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A History of Aerial Photography and Archaeology (and moustaches)

July 8, 2016


2011. English Heritage, Swindon.

The news from Brexit-land is still confused and divisive, elsewhere bombs are exploding, people are dying and we have a report damning Britain’s involvement in Iraq and saying we should never have started that war, I think we all knew that then and we certainly know it now. It’s a tragic mess.

So I’m continuing last week’s mission of being joyful and positive, this week’s joyful and positive now comes with added actual archaeology! You get your money’s worth from this site! Well, you get a review of Martyn‘s book about aerial photography, but since this site is free you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.

In the interests of full disclosure I will admit that if I hadn’t enjoyed this book I wouldn’t be reviewing it: I’m extremely fond of Martyn and if I hadn’t enjoyed it I’d be pretending I just hadn’t read it. It’s not that I thought Martyn could write a bad book, but I was (subtitle notwithstanding) slightly concerned it would be a staid and sober book as befits a Senior Investigator with Historic England. I know, what was I thinking? You’ve read his posts here and here, informative but delighting in the absurd and this book is no different. It is – marginally – more staid and sober than his blog posts, but then there’s a sentence that makes you laugh out loud, often in the footnotes. I’m not going to spoil your fun by giving them all away, but here’s some of my favourites: talking of the interpretation of air photograph manual of 1916 Martyn notes that many of its basic points are still followed ‘although archaeologists tend not to rely on prisoners for supporting detail’ (Barber 2011: 98). Or, ‘Note that the quotes from Baldwin are as printed in Airopaidia with the sole exception that the letter ‘s’ is rendered according to modern practice, rather than ‘f’, in a probably futile attempt to make it easier to read’ (Barber, 2011, note 6: 257). And, ‘An Experiment with Time, first published in 1927, went through various revised editions and remains in print. It was his second book. His first was on fly fishing’ (Barber, 2011, note 54: 261).

Think Stephen Jay Gould with more jokes and even more sardonic asides and you get a flavour of Martyn’s writing.

There’s also a whole section on the marvellously eccentric Reverend John Mackenzie Bacon, as interested in the properties of  explosive sound as ballooning, in his post Martyn said ‘Ideally, he would combine the two and really make a day of it’. Here, there’s more about both the explosions and his ballooning ‘Inspired, if that is the right word, by difficulties encountered with sending messages into and out of Mafeking during the famous Boer War siege earlier in the year, Bacon sought to demonstrate the potential of the balloon as a means of signalling, presumably oblivious to over 20 years of signalling with flags or heliograph by Royal Engineers balloonists’ (Barber, 2011: 42). Bacon’s method was to fire blank cartridges above the unsuspecting army camps of Stonehenge. The noise, he recorded, was tremendous ‘It was grand. It was also a valuable experiment in acoustics’ (Bacon 1900 in Barber, 2011, 42). I particularly liked that added on justification of exploding things, it’s not just a big noise, oh no, it’s science! And he’d done it on ‘many occasions’ before, often over London (ibid). The more I read about Bacon the more astonished I am that no-one locked him up as a public nuisance and/or a lunatic. Thankfully the soldiers at Stonehenge didn’t catch up with him and Bacon went on to live a long, happy and noisy life. Aided and abetted by his daughter Gertrude, see Martyn’s book for details or here for a brief outline of her equally eccentric life.

I’m not saying that Martyn was attracted to this field of research because it’s full of eccentrics, well, actually, yes I am. Aside from the Bacons, there’s Gaspard-Felix Tournachon and Le Géant – his monster balloon containing triple-decker beds, a darkroom, printing press, lavatory and much more (Barber 2011: 67-8) – James Lethbridge Brooke Templer and his astonishing moustache, Samuel Cody and his equally astonishing – and possibly copied from Templar (Barber 2011, note 45: 260)- extravagant facial hair, and many, many more misfits including O G S Crawford and Alexander Keiller. It all gets a bit sensible post-war, Derrick Riley and  JKS St Joseph just haven’t got the same level of  idiosyncrasy, but then this is the downside of all post-war archaeology and can possibly be related to the absence of beards and ‘taches*.  Possibly.

But, this is Martyn (who, I’d just like to mention, also has a beard) so it’s not just tall tales, it’s instructive too. Beginning with the often repeated story about the 1906 air photographs fortuitously taken of Stonehenge by Lieutenant P H Sharpe, Martyn disrupts the myths of air photography:

In fact, this scenario of an Army balloon carrying a lieutenant of the Royal Engineers – camera in hand and drifting slowly with the breeze across Salisbury Plain – who chanced on Stonehenge and managed to expose a few plates before the wind carried him out of range is as attractive as it is implausible. (Barber, 2011: 42).

What follows is a close examination of the long history of British ballooning, heavier-than-air flight and photography. Beginning with the first balloon ascent in France in 1783 and coming up to date with Google mapping and Lidar. Along the way I discovered what goldbeater’s skins are and why they made good balloons; that stereoscopic photos were viewed with suspicion; the earliest written description of cropmarks; that Cambridge University once owned their own plane – I think every university should have their own aeroplane; and some really, I mean really, bad poetry about aerial photography.

Martyn explains how prior to the 1st World War aerial photography had no real sense of purpose, it wasn’t until Blériot (excellent moustaches), crossed the Channel that the potential was realised. The Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912 and it was they who experimented with flight and photography and a specialist unit was created in 1915. O.G.S. Crawford (small ‘tache), as a wartime RAF observer and then working with the Ordnance Survey, was part of this experimentation and obviously the story of aerial photography in Britain is very much bound up with his work. Not only did Crawford work with Keiller (disappointingly clean-shaven) to produce the first archaeological air photography book, Wessex from the Air, but he promoted new discoveries through Antiquity and his newspaper articles. Crawford used aerial photographs to discuss field boundaries and cropmarks, and with A.D. Passmore  (unrecorded as to whether he had facial hair or not) investigated the a.p. anomalies and revealed the Stonehenge Avenue. This section is not a hagiography of Crawford, Martyn makes it very clear that what Crawford said and did were not always the same, it’s not a major re-writing of Crawford’s life, rather a tempering of the story.

Nor is it solely about Crawford, or indeed archaeology, after the war independent companies such as Aerofilms were commissioned to take aerial photographs for town planning, traffic problems and mapping the colonies. Inevitably archaeology was also revealed but these discoveries were still mainly the result of RAF photographers, particularly Squadron Leader Gilbert Insall (an unimpressive moustache) famous for his photos of Woodhenge  and Arminghall, amongst others. During the inter-war period there was this shift away from upstanding monuments and the density of archaeological sites was beginning to become apparent. Major George Allen (mostly clean-shaven, ok, I’ll stop now) was flying his own plane along the Thames Valley and revealing hitherto unknown archaeology, Little Woodbury was chosen from aerial photographs by Bersu to demonstrate what does and doesn’t show up on aerial photos.

All of these experiments and investigations were put on hold with the outbreak of World War II, and as we all know many contemporary and future archaeologists (Daniel, Piggott, Powell, Garrod, Clark and so on) were involved with the interpretation of air photographs. Martyn makes the point that these wartime photos not only reveal the changes brought about by wartime – bomb damage, increased agriculture etc – they also provide an archaeological record of the war itself.

Post war, more and more photographs, more and more interpretation, more and more realisation of what is being/has been lost through industry, agriculture and erosion. But, also more and more state intervention and private/academic work – I’ve already mentioned CUCAP’s plane and the work of Riley and St Joseph, other pilot/photographers Martyn mentions are Jim Pickering, Arnold Baker, Harold Wingham and Francesca Radcliffe. There are organisations, there are dates, there are particular people and sites such as Maurice Beresford, Rog Palmer,  Danebury. English Heritage (Historic England? I’m still confused about which is which) undertakes flying and photography, the National Mapping Programme aims to interpret and map all archaeological and historic features. As Martyn makes clear, the emphasis has changed again and now monuments are no longer looked at in isolation but as part of the wider landscape. The locations have also changed, people were looking where they expected to find archaeology in a profession dominated by the ideas and distribution maps of Cyril Fox and Co that environment dictated settlement. With the advent of cold war techniques such as satellite imaging and lidar have been introduced and Martyn assesses their contribution and how the methodology of aerial photography is changing just as classifications of the results are changing.

Martyn ends where he began, with those 1906 photos of Stonehenge; the henge had not been surveyed since 1919 so in 2009 a new ground-based survey was done.The  1906 photos have proved invaluable in establishing which ‘new’ features are associated with prehistory and which with the 20th century excavations and explorations of the monument. But, these old photographs also reveal so much about the day(s) they were taken, how archaeology looked then and how military balloon photographs were taken. As Martyn concludes, these old photographs are far from obsolete, there’s always something new to be read in these images.

Obviously I’ve summarised and paraphrased hugely here, I wholeheartedly recommend that you go away and read the book for yourselves. It’s entertaining, informative and has wonderful photos – what more could you ask for?

And on that joyful and positive note, I hope you enjoy your weekend.


*Bacon had a stupendous old testament style beard and moustache. Just saying.

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