Henry Webber’s interest in archaeology started on his family’s farm in Essex, where a dig revealed its medieval origins. He was later intrigued to find that modern-day technology used in precision farming is also helping to reveal more about the extents and locations of archaeological sites.
“The way in which land was used in the very distant past can still have a significant impact on land used today for agriculture,” says Henry, now an agricultural policy advisor at Defra.
“Where people and particular farming practices have existed for long periods, nutrients can build up in soils. For example, buried Roman villas, Bronze Age burial pits and even WWII remains can all affect the nutrient levels in soils, in some cases nearly doubling the levels of phosphorus and high levels of heavy metals.
“This legacy could have implications when targeting soil analysis and for the precision application of nutrients.
“In my work I integrate precision farming and archaeology. By taking what we know about past land use of a field, it is possible to make better and more targeted decisions about the soils and crops being managed today.
“In the future we may have similar issues but at a much larger scale that could really impact our ability, for example, to increase soil organic matter without loading the soil with heavy metals.”
Henry is investigating the use of archaeological and agricultural datasets to provide better information on soil variation in the UK, within his PhD. He is discussing how a historical perspective can be used to inform precision agriculture in the Emerging Agri-Tech session of the REAP conference on 6 November 2019.
“Archaeology inherently involves a long term perspective and we can help use that to inform modern practices,” he continues. “Farming has always had to change as times goes on, the environment changes, people change, therefore as sustainability becomes embedded with society, so will the future of farming.”