ELHAS Meeting Report - September 2012

Meeting Report September 2012

Thirty intrepid souls braved torrential rain to attend the first meeting of the 2012 winter programme. We were delighted to welcome back Eric Houlder one of our regular speakers, who we knew would provide a good evening's entertainment. With his many years of experience in both archaeology and photography it was a foregone conclusion that his talk 'Looking down on History' - the story of archaeological aerial photography would be both informative and interesting.
Eric began his talk by saying that the history of flight and aerial photography were closely linked, although photography was developed (pun intended!) more than 50 years before the earliest flights. The first examples of aerial photography were taken from a hot air balloon by a Frenchman named Nadar. In order to take the photos he had to have a light proof basket below the balloon and a red cover to go over the whole thing thus enabling him to develop the plates whilst still in the air. A somewhat time consuming and precarious exercise.

However it was the English who first realised the potential of aerial photography to show archaeological sites. In 1910 aerial photographs taken of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain revealed a filled in ditch around the henge which was not obvious at ground level. And so it became clear how much could be learned from photographs taken above sites. Both world wars saw the rapid development of aeroplanes and the RAF were happy to film archaeology from above during training flights. Thus a huge collection of film was amassed and passed onto the Ordnance Survey department. Gradually archaeologists were able to recognise ancient sites and structures from marks and crop differences which showed up in the photographs. As well as developments in the aircraft available, huge strides were being made in the kind of cameras and film available to aerial photographers. The use of digital cameras and different kinds of film such as infra red has greatly enhanced the definition of the material evidenced in the photographs.

Eric shared some of his experiences of aerial photography with us and we were amazed to hear his stories of hanging out of aeroplane windows without a seatbelt in order to get the best possible shots. He also wryly advised us of some of the pitfalls which can befall the over eager archaeologist anxious to discover new sites from what appears to be evidence in aerial photographs. To illustrate this he showed one of his photographs taken at Oulton near Leeds which he had thought showed bronze age burial mounds. In reality what we were looking at was the remains of an early 20th century sewage works. He did however show us many examples of his craft and really brought home to us how much archaeology is all around us, it is just not recognisable at ground level. This talk was a fascinating introduction to our winter programme and we look forward to the rest of the season.

Photograph courtesy of Eric Houlder

The next meeting on Monday 29th October 2012 will be an illustrated talk by Donald Townsley entitled 'Matthew Murray in Context'