Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Monday, 23 December 2013

TAG-On-Sea: Bournemouth hosts the 2013 conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group

Last week I attended the 35th annual TAG conference, held over three days in Bournemouth University. I was presenting a research poster (below) which introduces my PhD research and outlines my ongoing practice-based enquiry.

My Poster for TAG-On-Sea 2013 (click for pdf)
The poster focused on the theoretical concerns that aerial photography and computer generated imagery raise, such as the danger of dehumanisation and detachment from the lived experience of built heritage. Examples of my visual work included high and low aerial photography as well as a still from my animated CGI film "Jarlshof".

The poster survived the 500 mile journey to Bournemouth!
Highlights from the conference included a session on "Researching Audiences in Archaeology"organised by Donald Henson and Chiara Bonacchi from the Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology, UCL, where the problematic area of audience research was discussed.

Bournemouth seafront and pier during a brief period of sunshine.
The visualisation session, entitled "Seeing, Thinking, Doing: Visualisation as knowledge Creation", featured some fantastic experimental projects including a talk by Mhairi Maxwell on the "Creative Spirit" exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Art-practice and Archaeological collaborations were also discussed during the session "Archaeology with Art: Space, Context, Fabrication and Gesture". Another highlight was a session re-evaluating the idea of "Taskscapes", opened by Tim Ingold (below) who first introduced the term in his 1993 paper "The Temporality of the Landscape".

Tim Ingold exploring the evolution of the idea of "Taskscape".
My first experience of TAG was of an relaxed and discursive environment that I look forward to catching up with again. Over just three days I have a host of new ideas and avenues to pursue, as well as new reflections on my work so far.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Mountain climbing and the hilltop vantage: A prehistory of the aerial?

One of the thrills of hillwalking is to be able to watch the landscape unfold while escaping to a place of clarity. Mountain climbing has been considered a precursor to flight (see for example "Aereality" by William Fox, 2009 and "Aerial Perception" by Margaret Dreikausen, 1985) and I would certainly follow the idea that the experiences closely relate. It's an intriguing and attractive idea for my area of interest because it lends a prehistory to the relatively short history of aerial photography.

Top: Aerial photograph of figures at the summit of East Lomond hillfort, Fife.
Bottom left: Glen Clova Glen is a popular area for hillwalkers.
Bottom right: Normans Law hillfort with Tay estuary and Dundee behind.
The large image above shows a family enjoying the panoramic views from the summit of East Lomond hill. From here you can see most of Fife as well as into Angus, Perthshire and Lothian. They are standing at a circular plinth which points out the orientation of landmarks in all directions. What they can't see - at least not very clearly - is that they are standing right at the center of a series of enclosures that were constructed thousands of years previously. While East Lomond hillfort is located on an obvious high point in the landscape, other such sites seem to be placed with more specific viewshed in mind. Normans Law hillfort (bottom right above) is located at the Eastern end of the Orchil hills with a strategic view over the Tay.

Top and bottom right: Mountain paths picked out by snow and low light.
Bottom left: An aerial view of Skiddaw taken from a light aircraft.
The evidence of human presence in the hills cropped up unexpectedly while I was flying and walking amongst the Cumbrian fells in April this year. These deep-cut tracks (above) zigzag up and over over mountain passes and form a labyrinth of paths, both old and new, which join low land and mountain areas. In Cumbria the evidence of mountain exploration goes back thousands of years.

Top: A Neolithic axe quarry near Pike of Stickle (bottom right), Cumbria.
Bottom left: Carrock Fell hillfort is also situated high amongst the fells.
The remains of a Neolithic axe industry are situated high amongst Langdale Pikes (above) where I was experty guided by archaeologist Aaron Watson. Here greenstone was hewn from difficult to reach outcrops and shaped into rough cuts before being transported down the mountain. The stone from this particular seam is of exceptional quality and Langdale axes are found distributed broadly across Britain and Ireland. Good quality stone is available elsewhere however and yet the Neolithic craftspeople chose to work up here in the mountains, despite of (and perhaps in part because of) the difficult and dangerous logistics involved.

Top: Kilchurn Castle seen from the hills above towards Beinn a'Bhuiridh.
Bottom left and right : Views towards Ben Lui and Loch Etive.
More recently I had the opportunity to do some mountain aerial photography (I guess that would be MAP) while hillwalking around the northern tip of Loch Awe in the Scottish west highlands. Among the fantastic views offered by these hills they provided an aerial vantage point upon Kilchurn Castle (above). Normally aerial photography is near impossible in such dull light conditions. This was however the first time I've taken aerial photographs with my feet and camera supported firmly on the ground!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Hillforts from High Alitude: Aerial Photography of a Wider Landscape

For one of my PhD case studies I'm currently building a small body of aerial photography work around some of the hillforts in my local area. As well as kite aerial photography I have also approached these sites from a light aircraft for higher altitude views. Here are some of the resulting images from a recent flight over Angus, Perthshire and Fife, Scotland.

White Caterthun (front) with Brown Caterthun hillfort in the distant left
This was a chance to return to some of the sites which I photographed back in March under snow cover, including the impressive White and Brown Caterthuns (above) near the town of Brechin. After much waiting for the right weather conditions we were finally treated to a clear afternoon with some fantastic low Autumn light.

Barry Hill hillfort near the town of Alyth, Angus, Scotland
While we lingered at some sites, others where shot in passing like Barry Hill (above). With hillforts dotted across the landscape it was easy to plan a route which included a good number. A return to Turin (below) was also only a slight D tour as we left the Caterthuns.

Turin Hillfort is made up of a number of enclosures above a rocky outcrop.
I've found it difficult to photograph from higher altitude and still situate these sites within their landscape context. The distance from the ground and obstructions shooting from a high wing aircraft mean that the tendency is to use strong lenses which can crop out the background and leave a site in isolation. To get parts of the aircraft out of the picture requires a bit of negotiation with a skilled pilot!

Castle Law near Forgandenny with the Tay Estuary behind
Photographing from high up has a totally different dynamic from the kind of wide-angle low-level kite aerial photography that I'm more used to. I'm particularly interested in how the high-level view can be used to juxtapose elements of the landscape which would otherwise be reduced from the kite's perspective. The shot below of East Lomond hillfort with the town of Falkland behind is an example of this - an almost forced perspective that brings the background forward.

Evening light shows up the ramparts at East Lomond hillfort.
These images will form part of a resource to inform animated computer-generated outcomes over the coming months. One of the aims of this project is to show these fantastic sites in a way which incorporates the wider landscape that they form part of. During these flights a lot of data is generated very quickly so the immediate task is to continue a lengthy sorting process!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

PhD Transfer and Mulitiple Perspectives

I have just completed my transfer which marks the end of the first year of my PhD (time flies!) and outlines a programme of research for the next two years. The presentation and discussion was held in Centrespace in the VRC (beneath the DCA) which meant that I could set up the space with some props and HD projection for my visual work.

During my transfer there were some people in this space. Honest.
Both the presentation and presenter became animated at some stage.
Much of the pilot work that I've been doing this last year has been building up a body of visual material of hillforts in the area local to Dundee. The idea is to be able to return at different times of day and year, and also photograph using different aerial platforms and altitudes.

White Caterthun hillfort photographed from light aircraft
White Caterthun hillfort photographed from a kite
The intention here isn't to show that one method is better than another, or even to depict as much archaeological information as possible, but rather to layer up a general impression of the site that a visitor could relate to. The motion test below is a montage of multiple perspectives which aims to put across the three dimensional form of the site, as well as a bit of the atmosphere and relationship to the surrounding landscape.

This was produced using structure from motion photogrammetry from a number of high and low altitude aerial photographs. While at the moment these shots could perhaps have been produced in live action filming, the plan is to use this 3D environment as a vehicle to communicate archaeological interpretations to a wider audience. This test is still a bit rough around the edges, but a starting point for something which explores these perspectives in more depth.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

St Andrews Cathedral, Pier and Castle from the Air

St Andrews is a favorite location for aerial photography with fantastic built heritage, geology and coastal landscape rolled together to create some striking visuals.

St Andrews pier, cathedral and castle photographed from a light aircraft
Flying over East Sands beach in a light aircraft offered this high level overview of the historic town and coastline.

The remains of St Andrews Cathedral, kite aerial photograph
This vertigo-inducing kite photograph shows what appears to be a stand-alone monument. In fact these are the remnants of a larger lost structure at St Andrews Cathedral.

St Andrews pier, Kite Aerial Photograph
The long walk to the end of St Andrews pier follows the line of natural geological features, visible at low tide.

St Andrews Castle, photographed from a light aircraft
St Andrews Castle is perched a little further along this rocky coastline. This winter shot, taken from a light aircraft, shows a web of footprints left by visitors exploring the site.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

High & Low Exhibition Open at Falkland Centre for Stewardship

An exhibition of my aerial photographs - including images from a kite platfrom, light aircraft, and computer generated orthographic views by Susie Green - opened at Falkland Estate on Tuesday with launch event and presentation. I was please to see a good number of attendees for what was an enjoyable evening with lots of good questions and discussion.

Pairs of aerial photographs are displayed in the converted stables.
The exhibition itself is set up in the Stables where it will remain until mid August. The old horse booths create a great space where images can be grouped into pairings like these:

High & low altitude vertical photographs of White Caterthun showing subtle enclosure remains.
This example shows two near-vertical views of White Caterthun hill fort in Angus - one from high altitude and the other taken from a camera suspended from a kite. The lower view (on the right) shows the remains of a circular enclosure, seemingly underlying the main rampart, which is made more visible in the melting snow.

The range of images includes ortho-rectified views by Susie Green.
As well as a series of oblique views from high and low altitude the exhibition includes orthographic renders of Susie Green's very high resolution computer models of White and Brown Caterthun generated from structure from motion photogrammetry (see Susie's website here).

The exhibition marks the end of an image gathering stage of a pilot project exploring the characteristics of different aerial photography platforms, methods and approaches. the next stage is to take this imagery and bring it forward into more cinematic and interpretive outcomes, which further tell the story of these fantastic monuments. This animated test of Maiden Castle in the Lomond Hills gives a sense of the potential for this kind of imagery.

The Falkirk Wheel and Arria Sculpture, Cumbernauld

On a recent trip to Glasgow I stopped off at a couple more modern sites to get some kite photos. The Falkirk Wheel - with it's the circular basin, bold architecture and impressive engineering - makes a great subject for the aerial view.

The Falkirk Wheel with the Ochill hills in the distance.
The worlds only rotating canal boat lift was opened in 2002 and connects the Firth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. When it is not in use for canal traffic short boat trips take visitors up and down the lift.

An elevated aqueduct carries boats to the top of the lift.
This shot gives an unusual angle on the familiar Arria sculpture which overlooks the busy M80 near Cumbernauld. More about the story behind the sculpture is on the website (here) of it's creator Andy Scott.

The Arria sculpture by Andy Scott stands near Cumbernauld.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

The World Wide KAP Project Banner Comes to Dundee

The World Wide KAP Community Project was the idea of Argentinian kite aerial photographer Ramiro Priegue who, in 2009, sent the WWCP banner on its journey around the world. Each participant takes some kite photographs featuring the banner, signs it and passes it on. You can plot the banners intrepid journey using the map and gallery at: I was lucky enough to be one of the KAPers to take care of the banner as it passed through Scotland this year.

The Law Hill, Monument and city of Dundee with the WWKP banner.
This first kite aerial photograph with the banner was taken above Law Hill, which dominates my hometown of Dundee. Incidentally, the two red and blue striped tower blocks on the right hand side of the frame were demolished just 11 days after this shot was taken (video here). This makes the photograph already out of date but all the more unrepeatable! A rectangular Iron Age hill fort once spanned the entire summit of the hill and the ramparts are still visible to the left of frame (site record here), although the near end has been destroyed during the building of the war memorial and viewing platform.

Passing between KAPers, the banner has already circumnavigated the globe.
Another favorite local KAP spot which I felt was a must for the banner was Broughty Ferry Castle. Seen here in evening light with Broughty Beach and the mouth of the Tay Estuary behind, the castle's complex shape makes it an interesting subject from low altitude.

Broughty Ferry Castle with the WWKP banner, kite aerial photograph.
Compared to the blustery Law Hill, the promontory at Broughty Castle offered clean winds with an chance to experiment with camera angles a little more. A wide angle lens makes the most of the converging vertical lines in this shot of the castle entrance.

A wide angle near-vertical shot of the castle and banner.
The project aims to bring KAPers together as a community and one of the ways it does this is by providing a good excuse to meet up in order to pass the banner on. I collected the banner from James Gentles at Cairnpapple, a neolithic ritual complex in Westlothian, where we were joined by fellow KAPers Simon Harbord, Sue Storey, John and Cade Wells (and trainee Tom), all of whom can be found listed on the West Lothian Archaeology Group pages here.

The handover at Cairnpapple, kite aerial photograph by James Gentles © 2013.
James took this shot of all of us with the banner using a remote control rig. This was the first time I had visited Cairpapple, which has special significance both archaeologically and as a focus point for KAP in the Westlothian area. I was last to arrive at the meeting and, as I approached the site, snapped this view with the banner visible and all the kites already in the air.

The group of KAPers flying with the WWKP banner at Cairnpapple.
The banner is always on the move and with it being nearly time for me to pass it on to the next participant, Robert Insall, I found a spot to add my logo. The project has generated a fantastic collection of stories which will hopefully continue to accumulate for many more years as the banner wings its way across the globe.

Joining the many distinguished and multinational signatures on the banner.
You can see the current location of the banner along with past and future participants at:

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

High & Low - An upcoming exhibition and talk on aerial explorations of the hill forts of Fife and Angus

You are invited to attend an exhibition by Kieran Baxter as part of a PhD investigation into the creative application of aerial photography & computer generated imagery for heritage & archaeological storytelling.

This showcase features unique views of hill forts spanning from East Lomond hill above Falkland in Fife, to the Caterthuns nearby Bechin in Angus. Often passed-by but sometimes difficult to appreciate from the ground, these prehistoric banked enclosures are intriguing because of their form and longevity. This exploration looks at how our appreciation of these sites and landscapes is mediated through different types of image. Using high and low altitude aerial photography along with state-of-the-art digital imaging techniques in collaboration with Susie Green from University College London, this presentation of imagery ranges from the archaeological to the cinematic.

Free launch event and talk - Tuesday 16th July, 7pm. See a presentation of images and computer generated animation with a brief explanation of the approach and techniques used to capture and process them. All welcome, refreshments provided.

Free exhibition - Throughout the weeks beginning 15th July, 29th July & 5th August 9am-5pm Monday to Friday. Please phone the Centre for Stewardship on 01337 858838 to check weekend opening hours. The exhibition is held in the Horse Stalls.

The event and exhibition will be held at The Stables, Centre for Stewardship, Falkland Estate, Falkland, Fife, KY15 7AF. Any questions? Please feel free to contact me. The exhibition also has its own page at where you can find more updates and info.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Evening Light at Evelick Hill Fort

After my previous reccy of this location in the Sidlaw hills (post here) I returned to of Evelick hill fort with low evening light to bring out the topography.

Evelick hill fort and the Tay Estuary, kite aerial photograph
The shadows show the earthwork ramparts on one side and the steep natural defenses on the other. You can even make out the shadow of the hilltop on the farmland below - a reflection of the way in which these Iron Age monuments tend to visually dominate particular areas of arable land.

Here is the site on Google Maps, from where you can make out more of the embankments and enclosures which make up the fort. More details and high aerial photographs can be found on the RCAHMS site record page here.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Jarlshof Broch KAP Featured in Antiquity Photo Competition

My kite aerial photograph of the Iron Age broch at Jarlshof is one of two winners of the photography competition in the current issue of Antiquity: a quarterly review of world archaeology.

Jarlhof broch from above features in this quarter's Antiquity photo competition

For this vertical shot the camera was positioned directly above one corner of the relatively modern Laird's house to reveal the half circle of the broch remains, which have been partially lost to coastal erosion. If you haven't quite gotten hold of your copy of Antiquity yet, here is the image that was published.

The broch is disguised from the ground by the remains of later structures
From ground level the broch architecture is confused by later a wheelhouse, cells within the thick walls as well and the later Laird's house which cuts through the wall. From above the meticulous engineering and drystone craftspersonship is immediately apparent. This shot was made possible with the assistance of Sumburgh Airport Air Traffic Control who oversaw kite flying so close to a busy airport. The property is in the care of Historic Scotland who also kindly accommodated for the project.

More images and the story behind my interpretive visualization of the spectacular site of Jarlshof are compiled on this page: