Over the past few months, Britain has experienced weeks of heat waves, with some of the hottest weather in decades. For a place that’s normally mild in the summer, it’s been extremely unusual for those who live there.
Throughout the summer, many people have struggled to adjust to the heat. Yet the extreme weather conditions are a dream come true for archeologists as the dry conditions have helped reveal some of the country’s long-lost secrets that have been hiding in plain sight for years.
Summers in England
For residents of the United Kingdom, summers are usually a mild season with temperatures normally peaking at around 66°F. Sunshine and heat usually come in short bursts between June and September. But the heat usually doesn’t last long.
Short and Fleeting
When the sun does decide to make an appearance and the temperatures rise, it isn’t long before the clouds blanket the sky once again and the temperature drops back to more mild levels. For that reason, people across the United Kingdom take vacations in the summer months to places where warmer weather is guaranteed.
Making the Most of the Heat
For those who can’t manage a summer holiday abroad, however, life in the summer revolves around making the most of the fleeting sun and heat. When an opportunity arises, people across the U.K. spend as much time outdoors as they can. They strip off their layers, sun themselves, and host cookouts with family and friends.
A Heat Wave
So when England experienced a heat wave during the summer of 2018, people across the country celebrated the unusually hot weather. Everyone waited for the clouds to return to the skies and for the heat to disappear. But that never happened…
Instead, the country continued to experience unusually warm weather. Between late June and early July, Britain experienced 16 consecutive days where the temperatures reached at least 82 degrees. According to officials, this summer has been one of the hottest summers on record.
The Summer of 1976
For decades, the hottest summer ever recorded in England occurred in 1976. While most of the summer’s weather was fairly average, it broke records after temperatures in every part of the country exceeded 89 degrees for 15 days straight in late June.
As a result of the heatwave, parts of the country experienced forest fires, water rationing, and crop failure. While the heat waves this season haven’t been as extreme as the 1976 heat wave, the overall average temperature over the past three months rivals that summer.
A Comparable Average
“If you take 2018 so far, as the average maximum temperature was 20.9C,” meteorologist Alex Deakin began. “Compare that with the famous summer of 1976, where the average across the three months for the maximum was just 0.1 degrees higher … ”
Not Built for Heat
“If the weather pattern remains similar, we could be pushing records … for sunshine.” Unsurprisingly, people across the U.K. were thrilled at the warmer weather. But the celebrations didn’t last. Before long, people were praying for cooler weather as many English homes and buildings don’t have air conditioning.
According to experts, the 2018 heatwaves are partly a result of global warming. They are also a result of a northerly shift in the jet stream, the air currents that help regulate the Earth’s temperatures. For most residents, this is a worrying trend. Yet one group in England is still thrilled about the warmer, drier weather.
An Archeologist’s Dream
For archeologists, the heat waves have revealed hidden secrets of the past. Unlike other times in the year where rainfall is steady, the drier weather brings out “crop marks” and “parch marks” in fields of grass or crops. Those marks reveal the remnants of long-forgotten buildings and structures.
The crop marks occur in soil that has once been built upon, as the grass or crops on the surface grow differently than plants in the surrounding soil. When the rain stops and the temperatures rise, the vegetation where a wall once stood will dry out and die faster since the soil is drier and poorer. As a result, a clear outline of a building or fort will appear.
Differences in the Soil
However, in places of buried ditches, the soil is able to collect more moisture and nutrients compared to the soil where a wall once stood. So the plants above will stay lush and green. Normally, conditions in England are wet and cool enough that no crop marks appear.
‘Kids in a Candy Shop’
But in hotter and drier weather, the crop marks show up and archeologists are able to see exactly where ancient structures, field boundaries, funerary monuments, castles, and long-gone settlements once stood. “It’s a bit like kids in a candy shop,” said Robert Bewley, an aerial archeologist at the University of Oxford.
Secrets From the Past
“It’s hugely exciting,” said Louise Barker, a senior archaeological investigator at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW). “There have been whole new discoveries, covering all periods of time.”
“Our senior aerial investigator Dr. Toby Driver is flying all over Wales, going over landscapes and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, there is something I never expected down there.’ There probably hasn’t been anything like this for more than 40 years. It is pretty spectacular,” said Barker, referencing the 1976 heat wave.
A Race Against Rain
In the past several weeks, archeologists have scrambled to secure planes and drones to document the crop marks across the country. They know that once the arid conditions are replaced by the normal, rainy and cloudy weather, the crop marks will quickly disappear. “It’s a frantic race against time and the weather. There is just this window of opportunity,” Barker said.
“The rain will come and it will all be lost again. The outlines will start disappearing before your eyes,” Barker added. However, because the dry conditions lasted longer than expected, they discovered more. So far, archeologists have uncovered neolithic ceremonial monuments, a Roman farm, evidence of Iron Age settlements, a medieval cemetery, and even air raid shelters from WWII behind gardens and schools.
An Opportunity to Learn
“We have found a Roman fortlet which will allow us to learn more about where the garrisons were and how the Roman conquest progressed,” Barker explained. “We have found an early medieval cemetery from maybe the eighth or ninth century, with the potential to tell us more about … the Dark Ages.”
So Much in so Little Time
“The heat has allowed us to do things over a huge area and in a time frame that no amount of digging or ground radar surveys could have achieved, unless you had an unlimited budget and were willing to go slightly mad prospecting in hundreds of farmers’ fields on a hunch or nothing,” Barker added. “I think it will add a huge amount to our knowledge.”