Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Monday, 22 April 2013

Long Meg and Her Daughters: Encounters from Above and Within

When doing aerial photography work I'm used to having my feet firmly on the ground. With kite aerial photography, even if there's a hurry to get the camera in the air, arriving on site by foot always establishes a bit of a feel for the location. One of the reasons I was keen on taking a light aircraft flight above Cumbria - relatively unfamiliarity territory for myself - was to get the chance to approach an archaeological site from the first time from above. Long Meg and Her Daughters was such a site; a fantastic late neolithic stone circle outside of Penrith which I knew very little about.

My view from the hinged window of the Cessna 172.
I was accompanied on this flight by archaeologist, accomplished mixed media artist, and local guide during my visit, Aaron Watson, as well as archaeological illustrator and fellow current PhD sufferer Alice Watterson. With three of us and the pilot, the inside of the the high wing Cessna 172 was a fairly cramped space, although at the same time it feels somewhat exposed with the side window folded up for photography and not much beneath us but the landing gear.

Long Meg and Her Daughters photographed from the passing light aircraft.
We spotted the site on approach using the nearby river and farm building as landmarks. The rugged stone circle looks quite irregular from above, although I'm told that the flattish edge on the right hand side as seen above may have been accounted for by an adjoining lost feature. Nonetheless, as with many prehistoric sites, geometric precision doesn't seem to be a big issue.

The modern road and lines of rig and furrow intersect the stone circle.
As we circled the site is was hard to separate the ancient monument from its contemporary setting, the modern road, trees, and parallel lines of rig and furrow as well as modern farming become an integrated part of the graphic. These images say more about the relationship between past and present than they perhaps do about the Neolithic.

This immediate context of the surrounding valley cannot be seen from the ground.
Leaving the site we were afforded this wider view of the immediately surrounding context; the valley and grid of modern field boundaries are seen alongside the monument. As Long Meg was the last location on our flight plan, Aaron kindly drove us from the airport directly back to the site. Within two hours of taking the above photograph I was snapping this view from inside the circle, looking in the same direction.

The summit of the distant Helvellyn set against the possible entrance to the circle.
These views show an important aspect of the Neolothic site which is largely lost from the air; the way in which the stone circle frames the distant mountains. Long Meg is typical of this type of monument in that the circle an offers an unbroken 360 degree vista of distant high ground, which lies fairly evenly around the perimeter, almost like a second circle (see Bradley, 1998: 116-131). The view above shows how the short, avenue-type entrance-way, flanked by the distinct Long Meg stone, frames the distance peak of Helvellyn.

A circle within a circle - the monument perimeter and distant mountain range.
Whereas the surrounding river and valley dominated the context of the site from above, this middle distance is almost totally obscured when standing on the site. While this is accentuated slightly from the direction seen above by the modern drystone wall, the arena-like effect of the monument's placement is very clear from the ground.

When looking across the site from this angle the dissecting modern road almost disappears.
Needless to say, the site was almost unrecognisable on foot from what we had seen from the air earlier that afternoon. My immediate reaction was that I had read the scale wrong, although I couldn't quite place the size I had imagined from the air. I think this feeling was more likely just a reaction to a very different sense of place.

Long Meg is set apart from the circle, is made of a different type of stone and incorporates carved rock art.
Our contemporary understanding of Neolithic monuments has been largely shaped by a consideration of embodied experience and there is no doubt that the subtitles of placement and design within the landscape are easily lost from above. If there is a narrative which stands out from the aerial view it is about the relationship between modern and past worlds. The significance of this shift in perspective and the question of whether these two aspects can be successfully connected is one for further consideration.

Cited reference:
Bradley, R. (1998), "The Significance of Monuments: On the Shaping of Human Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe", Oxford: Routledge

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