But in truth, it is painstaking work that requires a great deal of time and effort by a small band of experts and academics, as a new study goes to prove. The study is the culmination of five years detailed research carried out by West Yorkshire Archaeology Services (WYAS), supported by English Heritage, to trace human settlement over thousands of years along a ribbon of land known as the magnesian limestone ridge, which stretches from Wetherby, in West Yorkshire, to Dinnington, in the south of the county.
Among the findings are a newly discovered Roman fort and villa near Doncaster and evidence of settlements dating back to the Iron Age. Researchers have also been able to plot hundreds of ancient tracks and pathways using aerial photographs as part of the National Mapping Programme.
"The only documentary source for how people lived 2,000 years ago are Roman writers, so we need to be able to read the landscape to make sense of how our ancestors lived and this gives us a much more meaningful picture," says Ian Roberts, principal archaeologist with West Yorkshire Archaeology Services.
Both old and new aerial pictures were combined with the results of the latest geophysics studies and information from archaeological digs to shed new light on cropmarks – the ghostly outline of ancient buildings and settlements – most of which belonged to the Iron Age and Roman period.
Among the new discoveries was the site of a Roman villa near Aberford, in West Yorkshire, along with what is thought to be a Roman fort on the south bank of the River Don at Long Sandall, near Doncaster. "There was a long held belief that such a fort once existed but nobody had been able to find the location until now. It's important because it shows that the Romans weren't just controlling the roads, they controlled the river networks as well," says Mr Roberts.
Around 1,390 Iron Age or Roman enclosures were recorded on aerial images. Archaeologists found that many of the enclosures clustered around South Kirby, in West Yorkshire, were a particular shape, which they have linked to corralling cattle.
More than 300 trackways from the same period were also plotted. One path east of Doncaster was traced over a distance of at least 3.5km, while a track across fields at nearby Rossington stretched over 4km.
Worryingly, though, the study's authors claim that some tell-tale
cropmarks seem to have been destroyed by ploughing in recent years.
"Alarmingly, we noted that some cropmarks clearly visible in
photographs from the 1970s and '80s have vanished in more recent images because they have been ploughed out. That adds urgency to the need to record and understand clues in the landscape before they are lost for good," says Mr Roberts.
Which is why he believes studies like this are important. "It is our collective cultural memory. If we lose our memories we would have no idea where we came from and everyone wants to know what their roots are and this is a step towards that."
Dave MacLeod, an aerial investigator with English Heritage, agrees, saying the National Mapping Programme offers a unique into our
past. "Each individual part of this jigsaw has its own compelling story to tell, as we can see by the results of the work on the magnesian limestone ridge. Trying to understand a landscape shaped largely by human endeavour over a timescale of thousands of years is a daunting undertaking.
"Yet there is a wealth of evidence in the traces left by previous cultures that can be read by a trained eye and this study really does open a window on our past."