22 July 2018

Digging Up The Geophysics: 2018 Edition

Recently, I realised that there were currently five sites undergoing excavation, all in Sussex, that had targetted geophysics I had done. With my ego approaching dangerously unsafe proportions, I resolved to go on a quest, to visit all five sites in one day, and make a blog post about it. All of these sites have volunteer positions, so if you fancy a dig next year, you can join up and join in.

Site 1: Priory Park, Chichester

After the GPR survey in 2015, and a successful first season of excavation in 2017, CDAS returned for a second season of excavation looking at the east site of the bath house. The excavation trench was much bigger this time, and they are looking for the connection between the bath house and the Roman town house to the south. There are what seem to be robbed out walls connecting the two, which need to be confirmed on the ground. Judging by the GPS survey, the new trench covers part of last year's excavation, and the entire bath house.

Priory Park excavations, 2017 and 2018 trenches

When I visited, they were only half way through the excavation, so the layout of the building wasn't completely clear yet. The picture below is of the re-cleared area from last year, showing pilae, with some floor still surviving, sticking out of the baulk. I gather from later reports that the building was not completely excavated by the end of the second week, but they had certainly made progress. Some of the pilae seemed to extend out of the south wall, which was very odd, as no additional rooms appeared on the GPR. Perhaps the building was bigger than the tiny footprint I had found.

Priory Park bath house

Site 2: Rocky Clump, Stanmer

This is a Romano-British farmstead site on the Downs north of Brighton that has been under excavation for many years by BHAS. Historically, the excavation started in the clump itself, then in more recent time, moved north of the clump, and then after some geophysics, excavations have moved to an enclosed settlement to the south-east of the clump. The currently open trench, which is tacked onto the east edge of the last trench, covers several ditches within the settlement, in an attempt to find evidence of occupation.

Rocky Clump excavations and ditches found so far

As you can see, a number of ditches have already been found. The feature in the corner of the inner enclosure turned out to be a solution hollow. Some of the ditches have a high flint content, seemingly placed in such a way as to suggest that their placement is deliberate. Could it be to support something above? If so, why the need for a ditch in the first place. As ever Rocky Clump excavations providing as many questions as answers.

 North ditch under excavation

 Flint layer on top of inner south ditch

I also resolved to investigate further the area between the current excavation and the clump. There are a number of large features on the earth resistance and radar where it is not quite clear whether they are archaeological or geological. I tried radar as a further complement to the earlier surveys, which managed to answer the question. The geological features are all clay-with-flints, and there is enough moisture left in the ground, despite the hot weather, to render the clay inpenetrable to radar. These are easy to spot in the results. There is a strong signal up top, then a blank area below, as the signal is attenuated by the clay. This contrasts nicely with the surrounding messiness of the chalk, which is visible to a much greater depth.

Clay with flints in a solution hollow surrounded by chalk

One of the features did turn out to be much more interesting. Situated right next to Rocky Clump itself, was a circular feature. It is barely visible as an amplitude change, but is very clear as a phase change. It has a shape of a shallow, round bowl, and my best interpretation is a dew pond. There are plenty of animal bones at Rocky Clump, so it makes sense that there is a water source for the animals, if it is Roman in date.

Vertical section across the centre of the possible dew pond

Possible dew pond, top left

Site 3: Plumpton Roman Villa

Ok, for this site, I only set out the grids and processed the data. The survey itself was done by someone else. That still counts, right? The site has been under excavation by the Sussex School of Archaeology for a few years now, starting at the east end of the villa building and working west. The western end, which is now under excavation, seems to be interpreted as a bath house. Below is the current excavation trench, overlayed on earth resistance of the site. Some of the southerly walls do not show up well on the geophys, as there is a higher content of chalk there compared to the use of flint in the north. I have not recorded the more substantial western end in the plan below, as that is still to be fully revealed by excavation.

Plumpton excavation trench and exposed walls, 2018

 View from the south, looking as the chalk wall foundations

More substantial foundations on the north side

Site 4: Barcombe Roman roadside settlement

I started surveying this massive site back in 2011, and it is currently under excavation by the Culver Archaeological Project. This year, they moved to the centre of the defended settlement, in the hopes of finding the footprints of buildings. What postholes they have found so far don't quite resolve themselves into buildings yet. Instead, there seems to be a lot of kiln features, though whether these are industrial features, or something domestic, like corn drying, is not quite clear yet. You can see the current excavation area highlighted in the images below. If we change the display bounds to a higher value, it makes it easier to see which features are more likely to be industrial in nature. The black demolition layer visible in other trenches is also present here, so it must have been quite an event. What's left of the road surface is very close to the surface, so no surprise it is being plouged away. The trench is a rather large 20m x 45m, so they certainly have a large area to investigate. They will be back here next year.

Magnetometry, 3nT display boundary

Magnetometry, 20nT display boundary

One of the kilns. Site supervisor for scale

Site 5: Jevington Church

Jevington are extending their churchyard, and I was asked by ENHAS to survey the area ahead of an investigation. The magnetometer was pretty useless in such a small fenced field, but the GPR came up with some results, despite problems with the encoder wheel, thankfully now fixed. At the northern end of the field seemed to be an old track, leading to the church, surrounded by some solid features. I originally thought these might be grave furniture, but one of them, under excavation, turned out to be the rather boring concrete footing for an old fence post. The track itself was composed of gravel. Further to the south, the tenuously identified plague pit turned out to be a scatter of neolithic struck flint, which was much more interesting than a fence post.

 Some of the features found at Jevington and the trenches opened to investigate them

Concrete post footing

Neolithic flint scatter. Photo courtesy of Martin Jeffery

14 August 2017

Latest Results: Bodiam

I was recently asked by the owners of Quarry Farm, Bodiam, to look at the Roman roadside settlement on their land, which is right up my (Roman) street. They were kind enough to put me up in their fantastic glamping site, with views across the settlement to the castle :

View to the castle from the glamping hut

The site was excavated back in the 1960's, when the Battle and District Historical Society dug up a Roman building with Classis Britannica stamped tiles associated with it. The Roman road broadly follows the modern road across the floodplain, and the presence of the CL:BR stamped tiles in the floodplain has led to the interpretation of the site as a port. Further to the south, as the land rises out of the floodplain, some iron slag has been found, suggesting an iron working site.

Lidar shows up an interesting feature in the floodplain, an embanked paleochannel that cuts much further south than the current course of the river. It has been suggested that the river was redirected further north in medieval times to help fill the moat. Also look at the two fields just south of the floodplain, and notice that the field on the left is significantly higher than the field on the right.

lidar of the site, click for larger image

So what about the geophysics? Starting with magnetometry, the reason for the height difference between the two fields is obvious, as there is a medium sized iron working site, whose slag heap has raised the level of that field compared to the one next door. You can also see a slag metalled track leading from the Roman road (to the east) to the iron working site. The floodplain is not so easy to interpret. There is a lot of metal junk, geological features, and material from the railway and modern road. It's difficult to say with certainty from the magnetometry that anything in there is Roman, despite the amount of Roman material found in excavation.

Magnetometry, click for larger image

It's down to the radar to help sort the mess out. The orange lines mark out the areas surveyed with GPR. The black rectangle is the Battle and District Historical Society excavation area, in which was found the building they excavated. That building doesn't show up on the radar, which is not surprising, as the excavations were described as waterlogged, and GPR doesn't do well with wet alluvium. There is what looks like new building just next to it though, closer to the road. Most interesting though is an oval bowl shaped feature surround on three sides by hard standing. My gut says this is an upstream port, but the paleochannel seems to go through it rather than by the side of it, so I'm not sure what to make of it.

Interpretation of floodplain GPR, click for larger image

Back at the iron-working site, the radar showed the extent of the slag heap as an amplitude change on the enveloped data, and also showed the location of three bloomeries as circular phase change features on the unenveloped data.

Interpretation of iron working GPR, click for larger image

So there's a lot going on, but not quite as large a settlement as expected. If you want to know more, you can read the full report here.

16 June 2017

Digging Up The Geophysics: Chichester

A couple of years ago, I did some radar surveys in Priory Park, Chichester. After a small test pit dug by CDAS last year, there was an official press release by Chichester District Council, which then led to an awful lot of press coverage (some of them actually managed to spell my name right), and me appearing on South Today briefly. Then this year, there was a bigger excavation run by the council and CDAS that produced even more press coverage. Here are a few more details about it all than you may not have heard about in the press.

Click for larger image

If you look at the above image, the test pit from last year is on the western end of the building marked 'B', targetting the surviving floors, while the larger trench from this year targets the smaller building marked 'C'.

Click for larger image

What is left of the floor fills most of the test pit in the above image, unfortunately with no surviving mosaics. There are walls to the west and north, with a cut representing a robber trench for another wall to the east, over which can be seen part of the remaining floor in the next room

Click for larger image

The above image shows the southern end of the larger trench from this year, looking west. The funny shape of the end of the wall visible in the radar is also visible in plan. The stacks of tile are pilae forming part of a hypocaust heating system, over which would have been an opus floor, part of which is visible sticking out of the baulk at the bottom of the image. That floor, and the pilae, don't appear on the radar data though, so clay products don't seem to have a difference in contrast to the local soil. The building is most likely a small bath house, which despite being built next to the building to the north, is actually attached to the building to the south. This distance is so that if the building goes up in flames because of the under floor heating, the rest of the building is not threatened. Dating seems to suggest a date for the building in the last Roman period.

Congratulations to Chichester on a fantastic dig, and watch this space for more results if they dig more next year.

06 April 2017

NSGG Conference 2016

It's been a few months since the NSGG conference in December 2016, so it's about time I did my usual post about my favourite bits.

Erica Utsi, whose name is on my GPR and is shortly to publish a book recently became a TV star after appearing on a program about William Shakespeare's grave, and given we were a specialist audience rather than the TV viewing public, we got a slightly more in depth explanation of what it was all about, which was that Shakespeare's head may have been nicked due to a fashion for collecting the skulls of famous people.

Adam Booth treated us to some technology not often linked to the sort of geophysics we do, portable x-ray fluorescence, which can be used to identify the elements present in a sample, without having to a lab. His test site was the site of a WWII plane crash. Parts of the plane were visible on magnetometry, so what did the new tech turn up to go with that? In a transect across the site, a spike in copper and zinc from the remains of the plane leaching into the surrounding soil was visible. I've seen a similar talk where the technology was used in industrial sites, where it was suggested that it was useful for identifying prehistoric metal working, which may have been little more than a campfire affair. Always nice to see new tech explained.

My favourite subject, Roman roads, got a mention by Joep Orbons, who had thrown quite a few geophysics techniques (EM, Mag, ER, ERT and GPR) at a section of Roman road in Belgium. The sort of results he got were very familiar to me, with differences in preservation and different soil conditions giving different results of quite a small area, with some techniques (GPR, ER) performing better than others. Sometimes even massive features like this can be hard to find. Not content with one talk on Roman roads, that last talk was immediately followed by Michal Pisz taking about the Roman fort of Tibiscum in Romania with the Roman roads and surrounding vicus being surveyed and excavated.

Already mentioned in this blog, Chris Lockyear has been producing some amazing results on the Roman town of Verulanium here in the UK, with multiple buildings, roads and an aqueduct visible in surveys carried out using ER, Mag and GPR. The preservation is fantastic, and I really hope they find a lot more like it. If you haven't seen it already, check out their blog. Talking of big, pretty surveys, Tomasz Herbich spoke after Chris and has been researching ancient towns in Egypt, with predictably decent results from magnetometry due to the use of fired brick.

H Webber suggested a new avenue of research for archaeologists, using the vast geophysical surveys, such as EM, carried out for the benefit of farmers in modern day precision agriculture. Phosphates present in occupation material may highlight areas of occupation that the archaeological community were not previously aware of. Of course, the farmers would have to be approached in order to get this data, and someone in the audience pointed out that if all of this was explained to the farmers, some of them might deep plough the sites away in order to bring the free fertiliser to the surface.

Petra Schneidhofer gave us a talk about the state of geophysics in Norway and Denmark. Apparently, igneous geologies make our usual favourite, magnetometry, rather pointless, so GPR is commonly used instead. despite that, the natural variation over an area in GPR is quite extreme, and it can be quite difficult to pick out features. Thanks goodness for the boring sedimentary geologies in my part of the world.

All the little geophysical surveys

It's that time of year when the weather is getting a bit warmer and it is time for me to wander once more into the green fields of England, with a machine that goes beep, to find the lost wossnames of times past. It isn't just my own Roman period projects that I work on though, I also do work for various local societies, as many don't have their own geophysics equipment. Here's a selection of projects that I've been involved with recently.

The Pepperpot, Brighton

At the end of Tower Road, Brighton, there is a tower (no surprise there) which apparently used to house pumping equipment for a well that supplied the Attree Villa and estate. There was apparently a water tank and an underground tunnel under what is now the road, and Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society along with the Friends of the Pepperpot asked me to take a look with my radar. There were signs of rubble in the area where the water tank would have been, and very vague signs of the tunnel, but the results weren't all that clear. You can see the full report here.

The interpretation of the GPR survey over an old map of the area around the Pepperpot

Butts Brow Neolithic Enclosure, Eastbourne

Though mostly filled with a combination of car park and a clump of trees, there is a second neolithic enclosure above Willingdon, Eastbourne (the first being the more well known Combe Hill causewayed enclosure). After a season of excavation targetting the surviving sections of bank and ditch by the Eastbourne Natural History and Archaeology Society, I was asked to see if I could find them some internal features to dig up. It's rather difficult to see cuts in chalk with radar, especially with modern tracks and bands of natural flint around, but the ditch was slightly visible as a negative feature cutting through the flint layers. It's the dark band in the image below. The contrast between the ditch and surrounding chalk was very slight though, so smaller internal features were not visible. You can see the full report here and you can see a video of the results here. Details of a dig this summer will be published here at some point.

The neolithic ditch cutting through a band of natural flint

Southborough Post Mill

Just over the border into Kent this time, the Southborough and High Brooms Amateur Archaeological Society asked me to look at a platform in the woods of Southborough Common, the site of a post mill. Geophysics surveys in woodlands are never easy, and while the woods had been cleared, some trees remained. Both earth resistance and magnetometry were used, the results of which are in the channel merge image below. The magnetometry didn't show much apart from a big chunk of metal and some surrounding (no longer visible) fencing, the earth resistance showed a high resistance area on the east side of the platform, which may have been the site of the mill. You can see the full report here.

Earth resistance in green and magnetometry in red.

29 December 2016

Equipment Test: Earth Resistance

Earth Resistance Meters – A Review


The twin-probe earth resistance meter, being relatively cheap, is often the first piece of geophysics equipment purchased by local archaeological societies. While it may not be the first port of call if you have access to a magnetometer or GPR, there are many situations where it is superior. I've found that earth resistance is the most reliable method for finding Roman roads. Recently, I've had access to multiple pieces of equipment, so I have decided to do a review.

The first of the three machines is the Geoscan RM15. Now replaced by the RM85, which unfortunately I don't have access to, the only major differences that I'm aware of is the inclusion of the multiplexer within the box rather than as an add-on, GPS logging and output via USB instead of the old serial port. If there are further changes that would change this review, I apologise to Geoscan now.

The second machine is the TR Systems meter, which was aimed at local societies and proved very popular before production ceased. Though it is not available any more, its use is so widespread that I include it here for comparison purposes, as many will be familiar with it.

The third machine is the Frobisher TAR-3, a relative newcomer, and like the TR Systems meter, affordable by local societies on a budget.

User Interface

The best way to introduce this section is with images of the interfaces of each machine.

Geoscan RM15 Interface

TR Systems Interface
Frobisher TAR-3 Interface

Both the RM15 and TR machines have a similar interface style, with buttons for each function. The TR machine seems to have taken a design lead from the Geoscan machine, no doubt hoping that familiarity will translate into ease of use. The Frobisher machine has a more minimalist style, with 5 buttons (duplicated, for left handers) controlling a menu system, similar to that used by Bartington in their GRAD601. Ease of use is subjective, and somewhat reliant on familiarity, but some comments can be made.

The Geoscan machine is probably the easiest to use. The TR Systems meter works in much the same way, but has an annoying feature where instead of beeping once when a reading is taken, it will beep when it is starting to take the reading and beep a second time when it is finished. If you take the probes out too early, before the second beep, it will complain furiously, saying something about checking the probes, when you know it is because you took the probes out too early, and you have to wait several seconds before it will allow you to continue. I gather that this 'feature' is due to listening to feedback from users who really should not have been listened to. The Frobisher, lacking the dedicated buttons for each function, is probably the least intuitive, and you will probably need the manual at hand the first few times you use it, until you get used to it. Training is available though. There are inconsistencies with the beeps to record a reading, so at the end of line beep, there is a pause and a further beep which may incorrectly suggest that another reading hasn't been taken, and when you are retaking a reading, there is no beep to say it has been taken. The other strange design decision relates to the end of the grid. It will take 20 seconds to write out the readings to its storage, and then turn itself off, cancelling out the speed increase afforded by the ergonomic design. Hopefully some of these issues will be resolved with firmware updates.

Verdict: 1st – Geoscan, 2nd – TR Systems, 3rd - Frobisher


A big part of the 'experience' of doing an earth resistance survey is lugging the machine around the survey area, over and over again, so how your equipment handles is of great importance. A common criticism of equipment like this is the effect it has on someone with a bad back, both because of the weight of the equipment, and because the height of the bar which you hold on to can make you stoop somewhat. With that in mind, here is a table with some statistics on the three machines.

Weight (sans cables)
Bar Height
Geoscan RM15
TR Systems
Frobisher TAR-3

As you can see, the Frobisher is much lighter and has a higher bar than the other two. My volunteer, Stuart, who has a history of back problems, reported that the Frobisher was his favourite. Another beneficial side effect of a ligher machine is the ability to move it quicker, meaning the survey area is covered quicker. Frobisher can supply whatever bar height required on ordering, including a childrens size frame (40cm-130cm).

Verdict: 1st - Frobisher, 2nd – TR Systems, 3rd – Geoscan

Hardware Options

The biggest selling point of the Geoscan RM85 has a built-in multiplexer, which used to be a separate add-on to the RM15, so parallel and deeper readings can be taken at the same time using the adjustable probe frame (an additional option). The RM85 also has an option of GPS recording if you are into using point clouds.

The TR systems meter had an optional tomography kit for doing manual ERT surveys and producing pseudosections using the free version of RES3DINV.

The Frobisher machine, being new, has yet to accumulate the same level of hardware options as the other machines, but one very useful feature is that the fixed probe cable is easily extendable, meaning more grids can be surveyed without moving the fixed probes. The manufacturer has mentioned that the cable could potentially be done away with entirely, with an entirely separate transmitter, which means very large areas could be done without moving the fixed probes, so faster surveys and no edge matching in software required. A wenner bar is available, and a tomography kit is in production.

Verdict: It really depends what you find useful!


While I can't compare battery life for each machine, I can comment on how easy it is to change batteries.

The Geoscan RM15 and RM85 have an internal battery pack of standard batteries (normal or rechargable). The unit needs to be unscrewed to replace the batteries, but it is possible to do this in the field.

The TR Systems meter has two plastic trays that slot into the side of the machine, so batteries (9V, standard or rechargable) can be easily changed in the field.

The Frobisher TAR-3 has an internal rechargable battery pack that is not user accessible. If something goes wrong with the battery, the unit must be returned to the manufacturer. It is charged via a USB connector, so can be charged in the field using a car charger, or anything that could charge a phone.

Verdict: 1st – TR Systems, 2nd – Geoscan, 3rd - Frobisher

Downloading Data

The RM15 and TR systems meter download via an old 9 pin serial connector, so you would need a serial to USB converter or card to download the data. Fortunately, the replacement for the RM15, the RM85, has now been changed to a USB connector that mimics a serial port, no additional hardware needed. The Frobisher TAR-3 stores data on an SD card that can be read with any card reader, so getting the data onto your computer is much faster.

Verdict: 1st – Frobisher, 2nd – Geoscan, 3rd – TR Systems

Data Quality

The test site was a park through which ran a Roman road. The park is surrounded by buildings, which was an opportunity to see how the three machines were affected by AC interference. The same fixed probe location (0.5m apart) was used for each of the three surveys. The area had been previously surveyed using GPR, and the road is visible in the timeslices starting at about 30cm down, along with some land drains or utilities. The surface is known to be made of flint, and the local geology is on the boundary between Folkestone Formation sandstone and Lower Greensand.

The GPR grid shown above is 30x30m, and the earth resistance test grid occupies the top-left 20x20m of that area. The results, shown below were processed in Snuffler with no filters applied. The display bounds were set to 95% of the readings around the median. There isn't much evidence of noise on any of the three images, and they seem broadly consistent with eachother.

Geoscan RM15
TR Systems

Frobisher TAR-3

Verdict: Not much to choose between them, make up your own mind!


When I bought my TR systems meter, many years ago, the price was £1200. Inflation would make that about £1800. At the time of writing, the Frobisher TAR-3 is £1844 (including a days training), not very different from the TR Systems meter, and aimed at the same budget conscious market. I'm not absolutely sure of the price of the currently Geoscan RM85, but I have been told the basic machine £5000, with the multi-probe array another £1500.

Verdict: Joint 1st – TR systems, Frobisher, 3rd – Geoscan


Given that the TR Systems meter is not currently available, that leaves us with the Geoscan and Frobisher machines. If you want the multiplexer option, then get the RM85, otherwise the lower cost and lighter Frobisher machine will save your back and bank balance.

29 October 2016

Latest Results: Chichester

Following on from last year's very successful radar survey in Chichester, I went back for another week of the same, this time around the area of the Cathedral in the south-west quadrant of the city. Chichester & District Archaeological Society had already found a lot in the area using earth resistance and excavation, so the radar didn't show a lot that was new, just in slightly better definition. There wasn't a lot around the cathedral itself, so the area has probably had any Roman remains there thoroughly removed, but there was around the Deanery and Bishop's Palace. The garden of the Deanery contains the old medieval (or post-medieval) Deanery, and the the area in front of the Bishop's Palace contains a Roman building and the medieval hall that was the old Bishop's palace.

The old Deanery in the garden of the current Deanery
Click for larger image

Roman building (green) and medieval Bishop's Palace (orange)
Click for larger image

I also went back to Priory Park to look again at the third Roman building (in green, within the lighter survey area) found near the cricket pitch. It has suffered greatly from robbing, not least by the Saxons, who seem to have used some of the stone in their sunken floor buildings, two of which appear (in purple) in the higher resolution re-survey of this area.

Priory Park survey. Click for larger image.

I'll be giving a talk on the results from both years for CDAS on the 22nd of February 2017 at 7:30pm in the cinema of the New Park Centre, New Park Road, Chichester.