Celebrating four and a half years of Beacons of the Past Chilterns hillforts project

Celebrating four and a half years of Beacons of the Past Chilterns hillforts project

Archaeologist Dr Wendy Morrison, Project Manager of the ‘Beacons of the Past’ project, reflects on the project’s achievements and discoveries, its dedicated volunteers and its legacy.

Beacons of the Past, our Flagship National Lottery Heritage funded project, focussed on discovering more about the hidden hillfort archaeology of the Chilterns, and involving local people and keen amateur archaeologists from around the world in these discoveries. The project is drawing to a close after four and a half years. Here’s Dr Wendy Morrison’s update and round up.

Beacons of the Past: What have we done?

Four and a half years ago, I was lucky enough to land a dream job— to deliver a project on Iron Age hillforts in a spectacular setting of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I could not have predicted then just how much those years would change me or the world in which we operate, but as we head into the final weeks of the project, I know that I will miss managing Beacons of the Past enormously.

When the Project (BotP) started, there was a set of deliverables that we were meant to achieve, and together with m’colleague Dr Ed Peveler, we set out from the start to see how we could build upon and expand these things to maximise both the impact and the investment of the National Lottery and our many supportive partners.

In this blog, I’ll summarise the main achievements of BotP, none of which could have occurred without the stalwart core of volunteers and partner organisations who have been with us every step of the way.

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The UK's largest bespoke LiDAR survey

Of course, the jewel in the crown of BotP was the LiDAR survey. Largest of its kind in the UK, we created a resource that will continue to yield new discoveries for years to come. The Portal will be kept live and accessible for the next five years (Dec 2027) and from January 2023 raw data files will be available upon request (subject to some caveats).

What we discovered through the use of Citizen Science, by involving thousands of enthusiastic members of the public in our analysis of the LiDAR, was that the Chilterns is a vastly complex archaeological landscape with many exciting tales to tell. BotP has tried to stay focused on the Iron Age, but its safe to say that the entire history (and prehistory) of the region can be enriched by the wealth of evidence that the LiDAR has brought to light.

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New interpretation panels and publications

Some of this information finds its way to the fore on our suite of new interpretation panels and digital media, and some will be shared in two forthcoming publications. One of these is an edited volume of research articles conducted by some of the project volunteers and we are really excited by the quality of this work which will inform academics and enthusiasts alike and undoubtedly feed future work.

The second output will be aimed at an even wider audience, as a booklet on the hillforts of the Chilterns and the major related discoveries of the project. These are likely to be available in the Summer of 2023.

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Seven Ways Plain Augmented Reality App

We have commissioned an Augmented Reality App that will bring the Seven Ways Plain hillfort at Burnham Beeches to life, across all three of the time periods that were influential in its development and use. This is an exciting new ways to make heritage and archaeology more accessible and appealing, and we hope to see more of this across Chilterns sites in the years to come.

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Long term legacies

We are proud to have been instrumental in the creation and provision of long term management plans for landowners and land managers of some of the hillforts in the project. With the help of Giles Carey, we supplied spatial data on new archaeological features to the relevant local authorities, so that these new discoveries can benefit from the protections that are in place during the planning and development process.

From dealing with dangerous trees at Cholesbury Camp, to designing ways to thwart fly tipping at Desborough Castle, and supporting partners like the National Trust to mitigate erosion damage at Ivinghoe beacon, the project has been instrumental in removing at least one site already from Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register.

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Cholesbury Hillfort

The project in lockdown

Public outreach took a blow in 2020 with the onset of a series of lockdowns and restrictions related to the COVID 19 pandemic, but this did not affect the online engagement in the form of some wonderful workshops and mapathons hosted by Ed and the ongoing use of the portal, which skyrocketed (and crashed twice from overuse!) when I talked about our project on Countryfile.

One area of engagement that we found we really missed doing in the lockdown period was the Pop-up Prehistory activity. These events were always great fun for both the practitioners and attendees alike and thankfully we were able to fit one more in this spring. It’s something I hope we can still see occur around the Chilterns, and we’re looking at ways to make that happen.

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The future for the Chilterns' past

The project has been so fortunate to have reached into so many areas in the Chilterns and discover more about the depth of human activity that has moulded and shaped the landscape we have come to know and love. Even more so, I have met some wonderful people along the way, who have shared and magnified my enthusiasm for the archaeology of the Chilterns as well as the other aspects that make up an holistic landscape, from woodlands and chalk streams to hedgerows and wildlife. It’s been an amazing four years and I look forward to what the future holds for the past!

From 1st November, my role shifts from Project Manager of BotP to being the core team archaeologist for the Chilterns Conservation Board. An exciting new initiative that I will be working up is the Chilterns Heritage and Archaeology Partnership (CHAP). CHAP models itself after the highly successful Chilterns Chalk Stream Project (CCSP), a partnership celebrating a quarter of a century of commitment to improving the state of the fragile Chilterns waterways. Where CCSP is the ‘voice for chalk streams’, CHAP will be the voice for heritage and archaeology.

Watch this space: it will be a great legacy for BotP, building on the discoveries, and also continuing engagement using the wonderful networks forged over the last four years. Please do get in touch to discuss CHAP potential!

Beacons of the Past wins archaeology award

BotP was honoured to be nominated for Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society’s Joan Elding Prize, and to be awarded ’Highly Commended’ on 01 October.

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Beacons of the Past

Read more about Beacons of the Past, LiDAR and how it works, and read the latest Hillforts Times Newsletter on the dedicated Beacons of the Past page.

Related news

Bluebells: the sign of spring in the Chilterns

Bluebells flower in abundance in ancient woodland in early spring and are found throughout the Chilterns.

The history of Chilterns chalk figures

Learn about the history behind some of the chalk figures cut into hills across the Chilterns.

‘Major victory’ for Beacons of the Past

The hillfort at Cholesbury Camp has been removed from Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register after successful restoration and maintenance work.

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