The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteer Champions #2. Nigel Rothwell, LiDAR Interpreter, Beacons of the Past

Friday 1 July 2022

Nigel Rothwell has been volunteering for the ‘Beacons of the Past project’, joining a team of more than 1000 volunteers in a quest to find previously uncovered hillfort archaeology and other historical features in the Chilterns. The project commissioned the largest ever LiDAR surveys ever flown for archaeology in this country, and one of the largest in the world. LiDAR is a plane-mounted laser scanning technique that enables archaeologists to discover features hidden under vegetation. Volunteers joined in with an effort to identify, record, and interpret the data from the survey. 

What prompted you to get involved in ‘Beacons of the Past’?

There were several reasons: I have a background in geology and an interest in landscape development and archaeology. I also help run the Chilterns Young Archaeologists' Club (YAC), which contributed to the original Heritage Lottery Fund proposal for the project, so I was keen to ensure our YAC members got to participate in project activities. I’d also participated in other 'Citizen Science' projects and was interested in developing my own skills.

Young Archaeologists Club members at a community dig at Burnham Beeches


What kinds of activities did you get involved in as a volunteer? 

I took an early interest in the LiDAR interpretation, initially as an individual contributor making and recording observations, and then later as a 'Reviewer' - assessing and refining contributions made by others, sharing my knowledge and helping determine priorities for submission to the Historic Environment Records. 

I've also been involved in various onsite activities, including monument surveying, geophysical survey, conservation and protection work, and the community archaeological excavations. I help run the Chilterns Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) so I involved our YAC members in some of the LiDAR interpretation and the archaeological excavations.

 A LiDAR image of Bulstrode Camp


What did you most enjoy about volunteering for the project?

I’ve enjoyed the excitement of making and interpreting observations from the LiDAR data, gaining new insights into the history and heritage of the Chilterns and helping shape a view of what’s important to recognise and preserve. 

The project was structured to encourage volunteers, creating opportunities to meet and share ideas with like-minded individuals. The knowledge sharing and discussion was engaging and it helped provide a meaningful sense of purpose during the periods of enforced Covid lockdown. There was a great sense of communal achievement, despite the contributors being dispersed and working in isolation.

Surveying Cholesbury Hillfort in 2018


What did you learn and gain? What training was given?

The project set out to teach new skills through a series of online and in-person workshops as well as field based activities. Core to this was the use of software to access, interrogate and integrate data online, particularly using the LiDAR data and GIS software. The practical field based training included surveying and archaeological excavation techniques. 

Interpretation of LiDAR data was new to me but gaining expertise in this has enabled me to apply the same approach to interpreting similar datasets elsewhere in the country. The mapping and data integration using GIS software has also enabled me to bring together diverse datasets for the Beacons of the Past project, where I’ve particularly being investigating Roman Roads, and also to use the skills to great effect in integrating geographic data for other local history projects.

Ground truthing LIDAR features in 2021 at Ivinghoe


What tips would you give to anyone interested in getting involved?

The project is very accessible and anyone interested should not be put off by the apparent need to learn complex computing or interpretation skills. At its simplest the LiDAR interpretation is essentially about pattern recognition and there are a number of simple tutorials available on the project website to help build confidence levels. Nor should anyone be concerned that they are joining the project late and the work has all been done. There is plenty of data that hasn't been properly examined yet and scope for new observations and insights. 

There is also much future work to be done to determine what all the new observations mean and particularly to integrate local knowledge. For anyone with an interest in the history of the Chilterns landscape this project provides a uniquely democratic way of accessing and contributing to an understanding of our heritage.


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