16 June 2017

Digging Up The Geophysics: Chichester

A couple of years ago, I did some radar surveys in Priory Park, Chichester. After a small test pit dug by CDAS last year, there was an official press release by Chichester District Council, which then led to an awful lot of press coverage (some of them actually managed to spell my name right), and me appearing on South Today briefly. Then this year, there was a bigger excavation run by the council and CDAS that produced even more press coverage. Here are a few more details about it all than you may not have heard about in the press.

Click for larger image

If you look at the above image, the test pit from last year is on the western end of the building marked 'B', targetting the surviving floors, while the larger trench from this year targets the smaller building marked 'C'.

Click for larger image

What is left of the floor fills most of the test pit in the above image, unfortunately with no surviving mosaics. There are walls to the west and north, with a cut representing a robber trench for another wall to the east, over which can be seen part of the remaining floor in the next room

Click for larger image

The above image shows the southern end of the larger trench from this year, looking west. The funny shape of the end of the wall visible in the radar is also visible in plan. The stacks of tile are pilae forming part of a hypocaust heating system, over which would have been an opus floor, part of which is visible sticking out of the baulk at the bottom of the image. That floor, and the pilae, don't appear on the radar data though, so clay products don't seem to have a difference in contrast to the local soil. The building is most likely a small bath house, which despite being built next to the building to the north, is actually attached to the building to the south. This distance is so that if the building goes up in flames because of the under floor heating, the rest of the building is not threatened. Dating seems to suggest a date for the building in the last Roman period.

Congratulations to Chichester on a fantastic dig, and watch this space for more results if they dig more next year.

06 April 2017

NSGG Conference 2016

It's been a few months since the NSGG conference in December 2016, so it's about time I did my usual post about my favourite bits.

Erica Utsi, whose name is on my GPR and is shortly to publish a book recently became a TV star after appearing on a program about William Shakespeare's grave, and given we were a specialist audience rather than the TV viewing public, we got a slightly more in depth explanation of what it was all about, which was that Shakespeare's head may have been nicked due to a fashion for collecting the skulls of famous people.

Adam Booth treated us to some technology not often linked to the sort of geophysics we do, portable x-ray fluorescence, which can be used to identify the elements present in a sample, without having to a lab. His test site was the site of a WWII plane crash. Parts of the plane were visible on magnetometry, so what did the new tech turn up to go with that? In a transect across the site, a spike in copper and zinc from the remains of the plane leaching into the surrounding soil was visible. I've seen a similar talk where the technology was used in industrial sites, where it was suggested that it was useful for identifying prehistoric metal working, which may have been little more than a campfire affair. Always nice to see new tech explained.

My favourite subject, Roman roads, got a mention by Joep Orbons, who had thrown quite a few geophysics techniques (EM, Mag, ER, ERT and GPR) at a section of Roman road in Belgium. The sort of results he got were very familiar to me, with differences in preservation and different soil conditions giving different results of quite a small area, with some techniques (GPR, ER) performing better than others. Sometimes even massive features like this can be hard to find. Not content with one talk on Roman roads, that last talk was immediately followed by Michal Pisz taking about the Roman fort of Tibiscum in Romania with the Roman roads and surrounding vicus being surveyed and excavated.

Already mentioned in this blog, Chris Lockyear has been producing some amazing results on the Roman town of Verulanium here in the UK, with multiple buildings, roads and an aqueduct visible in surveys carried out using ER, Mag and GPR. The preservation is fantastic, and I really hope they find a lot more like it. If you haven't seen it already, check out their blog. Talking of big, pretty surveys, Tomasz Herbich spoke after Chris and has been researching ancient towns in Egypt, with predictably decent results from magnetometry due to the use of fired brick.

H Webber suggested a new avenue of research for archaeologists, using the vast geophysical surveys, such as EM, carried out for the benefit of farmers in modern day precision agriculture. Phosphates present in occupation material may highlight areas of occupation that the archaeological community were not previously aware of. Of course, the farmers would have to be approached in order to get this data, and someone in the audience pointed out that if all of this was explained to the farmers, some of them might deep plough the sites away in order to bring the free fertiliser to the surface.

Petra Schneidhofer gave us a talk about the state of geophysics in Norway and Denmark. Apparently, igneous geologies make our usual favourite, magnetometry, rather pointless, so GPR is commonly used instead. despite that, the natural variation over an area in GPR is quite extreme, and it can be quite difficult to pick out features. Thanks goodness for the boring sedimentary geologies in my part of the world.

All the little geophysical surveys

It's that time of year when the weather is getting a bit warmer and it is time for me to wander once more into the green fields of England, with a machine that goes beep, to find the lost wossnames of times past. It isn't just my own Roman period projects that I work on though, I also do work for various local societies, as many don't have their own geophysics equipment. Here's a selection of projects that I've been involved with recently.

The Pepperpot, Brighton

At the end of Tower Road, Brighton, there is a tower (no surprise there) which apparently used to house pumping equipment for a well that supplied the Attree Villa and estate. There was apparently a water tank and an underground tunnel under what is now the road, and Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society along with the Friends of the Pepperpot asked me to take a look with my radar. There were signs of rubble in the area where the water tank would have been, and very vague signs of the tunnel, but the results weren't all that clear. You can see the full report here.

The interpretation of the GPR survey over an old map of the area around the Pepperpot

Butts Brow Neolithic Enclosure, Eastbourne

Though mostly filled with a combination of car park and a clump of trees, there is a second neolithic enclosure above Willingdon, Eastbourne (the first being the more well known Combe Hill causewayed enclosure). After a season of excavation targetting the surviving sections of bank and ditch by the Eastbourne Natural History and Archaeology Society, I was asked to see if I could find them some internal features to dig up. It's rather difficult to see cuts in chalk with radar, especially with modern tracks and bands of natural flint around, but the ditch was slightly visible as a negative feature cutting through the flint layers. It's the dark band in the image below. The contrast between the ditch and surrounding chalk was very slight though, so smaller internal features were not visible. You can see the full report here and you can see a video of the results here. Details of a dig this summer will be published here at some point.

The neolithic ditch cutting through a band of natural flint

Southborough Post Mill

Just over the border into Kent this time, the Southborough and High Brooms Amateur Archaeological Society asked me to look at a platform in the woods of Southborough Common, the site of a post mill. Geophysics surveys in woodlands are never easy, and while the woods had been cleared, some trees remained. Both earth resistance and magnetometry were used, the results of which are in the channel merge image below. The magnetometry didn't show much apart from a big chunk of metal and some surrounding (no longer visible) fencing, the earth resistance showed a high resistance area on the east side of the platform, which may have been the site of the mill. You can see the full report here.

Earth resistance in green and magnetometry in red.

29 December 2016

Equipment Test: Earth Resistance

Earth Resistance Meters – A Review


The twin-probe earth resistance meter, being relatively cheap, is often the first piece of geophysics equipment purchased by local archaeological societies. While it may not be the first port of call if you have access to a magnetometer or GPR, there are many situations where it is superior. I've found that earth resistance is the most reliable method for finding Roman roads. Recently, I've had access to multiple pieces of equipment, so I have decided to do a review.

The first of the three machines is the Geoscan RM15. Now replaced by the RM85, which unfortunately I don't have access to, the only major differences that I'm aware of is the inclusion of the multiplexer within the box rather than as an add-on, GPS logging and output via USB instead of the old serial port. If there are further changes that would change this review, I apologise to Geoscan now.

The second machine is the TR Systems meter, which was aimed at local societies and proved very popular before production ceased. Though it is not available any more, its use is so widespread that I include it here for comparison purposes, as many will be familiar with it.

The third machine is the Frobisher TAR-3, a relative newcomer, and like the TR Systems meter, affordable by local societies on a budget.

User Interface

The best way to introduce this section is with images of the interfaces of each machine.

Geoscan RM15 Interface

TR Systems Interface
Frobisher TAR-3 Interface

Both the RM15 and TR machines have a similar interface style, with buttons for each function. The TR machine seems to have taken a design lead from the Geoscan machine, no doubt hoping that familiarity will translate into ease of use. The Frobisher machine has a more minimalist style, with 5 buttons (duplicated, for left handers) controlling a menu system, similar to that used by Bartington in their GRAD601. Ease of use is subjective, and somewhat reliant on familiarity, but some comments can be made.

The Geoscan machine is probably the easiest to use. The TR Systems meter works in much the same way, but has an annoying feature where instead of beeping once when a reading is taken, it will beep when it is starting to take the reading and beep a second time when it is finished. If you take the probes out too early, before the second beep, it will complain furiously, saying something about checking the probes, when you know it is because you took the probes out too early, and you have to wait several seconds before it will allow you to continue. I gather that this 'feature' is due to listening to feedback from users who really should not have been listened to. The Frobisher, lacking the dedicated buttons for each function, is probably the least intuitive, and you will probably need the manual at hand the first few times you use it, until you get used to it. Training is available though. There are inconsistencies with the beeps to record a reading, so at the end of line beep, there is a pause and a further beep which may incorrectly suggest that another reading hasn't been taken, and when you are retaking a reading, there is no beep to say it has been taken. The other strange design decision relates to the end of the grid. It will take 20 seconds to write out the readings to its storage, and then turn itself off, cancelling out the speed increase afforded by the ergonomic design. Hopefully some of these issues will be resolved with firmware updates.

Verdict: 1st – Geoscan, 2nd – TR Systems, 3rd - Frobisher


A big part of the 'experience' of doing an earth resistance survey is lugging the machine around the survey area, over and over again, so how your equipment handles is of great importance. A common criticism of equipment like this is the effect it has on someone with a bad back, both because of the weight of the equipment, and because the height of the bar which you hold on to can make you stoop somewhat. With that in mind, here is a table with some statistics on the three machines.

Weight (sans cables)
Bar Height
Geoscan RM15
TR Systems
Frobisher TAR-3

As you can see, the Frobisher is much lighter and has a higher bar than the other two. My volunteer, Stuart, who has a history of back problems, reported that the Frobisher was his favourite. Another beneficial side effect of a ligher machine is the ability to move it quicker, meaning the survey area is covered quicker. Frobisher can supply whatever bar height required on ordering, including a childrens size frame (40cm-130cm).

Verdict: 1st - Frobisher, 2nd – TR Systems, 3rd – Geoscan

Hardware Options

The biggest selling point of the Geoscan RM85 has a built-in multiplexer, which used to be a separate add-on to the RM15, so parallel and deeper readings can be taken at the same time using the adjustable probe frame (an additional option). The RM85 also has an option of GPS recording if you are into using point clouds.

The TR systems meter had an optional tomography kit for doing manual ERT surveys and producing pseudosections using the free version of RES3DINV.

The Frobisher machine, being new, has yet to accumulate the same level of hardware options as the other machines, but one very useful feature is that the fixed probe cable is easily extendable, meaning more grids can be surveyed without moving the fixed probes. The manufacturer has mentioned that the cable could potentially be done away with entirely, with an entirely separate transmitter, which means very large areas could be done without moving the fixed probes, so faster surveys and no edge matching in software required. A wenner bar is available, and a tomography kit is in production.

Verdict: It really depends what you find useful!


While I can't compare battery life for each machine, I can comment on how easy it is to change batteries.

The Geoscan RM15 and RM85 have an internal battery pack of standard batteries (normal or rechargable). The unit needs to be unscrewed to replace the batteries, but it is possible to do this in the field.

The TR Systems meter has two plastic trays that slot into the side of the machine, so batteries (9V, standard or rechargable) can be easily changed in the field.

The Frobisher TAR-3 has an internal rechargable battery pack that is not user accessible. If something goes wrong with the battery, the unit must be returned to the manufacturer. It is charged via a USB connector, so can be charged in the field using a car charger, or anything that could charge a phone.

Verdict: 1st – TR Systems, 2nd – Geoscan, 3rd - Frobisher

Downloading Data

The RM15 and TR systems meter download via an old 9 pin serial connector, so you would need a serial to USB converter or card to download the data. Fortunately, the replacement for the RM15, the RM85, has now been changed to a USB connector that mimics a serial port, no additional hardware needed. The Frobisher TAR-3 stores data on an SD card that can be read with any card reader, so getting the data onto your computer is much faster.

Verdict: 1st – Frobisher, 2nd – Geoscan, 3rd – TR Systems

Data Quality

The test site was a park through which ran a Roman road. The park is surrounded by buildings, which was an opportunity to see how the three machines were affected by AC interference. The same fixed probe location (0.5m apart) was used for each of the three surveys. The area had been previously surveyed using GPR, and the road is visible in the timeslices starting at about 30cm down, along with some land drains or utilities. The surface is known to be made of flint, and the local geology is on the boundary between Folkestone Formation sandstone and Lower Greensand.

The GPR grid shown above is 30x30m, and the earth resistance test grid occupies the top-left 20x20m of that area. The results, shown below were processed in Snuffler with no filters applied. The display bounds were set to 95% of the readings around the median. There isn't much evidence of noise on any of the three images, and they seem broadly consistent with eachother.

Geoscan RM15
TR Systems

Frobisher TAR-3

Verdict: Not much to choose between them, make up your own mind!


When I bought my TR systems meter, many years ago, the price was £1200. Inflation would make that about £1800. At the time of writing, the Frobisher TAR-3 is £1844 (including a days training), not very different from the TR Systems meter, and aimed at the same budget conscious market. I'm not absolutely sure of the price of the currently Geoscan RM85, but I have been told the basic machine £5000, with the multi-probe array another £1500.

Verdict: Joint 1st – TR systems, Frobisher, 3rd – Geoscan


Given that the TR Systems meter is not currently available, that leaves us with the Geoscan and Frobisher machines. If you want the multiplexer option, then get the RM85, otherwise the lower cost and lighter Frobisher machine will save your back and bank balance.

29 October 2016

Latest Results: Chichester

Following on from last year's very successful radar survey in Chichester, I went back for another week of the same, this time around the area of the Cathedral in the south-west quadrant of the city. Chichester & District Archaeological Society had already found a lot in the area using earth resistance and excavation, so the radar didn't show a lot that was new, just in slightly better definition. There wasn't a lot around the cathedral itself, so the area has probably had any Roman remains there thoroughly removed, but there was around the Deanery and Bishop's Palace. The garden of the Deanery contains the old medieval (or post-medieval) Deanery, and the the area in front of the Bishop's Palace contains a Roman building and the medieval hall that was the old Bishop's palace.

The old Deanery in the garden of the current Deanery
Click for larger image

Roman building (green) and medieval Bishop's Palace (orange)
Click for larger image

I also went back to Priory Park to look again at the third Roman building (in green, within the lighter survey area) found near the cricket pitch. It has suffered greatly from robbing, not least by the Saxons, who seem to have used some of the stone in their sunken floor buildings, two of which appear (in purple) in the higher resolution re-survey of this area.

Priory Park survey. Click for larger image.

I'll be giving a talk on the results from both years for CDAS on the 22nd of February 2017 at 7:30pm in the cinema of the New Park Centre, New Park Road, Chichester.

04 October 2016

More on Processing UK Environment Agency LIDAR Data

Since I found that my last blog post on displaying Environment Agency LIDAR DEMs has become the most ever viewed blog post that I have written (popular subject apparently), I've been thinking of writing a followup, having learned a few new things. One of the main problems with dealing with all this LIDAR data is speed. First, getting the data to a state that is useful takes a lot of processing, which can be solved by automating the process using some python scripts I wrote. Second, the draw speed on the screen in QGIS can be solved using Virtual Raster Tables and Pyramids. This tutorial will assume that you are using the OSGeo4W package on windows, with QGIS, python  and OSGeo4W Shell options installed, but much of it may be transferable to other setups.

I'll start by throwing some python code at you for processing the data, and then explain a bit about what it does and how to run it. Put this code in a file somewhere called demimport.py

#!/usr/bin/env python

import sys
import zipfile
import os


def unzipfile(filename,exportto):
    with zipfile.ZipFile(filename, "r") as z:

def main( argv=None ):
    # Part 1, unzip the data and merge the contents into one file, deleting the intermediate files on completion
    for file in os.listdir(impdir):
        if file.endswith(".zip"):
            # Work out the filenames we are using
            print "File: ", file
            stubname = file[:-4]
            print "Stubname: ", stubname
            outdir = expdir + "\\" + stubname
            print "outdir: ", outdir
            impfile = impdir + "\\" + file
            print "impfile: ", impfile
            demname = outdir + "\\" + stubname + ".asc"
            print "demname: ", demname

            # First, deal with the zip file
            if not os.path.exists(outdir):

            # Now get a list of files in the created directory and construct the script to merge them
            script = "gdal_merge.bat -n -9999 -a_nodata -9999 -of GTiff -o " + demname
            for file2 in os.listdir(outdir):
                if file2.endswith(".asc") and not file2.startswith("LIDAR-DTM"):
                    script += " " + outdir + "\\" + file2
            print "script: ", script
            for file2 in os.listdir(outdir):
                if file2.endswith(".asc") and not file2.startswith("LIDAR-DTM"):
                    os.remove(outdir + "\\" + file2)

    # Part 2, Create hillshade files from the files created in part 1
    for f in os.listdir(expdir):
        if os.path.isdir(os.path.join(expdir, f)) and f.startswith("LIDAR-DTM"):
            # Work out the filenames we are using
            stubname = expdir + "\\" + f + "\\" + f
            print "Stubname: ", stubname
            demname = stubname + ".asc"
            print "demname: ", demname
            hsname = stubname + "-HS.asc"
            print "hsname: ", hsname
            hs2name = stubname + "-HS2.asc"
            print "hs2name: ", hs2name

            if os.path.exists(demname):
                if not os.path.exists(hsname):
                    # Now create the hillshade
                    script = "gdaldem hillshade " + demname + " " + hsname + " -z 1.0 -s 1.0 -az 315.0 -alt 45.0 -compute_edges -of GTiff"
                if not os.path.exists(hs2name):
                    # Now create the second hillshade
                    script = "gdaldem hillshade " + demname + " " + hs2name + " -z 1.0 -s 1.0 -az 45.0 -alt 45.0 -compute_edges -of GTiff"

if __name__ == '__main__':

You will see near the top of this script two directories called impdir and expdir. impdir is the directory where you dump the zipfiles you download from the environment agency website. expdir is the directory where the script will output the resulting data. Change these to whatever directory structure you wish to use on your computer. The script will  merge the contents of each zip file into a single file and then create two different hillshades from that data. More on the hillshades later. It automates most of what I described in my last blog post, all apart from setting the style data in QGIS. You can run the script by opening OSGeo4W Shell, changing directory to where you have saved the python file and typing @python demimport.py.

The next bit is about speeding up the data display in QGIS itself, using the aforementioned Virtual Raster Tables (hereafter, VRTs) and Pyramids. First, VRTs. Imagine you have 100 LIDAR tiles active for display in QGIS. Each time you zoom or move the display, it has to read them all to see which it can display in the area you are viewing at the time, which obviously means a lot of slow reading from your hard disk (assuming you still use those). A VRT acts as an index file for your 100 LIDAR tiles, so QGIS only has to look in one place to find out what it needs to display, and then only has to open the tiles that it requires to fill the area you are viewing, so everything displays much quicker. Pyramids speed things up in a different way. Imagine you are quite zoomed out, looking at a wide area of LIDAR data. QGIS would normally have to read the whole of each file and reduce it in size to fit into the small area that the tile would be displayed in. Creating a pyramid does this process ahead of time, so it takes the original image, compresses ito to a quarter of its size, then does that again and again and saves all that in a pyramid file, so when you are zoomed out, rather than reading the entirity of the original data, it will read the pre-compressed data suitable to your zoom level, reducing the amount it has to read from your hard disk and speeding up the display process. Those are the concepts behind it, now for the code that actually does it. Put this code in a file called makevrt.py

#!/usr/bin/env python

import sys
import os

def main( argv=None ):
    # definitions for the vrt we want to create, this changes
    resolution = "2M"

    expdir = 'e:\\data\\gis\\dem'
    inputareas = ["ST","SY","SS","SX"]

    # File and directory names, this doesn't change
    ldtm = "LIDAR-DTM-"
    ext = ".vrt"
    vrtnamestub = "VRT" + "\\" + ldtm + resolution
    types = [ "", "-HS", "-HS2" ]
    listname = expdir + "\\filelist.txt"

    for type in types :
        for ia in inputareas:
            vrtname = expdir + "\\" + vrtnamestub + "-" + ia + type + ext
            pyramidname = vrtname + ".ovr"

            if not os.path.exists(vrtname):
                script = "gdalbuildvrt -input_file_list " + listname + " " + vrtname

                base = ldtm + resolution + "-" + ia
                base2 = expdir + "\\" + base
                fp = open(listname,"w")
                for dir in os.listdir(expdir):
                    if dir.startswith(base):
                        fp.write(expdir + "\\" + dir + "\\" + dir + type + ".asc\n")

                print "script: " + script

            if os.path.exists(vrtname) and not os.path.exists(pyramidname):       
                print "processing: " + vrtname
                # Now create the pyramids
                script = "gdaladdo -r CUBIC -ro " + vrtname + " 2 4 8 16 32 64"

if __name__ == '__main__':

You can run the script by opening OSGeo4W Shell, changing directory to where you have saved the python file and typing @python makevrt.py. Again, there are some changes you will need to make at the top of the file. resolution is the type of data you are dealing with. You can download 2M, 1M, 50CM or 25CM data from the Environment Agency website, this script will only do one at a time. expdir should be the same as expdir from the first script. You will also need to create a subdirectory off of that called 'VRT', which is where this script creates its new files. inputareas is a list of Ordnance Survey Grid Letters that the script will generate VRTs for. It will generate one set of files for each grid letter, you have to tell it which ones to do. After that, you can load the newly created VRT files into QGIS using the Add Raster Layer button and style them as per my original blog post.

Now back to those two different hillshades I mentioned. Why two different hillshades? If you imagine a hillshade a shining a light from a particular angle to create highlights and shadows, a linear feature running in the same direction as the direction of the light will not show up very well, so I've created a second hillshade with the light coming in at a 90 degree angle to the first hillshade. You can see the difference below.

 First hillshade. Click for larger image.

 Second hillshade. Click for larger image.

If you click on the images and look at the highlighted feature, a possible new (unconfirmed) Roman road on the Isle of Wight, you will see that it is much clearer in the second image compared to the first. My script generated the hillshades with light coming in from the north-east in the first image, which is parallel to the road feature, and from the north-west in the second image, which is perpendicular to the road feature, showing it up better.

14 August 2016

Roman Roads conference in Portsmouth

Many of you who know me know that my personal research project, which I have been working on for the last few years is Roman Roads and roadside settlements. I've been asked to speak on the subject at a conference on the subject of Roman roads in memory of Ivan Margary, the most famous of all Roman road researchers in Britain. I'll be doing two talks (that's a full Bonsall for you geophysicists out there), the first on the subject of Roman roads research in the county of Sussex, Ivan's original stomping ground, and the second talk on the use of geophysics for finding Roman roads. The conference is a two day conference on the 3rd and 4th of September 2016 at Portsmouth University. The website for the organisers of the conference is here.