Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Monday, 14 November 2011

Alan Sorrel - How Traditional Interpretative Illustration Can Relate to Digital Visualisation

A landmark figure in archaeological interpretation, Alan Sorrel (1904 – 1974) produced many well cirulated paintings and drawings depicting British historical sites reconstructed. Of particular interest to my project are two illustrations of Jarshof, one depicting the iron age broch and village, one showing the later Norse settlements with the ruined broch just visible in the background.

Sorrel's illustrations are striking not just for their attention to detail but also for their consideration of mood and atmosphere. It is perhaps this sense of drama which has seen his work cited as a source of inspiration for both archaeologists and laypersons to the field. He gives the impression of a living site, a feeling I would like to instill in my own work.

It is clear that the reconstructed details are informed by the best opinions of archaeologists of the time. For example his drawing of Clickhimin Broch shows the 'lean-to' roof structure as interpreted by John Hammilton who excavated the site, along with Jarshof, in the early 1950's. Opinions change however and it is now considered more likely that the broch roof structures where more in line with roundhouse traditions (Armit, 2003).

Sorrel's reconstruction of Jarshof broch seems to be modeled fairly closely on the completed specimen of Mousa, a similar approach to the superimposition I intend to use for my interpretive film.

Another striking similarity to the kind of work I have been looking at is the angle of view. Although a spatial analysis would be fruitless in such a drawing, if we assume the broch is based on the 13m Mousa then the position of the horizon would put the 'camera' at around 15m height above ground. This is a low altitude aerial angle, only achievable in photography by kite, balloon etc.

In sorrel's work this is the rule and not the exception. Almost all of his reconstruction illustrations are made from low altitude aerial angles - high enough to lay out the site and expose the overall shape of it's components while low enough to retain a wide angle perspective and a sense of intimacy with the figures in the scene.

This parallel is encouraging for my own work and raises questions of how Sorrel derived these views, what reference he used and how much was down to imagination. These questions I intend to put to the Alan Sorrel Research Project, a collective who are studying his work and the memories of those who knew him.

Armit, I., Towers in the North, 2003, Gloucestershire: The History Press.

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