17th-19th September 1997.
Conference reviewed by Melanie Giles.
The Aerial Archaeology Research Group (AARG) is a small research body composed of both professional and amateur aerial photographers, as well as archaeologists who draw on aerial photography in their work and students who are just learning the ropes. As such, it gathers together experts from institutional bodies such as the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in England (RCHME) and the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Wales (RCAHMW) and Scotland (RCAHMS), professionals working for regional units and a welcome number of international experts such as Otto Braasch (Germany), Juris Urtans (Latvia), Michael Doneus (Austria) and Wlodek Raczkowski (Poland).
Hosted in Edinburgh by the RCAHMS, the dramatic backdrop of Arthur's Seat provided a magnificent setting for a conference which had a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, encouraging perceptive debate whilst managing to keep the tone positive and light, despite some hard hitting discussions on financing and research methodologies. This was due in no small part to the organising committee, especially Toby Driver and Cathy Stoertz (Chairperson).
Papers ranged from discussions of recording techniques, such as Bryan Gulliver's ingenious Cessna 152 door design, which enables archaeologists to make stereoscopic block coverage surveys through the integration of GPS, intervelometer, TV camera, data logger and mounted camera, to 'High Resolution Imagery' (E-mail Martin Fowler for more or visit his Homepage). David Cowley (RCAHMS) discussed developments in archaeological classification and means of representation, whilst Bob Bewley (RCHME) sketched out future directions for aerial survey in general.
Others presented summaries of recent research, such as the 'Coastal Heritage Project' (Simon Crutchley, RCHME); Pete Horne's (RCHME) presentation of the 1995 season's results on the Vale of Pickering/Yorkshire Wolds/North Yorkshire Tabular Hills; summaries of Polish (Wlodek Raczkowski) and Latvian (Juris Urtans) aerial work and the 'Upper Clydesdale Project' (Bill Hanson and Lorna Sharpe), which demonstrated how research projects can be set up between multiple institutions to great effect (University of Glasgow / National Museums of Scotland / Historic Scotland ). One of the best received papers was Gordon Maxwell's work on the Cleaven Dyke and its landscape context in Neolithic Perthshire. Working from aerial photographs of this cursus monument, situated at a bend of the river Tay north-east of Perth, the project used on-the-ground survey and excavation to build up a detailed history of the earthwork, its construction and reworking over time. From soil micromorphology to environmental reconstruction and dating, it was this project's ability to integrate aerial photography into a project with specific research aims, followed through in fieldwork, which the aerial archaeologists found so rewarding.
The meeting was not without moments of contention: Rog Palmer's spirited defence of block coverage vertical photography was countered by Pete Horne's advocation of selective oblique survey. However, the group concluded that both techniques had their place and that different project agendas and changing seasonal conditions largely influenced which method was most suitable. There was general consensus that there needed to be some form of fund to enable large-scale, block coverage to be undertaken if a particular landscape showed a high rate of response during one season, when it had previously been unreceptive to cropmarks.
It was quite astounding to hear a debate chaired so well, with a set of proposals formulated at the end and a working party set up to deal with the issues. It was precisely this sort of directed action and mutual engagement, despite differences of opinion and experience, which made this by far the most enjoyable conference I have attended in years!
Speaking as a postgraduate, whose place at the conference was sponsored by the group, their concern for students interested in the discipline and for the quality of teaching which could be provided through programmes such as Sheffield University's Landscape Archaeology M.A. (in which Aerial Archaeology is a core course), as well as their desire to see students gain the practical experience needed in both photography and interpretation, was encouraging and supportive. Breaks were filled with informal conversations with flyers who had years of experience to draw on and there were slide shows in the evening of stunning photographs from the summer, as well as impromptu demonstrations by unit archaeologists designing integrated GIS/Air Photo systems (Terry James of the RCHMW, Wales and Glenn Foard of Northamptonshire County Council). People openly discussed research ideas and methodologies, keen to share their experiences and knowledge.
On the last day of the conference, after evenings of good food, ideas and discussion, and on a day of beautiful autumnal light ('perfect for flying', many muttered), there was a fieldtrip around some of the Scottish Borders' most spectacular sites in the company of John Dent, the Border Council's archaeologist. It gave the aerial archaeologists (armed with a wonderful set of photos kindly provided by the RCAHMS) a chance to use their skills on the ground, to look at the architecture of Jedburgh and Kelso Abbey and the magnificent stonework of Woden's Law hillfort, set in a landscape covered with cord rig and cultivation terraces, earthworks, Roman roads and the forts of Hownam.
Next year's venue has yet to be set but there is a possibility of a commemorative session in Wessex, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the publication of Crawford and Keiller's Wessex From the Air -- one of the first volumes to champion the use of aerial photography in archaeology. If it is half as instructive, entertaining and rewarding as this year's conference, it will be well worth the visit, for professionals and amateurs alike.
The AARG can be contacted through:
AARG c/o Toby Driver, RCHMW, Crown Building, Plas Crug, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Dyfed. SW23 1NG.
(Individual Membership = £7, Overseas = £9, Institutions = £12 and is paid per annum, on the 1st January).
Crawford, O.G.F. and Keiller, A. 1928. Wessex from the Air. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mel Giles is a postgraduate student at Sheffield University, in the second year of her research on 'Inhabiting the later prehistoric landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds'. Having completed an undergraduate degree at Sheffield, she roamed widely on various excavations and after a brief stint as a pottery specialist, came back to Sheffield for an M.A. in 'Landscape Archaeology'. Her interest in aerial archaeology must be blamed entirely on the inspirational teaching by Mark Edmonds, Bob Bewley, Rog Palmer, Chris Cox, Alice Deegan and Cathy Stoertz.
© Melanie Giles 1997
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