Stacks, cliffs & cauldrons of Castlemartin
Stacks, Cliffs and Cauldrons
Back to fieldwork
The Coronavirus epidemic has made 2020 an unusual and difficult year for millions of people. Along with most other organisations the staff of the Royal Commission in Wales, which leads the CHERISH Project, began home working in March 2020. Priority fieldwork recommenced in August, with each task requiring a robust business case and detailed risk assessment.
In mid August the CHERISH Team from the Royal Commission had their monitoring fieldwork on the Castlemartin Firing Range approved. The aim of this new fieldwork was to carry out the first aerial photogrammetric surveys by drone of the four principle coastal promontory forts, Linney Head, Flimston, Crocksydam and Buckspool/The Castle to provide baseline models to monitor future change. New topographic ground surveys were also needed for Buckspool and Crocksydam forts, which were last surveyed in the 1970s, while a possible ‘new’ promontory fort noted during aerial survey on Crickmail Down needed investigation.
Archaeological survey on a live firing range
We can only carry out fieldwork during scheduled non-firing breaks on this very busy military range. While Flimston Bay promontory fort can be accessed on some evenings and weekends, Linney Head promontory fort lies in the live firing area and can only be visited when the entire range is closed, usually during Easter and August.
Although Dan and Toby on the team are qualified drone pilots, our drone surveys also required advanced permission from Cadw, the National Park, Natural Resources Wales and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. We are grateful to all the staff we worked with to gain permission. The timing of the August survey avoided the sensitivities of cliff-nesting birds but we had to remain aware of early pupping seals on the beaches.
We made our first CHERISH Project visit to the range in March 2018 with colleagues from Aberystwyth University, but the first modern detailed surveys of Linney Head and Flimston forts were made a decade earlier by Louise from the Royal Commission in 2008. These earlier surveys, together with century-old maps and historic aerial photographs, provide excellent baselines against which to judge longer term patterns of erosion in the face of a changing climate.
Travelling in separate cars, and assigned separate sets of equipment, we made our first stop at Castlemartin Range Office early on the first day of fieldwork for the Range Briefing. This was to make sure we could identify and avoid any ordnance that might be lying around in the live firing areas.
Surveying at the edge of the cliffs
We were fortunate to have a week of hot, sunny and largely windless weather to conduct our drone surveys. The drone we fly is a Phantom IV Advanced, using software which allows us to pre-programme a gridded survey flight for photogrammetry, including setting altitude and ground resolution. Before starting the flight a network of control ‘crosses’ are fixed to the ground and surveyed in with GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) equipment so that the finished 3D model is accurately located to within a few centimetres or better.
The week started at Linney Head promontory fort in the live firing part of the range, with a condition check on the nearby Bulliber Camp too. Then we moved east to conduct a linked coastal drone survey of both Flimston Bay and Crocksydam promontory forts before finally relocating to near St Govan’s Head for access to Buckspool fort and the newly-identified site at Crickmail Down.
A new promontory fort, and an historic quarry quay
An interesting headland at Crickmail Down had looked like a potential promontory fort from aerial survey in 2018 but it required a ground visit to be sure. It was found that a definite causeway enters the fort between the eroded remains of two ditches. Inside there are traces of low stone walls, possibly from one or two small round houses. The character of the surviving low ramparts and infilled ditches suggests Crickmail Down may be earlier than the other more substantial promontory forts nearby, possibly dating to the Later Bronze Age.
We were also surprised to discover a tall stone wall in the coastal gully below the fort, set between high sea cliffs. This appears to be a loading platform for the historic limestone trade which flourished into the early years of the twentieth century. Although the wall is not marked on historic mapping, and not presently recorded, it would suggest a place where quarried stone was loaded onto waiting ships, similar to a loading quay at the tip of Flimston promontory fort.
Processing the results
These were the first archaeological drone surveys of the eroding cliffs at Castlemartin, leading to an extremely detailed 3D record of the cliff edge & forts and surpassing the old 2004 2-metre resolution airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) survey which can be viewed on the government’s Lle Portal.
During the week we surveyed 2.8km of coastline to 2cm resolution with the drone, flying 87.5 hectares of vertical photogrammetry and gathering around 3200 vertical images plus many obliques, as well as several minutes of aerial video. Processing all this data whilst homeworking has its challenges, but we are starting to produce finished models of the coastal sites.
The new 3D models for Flimston Bay and Crocksydam promontory forts show both sites in extraordinary detail. The design of Crocksydam is very different to the tall, curving ramparts of Flimston and it may be that these neighbouring sites had quite different purposes. These new 3D models provide the basis for new analysis of these interesting prehistoric coastal fortifications.
A new survey of Puffin Island
Puffin Island or Ynys Seiriol/Priestholm rises in a steep ridge of limestone off the eastern coast of Anglesey in north Wales. This magical, privately owned island is home to protected seabirds, principally cormorants, and the ruins of an early medieval monastery. No public landing is allowed without the prior permission of the landowner.
The monastery of Priestholm, an early medieval foundation of which the listed and scheduled tower of the Augustinian priory church still stands proud on the island’s skyline, has long attracted visitors. In 1868 Herford Hopps carried out a basic survey of the buildings and discovered numerous skeletons around the church where rabbits had disturbed the bones. Harold Hughes returned in the final years of the nineteenth century to carry out more accurate surveys of the buildings and to continue with his own excavations, finding remains of an early shrine pre-dating the church tower. The Royal Commission first visited in 1929 to survey the island for their 1937 Anglesey Inventory. The only other substantial building on the island is the listed, ruined 19th century Telegraph station at the north-east point.
In modern times the island and ruins had become overgrown and lacked a modern survey. Therefore Puffin Island was selected as a new study site for the EU-funded CHERISH Project due to its general inaccessibility, the protected status of the buildings and to enable new, highly detailed surveys of the structures to be made to monitor future change and erosion. The CHERISH ‘toolkit’ approach meant that the island would be completely surveyed from the air, on the ground and from the sea.
In 2017 CHERISH commissioned new airborne laser scanning (‘LiDAR) of the entire island. The highly accurate laser penetrates the woodland canopy allowing trees and scrub vegetation to be digitally ‘stripped away’ in a computer. Using this technique we were able to map previously hidden fields, buildings and a new promontory enclosure to build a virtual view of the entire island.
Remote sensing can only tell part of the story. In June 2018 CHERISH and Cadw staff accompanied seabird specialist Dr Jonathan Green out to Puffin Island in something resembling a ‘Famous 5’ adventure, beginning with a boat landing among basking seals on the western beach. Negotiating chest-deep grass and brambles and crawling under branches of low trees whilst carrying heavy survey equipment, we reached the peace and solitude of the 800 year old church. The limestone Romanesque tower looked quite continental in the June sun. Seagull chicks looked on as we laser scanned the tower.
Later that summer the Geological Survey of Ireland carried out marine bathymetry along the east Anglesey coast, monitoring wrecks and mapping the inshore island waters. We returned in decidedly colder weather in November 2018 to fly a drone over the tower to gather 3D photos of the parts the laser scanner couldn’t reach.
The new surveys generated state-of-the-art 3D records of the medieval priory church and associated structures, allowing any future change to be measured to within a few millimetres. The marine survey data has been linked to the LiDAR to produce a remarkable seamless onshore/offshore 3D map of the entire island. The current lockdown and a break from active fieldwork has provided the opportunity to write up the various surveys into a substantial archive report, which will be made available during 2020.
The CHERISH Team hope to return to Puffin Island in 2021 to make a final monitoring visit of the medieval ruins, and to savour the peace and isolation on this wilderness island one last time.