Aerial photographs are one of the most important sources available to archaeologists. Following the use of aircraft for military reconnaissance in WWI, the use of aerial photographs for other purposes – including spotting archaeology – really began to take off (so to speak).
One of the most important exponents of archaeological aerial photography was O.G.S. Crawford, who took a notably modern approach to the study of archaeology. Crawford was a contemporary of E. Curwen, who independently recognised the early field systems that Crawford referred to as ‘Celtic fields’. Importantly, Crawford was not just interested in ‘spotting old things for their own sake’, but in using aerial photographs to recognise and interpret patterns in the archaeology. In a 1923 lecture he demonstrated how he had used aerial photographs to accurately map the distribution of Celtic and Saxon settlements on Salisbury Plain; from this, he could show complex layers of occupation that were not visible on the ground, and indicate broader transitions that had taken place (Crawford 1923). The benefits of an ‘integrated’ approach is a recurring theme throughout Crawford’s work – long before it became a 21st century buzzword – and he regularly emphasized the use of aerial photography in conjunction with excavation and other sources.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority has a comprehensive collection of aerial photographs that will help to define the extent, context and relationships of the coaxial field systems. But more on these at a later date…
The beginnings of aerial photography, however, go back before the use of aeroplanes, to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when kites of assorted designs were developed to carry camera rigs, to capture meteorological, archaeological and news reporting images, amongst other investigations. Kite Aerial Photography has been used since – see, for example, some fantastic pictures from the Scottish National Aerial Photography Scheme (SNAPS) here.
I was recently given a camera rig by the lovely people at SNAPS and have been attempting to do it justice. Unfortunately, the weather here has not been very cooperative lately (or breezy, which is hard to believe in the Yorkshire Dales), but I have managed to collect my first few pictures: they certainly suffer from the effect of the overcast sky, but they give an impression of the potential for providing detail and context for the prehistoric remains.
Crawford, O.G.S. 1923. Air survey and archaeology. Geographical Journal, May: 324-366.