Using GIS to understand England’s unique historic environment
Charged with the huge responsibility of preserving England’s historic buildings and landscapes, English Heritage uses Esri’s ArcGIS Desktop solutions to enhance significant research projects. ArcGIS is a vital tool to gain a deeper understanding of the properties and sites within its care, to help preserve them for future generations.
English Heritage exists to protect and promote England’s historic environment and ensure that its past is researched and understood. Officially known as the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, the organisation is the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment and an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
English Heritage used ArcGIS to create ground models to analyse the locations of castles and lighthouses around the country
The organisation scanned and validated ancient paper maps, going back to the 16th century, to gain new insight into the development of an Essex estate
ArcGIS provides a ‘one-stop shop’ enabling the organisation to manage all data in research projects, from the field work right to the end archive
In order to protect and preserve England’s diverse historic buildings and landscapes, English Heritage conducts regular surveys, landscape investigations and research projects. The information that it gathers is used to create conservation and management plans.
English Heritage’s research department was starting to handle many more disparate datasets. Its existing IT systems were struggling to cope with diversity, and data often had to pass through several complex steps between collection and use. “We wanted to become more sophisticated in the way that we handled data and have a one-stop solution,” explains Trevor Pearson, Head of Technical Survey (Archaeology). “We needed a solution that could handle all the different types of data that we were being confronted with and simplify our processes.”
English Heritage was using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) elsewhere in its organisation, and some teams had been using Esri GIS software since the mid-1990s. “ArcGIS was being widely used corporately and was known for being straightforward to use,” recalls Pearson. In addition, many of English Heritage’s partner organisations – such as the National Parks Authorities and local authorities – had already deployed GIS and wanted to receive data in compatible formats.
“ ArcGIS is enabling us to set new standards for historic landscape analysis ”
Trevor Pearson – Head of Technical Survey (Archaeology)
Over a period of time, time twenty nine research department staff started to use ArcGIS for Desktop with the Spatial Analyst and 3D Analyst extensions.
Spatial Analyst is used to investigate viewsheds of castles and lighthouses to understand how these sites were positioned in the surrounding countryside. Perspective views of sites and entire historic landscapes have been created using 3D Analyst, aiding interpretation and allowing sites to be seen from otherwise unobtainable points of view. The ground models used to create the perspective views are interpolated in 3D Analyst from spot height data; and are also used to analyse the gradient and aspect of hill slopes to explore how ancient settlements and field systems were distributed.
ArcGIS has also been used in a research project at Audley End in Essex, helping to validate the accuracy of old maps. A large number of fragile paper maps depicting the house and its estate from as far back as the sixteenth century have been scanned, geo-referenced and compared with modern data from recent geophysical and earthwork surveys, as well as archaeological features seen on aerial photographs.
This exercise highlighted a number of very significant changes that had occurred. For example, the maps geo-referenced in ArcGIS clearly illustrated how the natural course of the River Cam had been re-routed more than once. The information collected on the precise location of the river at different points in time is helping to ensure that future conservation work is historically accurate.
“ ArcGIS allows everyone to see the different stages in the history of a property and its surrounding landscape. It shows very clearly how complex landscapes have changed over time and gives us a better understanding of important historical sites ”
Andrew Lowerre – Archaeologist specialising in spatial analysis
ArcGIS adds great value to the work carried out by English Heritage’s research department. “ArcGIS has a positive impact on every stage of a research project,” says Pearson. “It influences the way that we think about data collection; it makes data management more straight forward and comprehensive; it gives us new analytical capabilities; and it improves the way that we present, use and store our findings.”
ArcGIS delivers the ‘one-stop solution’ that English Heritage sought for managing its research projects from beginning to end. “At no point do we have to take the data out of the GIS for manipulation in CAD (computer aided design) packages or for analysis,” Pearson explains. “We can use ArcGIS to manage projects right from the field work to the end archive.”
Andrew Lowerre, an archaeologist specialising in spatial analysis, believes that the Audley End project would have been virtually impossible without the use of GIS. “It would have been very difficult to compare maps and match features using just digital images and the eye,” he says. “The result would have been far less satisfactory and difficult to share or use in the future.”
English Heritage is using ArcGIS to gain a deeper understanding of the properties and sites within its care and to help preserve them for future generations. Lowerre says: “ArcGIS allows everyone to see the different stages in the history of a property and its surrounding landscape. It shows very clearly how complex landscapes have changed over time and gives us a better understanding of important historical sites.”
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