Wreck of an unnamed wooden vessel off Cleethorpes. © MNR
Archaeologists working for English Heritage have begun examining 12,000 aerial photographs, some dating back to the Second World War, to identify historic sites on the brink of being lost to the North Sea.
The project is examining 137 kilometres (85 miles) of vulnerable coastline from Whitby to Donna Nook, in North East Lincolnshire, including Holderness, where erosion rates are as high as six metres per year.
"Rates of erosion along many parts of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire coast are very high,” explained Peter Murphy, Coastal Strategy Officer with English Heritage. “It's also an area rich in archaeology, so it's a national priority to get the work done.”
Flamborough Head - erosion of the chalk cliffs. The dark green line running to the cliff is archaeology: probably a ditch of some sort. © MNR
Although little can be done to prevent cliffs crumbling, or lowland areas being inundated, quick action will mean that valuable archaeological information isn't lost forever.
Along the Holderness coast about thirty towns and villages are known to have been lost to the sea since medieval times. A strip of land at least two kilometres wide has vanished since the Roman period.
"We have no more chance than King Canute of holding back the tide on this coastline, so we have to go for preservation by record, rather than physical preservation of buildings or ancient earthworks,” explained Dave MacLeod, Aerial Archaeologist with English Heritage.
Fishtrap off Cleethorpes, probably medieval. Some way offshore and only revealed during very low tides. © MNR
The area being investigated is known to contain Bronze Age burial mounds, Roman signal stations, medieval enclosures and military installations. But many more sites await discovery.
“It is tempting to think that we already know where all the historic sites are,” added Mr Murphy. “But that's simply not the case. Surveys completed in North Kent and East Anglia yielded a nine-fold increase in records, including 4,000 year old features in the tidal zone."
Results from the survey will be fed into English Heritage's national Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey and cover an area up to one kilometre inland.
Kilnsea coastal gun battery was a counter-bombardment installation, designed to repel enemy warships from shelling Hull. Photograph taken by the RAF in 1946.
Some of the photographs being used include RAF pictures, taken in the early 1940s. They provide a rich source of information, particularly on naval gun batteries such as the Kilnsea coastal gun battery, near Spurn Point, Holderness, which is now sliding into the sea. Other images are more recent, offering clues on the rate of loss.
The best images are currently being scanned onto a computer, then by using a combination of specialist software, sharp eyes and archaeological knowledge digital maps will be created.
The aerial interpretation should be completed by April 2007, and will be followed by field surveys to flesh out new discoveries, and also to unearth sites not visible from the air.
During WWII Kilnsea's 9.2 inch guns could fire a shell 17,500 yards. It is now crumbling into the sea. © NMR
By 2010, the survey aims to have produced the most detailed picture yet of the threat posed to the nation's heritage by rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and managed realignment of coasts.
The work is being carried out by a team from Humber Archaeology, on behalf of English Heritage. More detailed investigations could possibly follow, depending on the importance of discoveries.