Is it a bird, is it a plane? Aerial Photography at CA

Not quite the angle we were after
Not quite the angle we were after…

When it comes to getting a bird’s eye view of an archaeological site, current-day archaeologists really do have all the toys. In decades gone by the most hi-tech equipment we were likely get our hands on was a beaten-up old theodolite (which required a master’s in geometry to use); and if you wanted aerial photography, you would have had to scale some scaffolding or head up a nearby building to get to whatever overhead vantage point you could. Strapping a camera to a kite or a balloon was even tried by the foolhardy (…ahem!).

These days we are spoilt for choice when it comes to options for getting those key images from above. The low-tech (and fairly cheap) option is an aerial mast. It doesn’t require a licence, or weeklong training, and at upwards of six metres tall it can certainly get you some excellent shots of your site. And if you have access to a sturdy vehicle, it’s possible to use fifteen-metre-plus camera masts!

The main components of the aerial mast are the telescopic mast itself, a motorised pan and tilt head with Bluetooth connection, a DSLR camera and a tablet to operate the camera from. The masts come in different varieties from monopods to tripods. For the safety conscious, guy ropes can be used to keep the whole thing secure. CA has been using camera masts for over 5-6 years on almost any site that deserves an elevated view with great results.

Aerial mast in use
Aerial mast in use
The Techie Bit…

The main components of the aerial mast are the telescopic mast itself, a motorised pan-and-tilt head with Bluetooth connection, a DSLR camera and a tablet to operate the camera from. The masts come in different types from monopods to tripods and, when required, guy ropes can be used to keep the whole thing secure. CA has been using aerial masts for many years on sites that deserve an elevated view, and with great results.

Site team photo, taken using an aerial mast

However, those with a head for heights, or who see themselves as the next Maverick, opt for the ultimate flying machine – the drone (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle [UAV], for those who think this conjures visions of military war machines). A commercial pilot’s licence and a good amount of money are needed, but the end results are worth it.

The capability of these machines is truly awesome: the DJI Phantom 2, for example, can fly to an altitude of 11,000ft! However, UAVs are restricted to 400ft (122m) in the UK for safety reasons. There are an array of options to choose from, like the tiny ANAFI Parrot, which is 23cm long by 17cm wide, to the giant six-rotor drones. They have a range of cameras and other accessories that can be fitted to them for the job at hand, and they can even be fitted with a protective cage to shield them during use in hazardous locations.

CA has worked with drone contractors such as Aerial-cam, on almost every type of project, from excavations to earthwork surveys to historic building surveys. The capability they provide for recording archaeological sites at a detailed and contextual level make them an invaluable tool.

Photograph of an archaeological excavation site taken with a drone
Photograph of a Roman villa excavation site, taken with a drone

Not only can the cameras onboard provide static photos and film, but the imagery can be used to create photogrammetric models for analysing landscapes. To achieve this the site is flown in a grid pattern to capture overlapping vertical images across the site. The resulting photographic images are processed using specialist software to produce digital elevation models. But, more on that in tomorrow’s article!

Getting slightly different views of a site, by whatever means you choose, can be so rewarding for engaging people with a site. As archaeologists we often concentrate on recording at a micro level, but by using the aerial photography technology at our disposal we can see our sites in the wider world.

Jonathan Bennett

3D models of Clovelly Dykes hillfort, North Devon. Both available on SketchFab.

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