History from the Air: English Heritage Celebrates 100 Years of Aerial Photography

History Today, August 2006 | Go to article overview

History from the Air: English Heritage Celebrates 100 Years of Aerial Photography


ARE YOU A PARACHUTIST or a truffle-hunter? It's an often-quoted distinction between the type of historian who likes the grand sweep of the horizon, and the type who prefers to keep the nose to the ground in order to dig up hidden treasures. Historians and archaeologists have long been literally taking to the air to gain a clear view of the impact of the past. As well as offering evocative images of major monuments, aerial photography has revealed important features hidden on the ground, whether traces of vanished earthworks, or large patterns over a wide landscape. Both aspects are present in abundance in the Stonehenge-Avebury complex in Wiltshire, and it is no surprise to find that this is where aerial history and archaeology began.

In 1906, Lieutenant Philip Henry Sharpe of the Royal Engineers' Balloon Section took three pictures of Stonehenge from a tethered balloon. They were published in the journal of the Society of Antiquaries in 1907, and archaeologists gradually came to realize the value of aerial photography as a key technique to discover, record and interpret traces of the past. As a result, today aerial photography is used systematically for archaeological purposes.

English Heritage is celebrating the centenary of the first aerial photographs of Stonehenge with an exhibition featuring dozens of historic and modern images. Aerial Photography and Archaeology--100 Years of Discovery tells the story of those first photographs, explores the development of aerial photography in Victorian, Edwardian and wartime Britain, and looks at the contribution that aerial photography has made to our understanding of British history and pre-history.

Each year, hundreds of previously unknown sites, ranging in date from the Neolithic to the twentieth century, are discovered. English Heritage's National Mapping Programme (NMP) is a long-term project to enhance our understanding of the past through the analysis of aerial photographs.

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