s book on historic buildings of Shropshire and put these into a spreadsheet to view the corresponding records on the HER and to make a note of any that weren’t there. I found this really interesting because I got to read about different historic buildings in Shropshire and their features, which made me realise just how many there are! Some of the buildings I already knew of beforehand, but I’d never really considered the history of some of them until now, despite the captivating stories behind them.

Overall, this week I’ve been able to see another side of archaeology which isn’t publicised as much as the excavation side of things. The team here still get to go on site visits to different local places of historic significance to try to conserve our local history, but they also get to maintain the HER and do everything that goes along with that. I’ve been able to see what the team really does and how much hard work they have to put into it, but it has also been a really fun week and I’ve learned a lot about not just the job, but about my home county as well.

Victoria James
Work experience student

Many thanks to Victoria, there will be more to follow from the rest of the Historic Environment Team shortly…