The MARS Project: An Introduction

Prof. Timothy Darvill and Dr Geoffrey Wainwright

This introduction presents the aims and objectives of The MARS Project. It contains information about what kind of data we are trying to collect, how we go about this process of data collection, the kind of analysis which will take place and the results we hope to have achieved at the culmination of the project in 1997.


English Heritage have commissioned the MARS Project from Bournemouth University, and the programme is in association with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England . Its purpose is to provide up-to-date information about the general characteristics of the aechaeological resource as well as specific details about the past, present and likely future condition of different kinds of monument.

It is a survey to see how many archaeological sites we have left, how many are still in good condition, how many are still in fair shape, how many have been lost, and how sites have come to be as we see them today. Its aims is not to pinpoint individual monuments which are at risk, but rather to identify broad patterns in the way that monuments change so that resources and skills can be deployed for the better protection and conservation of sites in future.


There are over 600,000 archaeological sites in England, including barrows, camps, Roman villas and deserted villages. The oldeset were in use over half a million years ago by the first settlers in this country, the most recent date from World War II.

Some sites, like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, are extremely well-known and clearly visible. The majority though are poorly known and in some cases lie hidden in the ground. All are of interest because of the information they hold about communities that lives, worked and died in the past.

The survival of archaeological sites is bound up with the use of the land in which they lie, whether this is agricultural, industrial, residential or recreational. This has been so for centuries. As a result some sites have survived while others have become denuded, damages or destroyed. What is not known at present is how many sites have been lost in recent decades, how many remain in good condition and what risks they currently face.

The Monuments at Risk Survey (MARS) is the first ever national census of the condition and survival of archaeological sites in England. This article introduces the work of the survey, and explains how it is being carried out.

Aims and objectives

The defined aims of the MARS project are to:

How MARS works

Not every archaeological site in England can be visited and checked, so a sampling strategy has been developed. This involves examining about 5% of the land area of England through the detailed study of 1301 separate sample units. These units are scattered randomly throughout England in order to give a representative picture.

There are three main strands to the study: field-checking , analysis of aerial photographs , and researching detailed case studies.

The field-checking will be the most visible element. First, the owners and occupiers of sites in the survey transects will be contacted by a member of the survey team and an appointment made to visit the site. The survey team will wish to record information such as the visibility of the site and the current land use on and around it; they may take measurements such as its height and area. In this way they will build up a picture of the monument as it exists in the mid 1990s. In all the team will take between half an hour and an hour to complete their work. There is only one chance to visit all these monuments so programming will be tight.

Six field-survey teams will be at work simultaneously, two each in the north, midlands and south.

While the field-checking is going on the study of aerial photographs will be underway in Swindon. Experts in aerial photograph interpretation will pick out pictures which show the changes that have occured to the monuments in each sample unit over the last 50 years. They will record from the photographs much the same information as will be recorded by the survey teams. The photographs will show, for example, the kind of land-use and vegetation cover that existed on the monuments in the past. They will also show the ways that land-use changes such as urbanization and the spread of arable cultivation or afforestation have affected monuments. In this way it will be possible to track not only the way things have changed but also the causes and extent of change.

Finally, a selection of different kinds of monuments in various situations will be researched to see how they have changed and what this means for the preservation of archaeological information about their original construction, purpose and use.

The data from all three lines of inquiry will be carefulyl analyzed to reveal national, regional and local trends. As already indicated, the aim is not to pinpoint specific monuments which are at risk but rather to define general patterns which alow high risk situations to be forecast.

Project program and management

The overall Project has been arranged in a series of ten main phases and follows on from pilot study based in Wiltshire which was completed in 1991. The project is based in the Department of Conservation Sciences at Bournemouth University, although during the fieldwork stage of the programme there will also be a number of satellite regional centres. A steering committee chaired by Professor Geoffrey Wainwright monitors the work of the project as a whole; day to day management being in the hands of the project director, Professor Timothy Darvill and the project manager Andrew Fulton.

The main programme of data collection will begin in August 1994 and continue through to January 1996. Analysis and synthesis will take about 12 months, with the reports on the project being available in the spring of 1997.

MARS in relation to other studies

A project of the scale and importance of MARS cannot stand in isolation; its very nature means that it is inexorably connected to many other related studies of land-use, landscape and countryside change. These parallel studies include:
Work by Central Government
Monitoring Landscape Change (Barr 1986))
Countryside Survey 1990 (Barr et al 1993)
Land Use Change in Britain (DoE 1992a and 199b))
Work by the Countryside Commission
New Map of England (in progress)
Work byEnglish Nature
Natural Areas (English Nature 1993)
The successful completion of MARS will ensure that archaeological interests will have a study on which to base a case that can be judged at the same level as those other countryside and urban interests. A base-line will have been established for periodic studies in decades to come.

MARS is also complementary to other work being carried out by English Heritage. Although site condition data is collected as part of the Monuments Protection Programme the overall aims and objectives of the MPP are quite different from those of MARS and no duplication of effort is involved. In the short term the results from MARS will assist in targeting the resources of MPP towards those monuments and landscapes most at risk. Work on the MPP for its part will provide data for monument classes and scheduled sites already covered by the long-term survey programme.

Together, these various studies will provide a detailed statement of the natural and cultural resources of Britain; a sort of later 20th century Domesday Book of the environment.

How can I help?

For MARS to succeed much help will be needed from the farmers, foresters, managers, occupiers and others in whose care archaeological sites lie. If a MARS sample unit happens to include sites in your charge your assistance would be greatly appreciated. The Project Team would like to thank you in advance for your help, and for your contribution towards securing the future of England's archaeological heritage.

MARS - Why is it needed?


The driving force behind MARS is the need to provide nationwide information about the state of England's archaeological heritage for both the recorded and the extant resource so that archaeological resource management can be better informed. The opportunities to use such information at strategic and operational levels are considerable, but at this stage can only partly be glimpsed. Within the specific field or archaeology, the study will provide support for positive approached to the protection and management of archaeological remains and the baseline data to endorse professional convictions about the merits of specific judgements. In the wider arena of environmental conservation the project will help identify those areas where co-operation and the integration of policy initiatives can be most fruitful and of greatest benefit both to the resource and to society as a whole.

© The MARS Project 1996. Last updated July 1995.