Aerial archaeology

Whitley Castle, Cumbria

The distinctive lozenge-shaped ramparts of Whitley Castle Roman Fort, situated north-west of Alston in Cumbria, survive as earthworks that are clearly visible in aerial photographs like this one. Due to local topography, the site’s layout deviates from the usual ‘playing card’ shape of contemporary forts like Housesteads, some 20 miles to the north. The fort’s archaeological context can be remotely investigated to an even greater extent, however, using Historic England’s new Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer – a freely accessible interactive map covering more than half the country.

The online tool has mapped thousands of archaeological features, from early Neolithic enclosures to Cold War military installations, which have been identified over the past 30 years through analysis of more than 500,000 aerial photographs, as well as images from airborne LiDAR scanning and Google Earth. The multi-layered map pieces all this together, encouraging users to recalibrate their understanding of the country’s best-known monuments by visualising them as structures within more complex archaeological landscapes.

For Whitley Castle, the tool (below) reveals that the fort sits within a much longer tradition of human activity in the area around Alston. The earthworks of a curvilinear Iron Age enclosure (highlighted in red) have been mapped around 650m to the south-east of the fort, for example, while a vast medieval ridge-and-furrow landscape has been recorded immediately to the east (highlighted in blue).

Each site on the map is briefly described, and hyperlinks to related Historic Environment and Historic England records have been included where possible. Sites are also categorised and colour-coded according to their visible features, and users can tailor their explorations by choosing from a variety of base maps and informative layers.

The new tool can be found online at

Text: H Blair
Images: © Historic England Archive/ David MacLeod; © Historic England
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