Precision Farming and Archaeology


Archaeologists study the impacts of human activity on the ‘natural’ world, and some of the most common impacts of buried, known and unknown, sites can be seen as crop or soil marks across agricultural landscapes. At the same time 21st century farmers are now mapping their fields to tailor their inputs, such as fertilisers, to specific soil needs. But nobody has ever asked the question, how do these two different disciplinary approaches interconnect?

New research, published last month in the Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences by a team from the University of Bristol, the University of Reading and Historic England – and funded by the AHRC – has presented an initial discussion on how the study of archaeology links with developments in Precision Farming.

Precision farming is the process of regularly recording and managing the variation of crops and soils within fields, aiming to reduce inputs, increase yields and enhance environmental sustainability. It has grown significantly in the last decade due to the influence of better technology, and better software enabling this sort of approach to become common on over 60% of UK farmland.

This process involves drones regularly scanning farmers’ crops, while satellite services provide high resolution imagery on nearly a daily basis for UK farmers. Detailed soil mapping is also carried out using geophysical sensors and geochemical mapping of micronutrients to produce the best possible crop.  Many of these datasets have shown that archaeological sites do indeed impact on Precision Farming data. But until now, this has been misinterpreted because of a lack of awareness of archaeological sites on farms and in the companies providing the data.

However, currently no company providing these agricultural datasets has evaluated how archaeological sites – i.e. the material remains of past human actions – could be impacting many aspects of this common and commercially valuable agricultural data.  On the other hand there could be much to be learnt from agricultural data that could help us better understand the extents and locations of archaeological sites.

These questions have formed the basis of research by PHD student Henry Webber, which aims to engage the agricultural and archaeological communities in new ways. To do this, Webber has focused on impacts that have meaning for agricultural communities rather than just archaeological communities.

Alongside this new approach to engaging two very different communities, is the need to use technology to help explain the concepts being researched. To do this, Webber has worked with Precision Farming companies to showcase his theories in real world case studies (available here).

These industry collaborations, alongside the broad supervisory team at two institutions and Historic England (provided by the South West and Wales Doctoral Partnership), have enabled the research to have maximum outreach into the places and spaces that it relates to.

Webber was also able to complete an RCUK funded internship, as part of his AHRC funding, which allowed him to get experience of science policy at the Royal Society in the middle of his PhD (see blog here). “This experience helped me gain a better understanding of how my research fits into the policy landscape surrounding heritage and agriculture,” says Webber. “And it even led to me getting a job working in the UK government department for environment food and rural affairs (Defra) as an agricultural policy advisor.”

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