Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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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!

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