Aerial Archaeology is more than just gathering the data

In many an archaeologist’s stocking this Christmas there will either have been a drone or one of those fancy pieces of image software that turns your digital photographs into 3D images you can manipulate. Both the Castle Studies Trust and MOLA have posted excellent blogs this year on the benefits and results of using both.

However, in my buildings archaeologist/landscape archaeologist mode I’d like to sound a word of caution. And its this: both pieces of technology make gathering data and manipulating the subsequent images incredibly easy. BUT they are JUST data gathering tools. The archaeology comes later in the interpretation of the images. If you like, the archaeological view-point lies ‘in potentia’ until then [apologies for the Latin: I’ve clearly had too many mince pies and/or recently been to a TAG conference].

I well-remember working with the late Prof Barri Jones in the 1980s on sites where he was undertaking low-level aerial photography using kites: the sight of the camera falling from the kite to the ground, smashing into small pieces, was an often one. Later, in the 1990s I was lucky enough to join Barri in aerial photography prospection from a light aircraft, bouncing around the skies about Manchester, having carefully designed a flight plan to avoid the commercial flight plaths into Manchester airport and chosen a suitable day for cropmark formation; and in my case disgracing myself by being airsick.

Warburton landscape ap

An aerial view of the medieval and post-medieval landscape at Warburton, Greater Manchester. Image courtesy of Dr Rob Philpott. Interpretation mine.

My point is that gathering the data was hard, and therefore in each case the targets were carefully thought out before hand. The temptation with the current round of technological advances is to assume that having once mastered the software and hardware to gain the images, the archaeologist’s job is done. Claiming that the resultant image IS the archaeological record is simply wrong. Its not: infact only then can the real archaeological work of interpretation and context building begin. So when you next see an archaeologist use a rectified aerial image or 3D photo of a landscape, site, or object ask yourself this: have they taken the next step in interpretation and context building, and if not why not?



Source: Small Unmanned Aircraft and archaeology – why now?

One thought on “Aerial Archaeology is more than just gathering the data

  1. My time in Art History & Archaeology at Manchester Uni overlapped with Barri Jones’, cut sadly short by his early death. The tale of the smashing camera reminded me that , o th 100 or so academics who used our loan pool of cameras, nobody could destroy equipment like he could. There was a way he had of grinding lenses into Nikon bodies that had to be seen…’it doesn’t seem to engage, then bits drop off it’ he said once as yet another headed to the repairers. I volunteered on the roman dig in Manchester when I was 15. I bought a book about the Roman town a few years later. It was only when I was working with Barri that I mentioned it to him and realised he was the author.

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