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Brief Published: 22 Oct 2021

Historic England’s Virtual Mapping Reveals Hidden Heritage

Lidar image of Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, revealing remains of a WWI military camp (right-hand side)

A new digital aerial tool enables consumers to view previously unknown details about heritage sights – from iron age hill forts to cold war military installations. Unveiled by non-profit Historic England in October, the virtual experience harnesses lidar (light, detection and ranging) technology to create detailed 3D images of the Earth’s surface.

Historic England has likened its Aerial Archaeological Mapping Explorer to a “huge archaeological jigsaw puzzle”. Combining some 500,000 aerial photographs with lidar, a form of airborne laser scanning, the tool is able to visualise layers of archaeological sites and topography not visible to IRL ground-level visitors, such as traces of Neolithic barrows, agricultural systems or mine shafts concealed by tree cover. 

Members of the public accessing the free platform online can hover over each site, zoom in on details and click to see a pop-up legend explaining the heritage, with links to full online records held by Historic England for more in-depth reading.

The lidar market is expected to surpass $7bn, expanding at a CAGR of 20% (Global Market Insights, 2020). Besides applications in archaeology, the tech's role in driverless carssmart parking and infrastructure (for example, scanning for weaknesses in bridges) is propelling growth.

Using cutting-edge technology to shed fresh light on heritage and amplify consumer engagement, this initiative taps into an opportunity we discussed in Remixing History (see Reimagining the Past). It follows South Korea’s 5G-powered AR app that allows consumers worldwide to explore Changdeok Palace – as featured in Mobile World Congress 2021 – and start-up Odeuropa using AI to create olfactory experiences inspired by historic texts and images – see The Brief for more.