Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Monday, 20 October 2014

White Caterthun hillfort: Work in progress on a speculative reconstruction for my research film "The Caterthuns"

I've been sketching up some ideas of how to show a speculative reconstruction of the lost structures at White Caterthun hillfort. Here is a work in progress, where I have roughed in a series of palisaded enclosures and the large timber-laced wall. I've left the surrounding landscape as it looks in the current day.

A speculative reconstruction of the enclosures at White Caterthun hillfort.
A kite aerial photograph of the current day monument.
The image represents my own reading of the excavation report and RCAHMS record (linked here), with a good deal of added conjecture! I'm really keen to hear any thoughts and suggestions on this, particularly from the archaeologically-minded. I'm working with Alice Watterson to realise this speculative reconstruction into a three-dimensional visualisation as part of my upcoming research film "The Caterthuns".

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Kite Aerial Photography on the Isle of Skye

During a weekend away on Skye I managed to fit some kite flying around the temperamental hebridean weather. Relatively remote and undeveloped, the island offers some fantastic built heritage from prehistoric to modern.

A brief moment of evening light illuminated this shot of Dun Beag broch near the village of Struan. The two layers of drystone wall would have helped to support a much greater height than stands today. The upper portion has collapsed and remains as a pile of rubble visible at the bottom of the frame while the Cuillin mountain range can be seen in the distance.

Neist Point lighthouse was another superb location fro KAP on an exposed peninsular sticking out into the Sea of the Hebrides. To get this position a little maneuvering around the sea cliffs as shown in this shot looking back down the kite line. I'd like to say that this was very much safer than it looks in the photograph!

We also visited a onc of the clearance villages of particular research interest to my PhD colleague Kiera Shackleton, who arranged the trip. Low angled sunlight revealed the traces of rig and furrow field systems around the ruins of a farmstead in the photo below, taken near Ramasaig.

With no wind for kite flying on this occasion this is a place that, along with similar highland clearances sites, I would like return to and work with in future.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Big Dig: Excavations and kite photography workshops at East Lomond hillfort

As part of the The Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership (website here) the Big Dig, a community excavation, has been investigating the south slopes of East Lomond hillfort in Fife. A series of hut-circle-like structures, which first showed up in geophysical survey, have been uncovered and appear to form an extensive settlement area annexed to the hillfort.

The two trenches with the distant West Lomond hill behind.
I was commissioned to demonstrate kite aerial photography (KAP) and to record some aerial views of the site by Dr Oliver O’Grady of OJT Heritage on behalf of the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership as part of the Discover the Ancient Lomonds Project (project blog here). The event was supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and New Park Educational Trust.

A near vertical kite aerial photograph of the main trench.
Situated high above the relatively flat Fife, East Lomond offers fantastic views in all directions from the Bass Rock in East Lothian all the way to the Grampian Mountains to the north. The excavations themselves were just as captivating with some enigmatic structures and stone settings accompanied by many interesting finds. While I was on site one of the student diggers came across a well preserved spindle whorl, part of a device for producing yarn for fabric, within an Iron Age context.

An orthographic view of the east side of East Lomond hill.
I used a rotating KAP rig and structure from motion (SFM) photogrammetry to build this topographical model of the area around the dig and the summit of the hillfort. This is a composite of a colour orthophoto and orthographic rendering of the structure data with low-level lighting used to pick up the topography.

In high wind those marquees could have almost served as big extra kites!  
As well as site recording I spent the morning delivering talks and workshops to school groups who were keen to learn about how aerial photography is used by archaeologists, but a little more interested in having a go with the kite. This is one of the shots taken by the students as another group works on excavating the trench. Extra KAP kits were very kindly donated by John Wells of the fantastic Scottish National Aerial Photography Scheme (website here).

The Big Dig with East Lomond hillfort behind.
Many thanks go to the organisers and volunteers who made the Big Dig happen. Events like this are great for raising awareness of the fantastic landscapes which hold the stories of our past, and with any luck we have gone a small way in inspiring the next generation of archaeologists and aerial photographers!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Noltland to Newcastle: Visualising travel and arrival at Links of Noltland and the Further North conference

Links of Noltland is an archaeological site that is defined by its remote island location as much as by the intriguing material culture and stories that are emerging from the excavations. Following on from my previous post on the Links of Noltland collaborative project, one of the challenges is to move away from a representation of the site which is fixed like a map or site plan and instead give an impression of a place that is constantly in flux and has its own transient sense of place. While photogrammetric survey carried out over the last two years using kite aerial photography (see below) provided a useful and revealing spatial model of the site (viewable here on GigaPan), during fieldwork in 2014 our focus was on incorporating other visual elements from beyond the site boundaries.

A second KAP rig was used to get this view of camera, electronic rig and operator on site in 2013.
With this in mind, and drawing upon Aaron Watson's "Trans-scape" animations, we explored the use of time-lapse photography on and around the site as well as from the ferries on the way to and from Westray. We used the Gentles GentLED device as a intervalometer, neutral density filters to allow for longer exposures and handlebar camera mount to shoot securely from the ferry railings.

The ferry time-lapse set up and running. Time to sit back with a coffee and wait.
We wanted to use the analogies of travel and arrival to introduce the site in our animated visualisation. While we considered that the remoteness of the site has changed context between present day and prehistory, where long distances where perhaps more likely to be traveled along coastal routes making the site a potential "hub", it is still a place that for most lies at the end of a significant journey.

A slightly "bumpy" crossing on the Hamnavoe to Stromness.
With these ideas in mind and with a draft version of the animated film (which is still in the works) I set out on another journey to present a paper entitled "Approaching Links of Noltland" at the Further North conference at Northumbria University, the closing event of the Norther Peripheries research network. I found the sessions of a very high standard and it was great to be amongst a truly interdisciplinary debate around Northness, marginality and the identity of place. The session that I presented in was chaired by Orkney-based archaeologist Antonia Thomas who also presented her work alongside Dan Lee on their Archaeology Residency at the Papay Gyro Nights Arts Festival.

Speakers ranged in subject from walking as performance art to heavy metal music and Norse mythology.
Now back at the office with a lot of inspiration I am currently working on bringing together the visual material gathered at links of Noltland, with the help of Alice Aaron and John, to form a short film that introduces the site and begins to explore its archaeological interpretation. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Kite aerial photography of the excavations at Links of Noltland on Westray, Orkney

The Links of Noltland is a complex prehistoric settlement in the care of Historic Scotland and under rescue excavation carried out by EASE Archaeology since 2006 when erosion was identified as a significant risk to the site. I have been involved in a project, backed by Historic Scotland, to tackle the challenges of visualising the site for public outreach as part of a team of four practice-researchers: Dr John Was, Dr Aaron Watson, (the newly Doctored) Alice Watterson and myself.

This kite aerial photograph covers a large portion of the Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement areas and shows the proximity to Grobust beach. Positioned on the north coast of the remote island of Westray, Orkney, Links of Noltland is exposed to a barrage of "high energy" weather that backfills unattended trenches, tears at anything not tied down (including caravans apparently) and is in danger of destroying archaeological remains as quickly as it reveals them.

One of the challenges of visualising a rescue excavation such as this is that the site is constantly changing. This vertical view into Neolithic Structure Seven was taken during excavation last year. On the right is Alice, sketching from the vantage point of the sand dune. Alice is working on a digital reconstruction to speculate on how Structure Seven might have looked in its complete form.

I used kite aerial photography to gather images for structure-from-motion photogrammetry in order to generate high resolution three-dimensional meshes of the site at different stages. Orthophotos are one of the outcomes of this process - high resolution plan views such as this Gigapan where you can zoom in and navigate around details in a way similar to google earth.

It has also been great to be able to photograph ongoing archaeological activity on the site and we have been combining low altitude aerial photography with time-lapse photography in an attempt to give an impression of a dynamic environment that is constantly in flux.

This large area of excavation is Area Five, a cluster of Neolithic dwellings where some of the most exciting finds have emerged. For a sense of scale the black circles are car tyres used to secure covers for parts of the trench not currently under excavation - a fact of life in such a wind-swept environment. The four of are are currently working towards an animated introduction to the site that incorporates some of the elements mentioned here so watch this space!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Grounding the Aerial: Presenting at EVA London 2014

Last week I traveled to London for the 25th anniversary Electronic Visualisation and the Arts (EVA 2014) conference. I presented a paper entitled "Grounding the Aerial: The Observer's View in Digital Visualisation for Built Heritage" (full text here). Suitably enough, and never missing an opportunity, I traveled down by plane.

Our high-wing propeller airplane gave some great views from slightly lower than the normal cruising altitude. Pressed against the window, I got this lucky shot as we passed over the town of Ambleside and the end of Lake Windermere in Cumbria.

From the serene calmness at high altitude to the bustle of central London in the height of summer - on arrival the streets where still heaving in the aftermath of the visiting Tour de France.

EVA was held at the headquarters of the BCS, the chartered institute for IT, just off from the Strand. Amongst the demonstrations where these high resolution 3D printed replicas of marble statues and stone tools, produced with stunningly high fidelity (more about this work here).

Another interesting demonstration was this sophisticated pole-mounted photogrammetry rig for photographing and modeling ceilings for conservation. The four cameras are focused and calibrated for a given distance from the ceiling, which is positioned using two intersecting laser beams (full paper here).

I presented my paper "Grounding the Aerial" during a session on "Visualising Landscapes", which ended with a great panel discussion with Daniel Buzzo and Tessa Morrison. Tessa's research used virtual reality models to "test historical utopian cities on a modern audience", while Daniel adopted a creative practice-based approach, using photography to explore "the theory and actuality of the effects of Time Dilation". 

It was great to see Daniel's high altitude time-lapse and photography used as a visual basis for reflection. Air travel happens in a serene, de-situated state that is neither here nor there but in-transit. For example, this photograph from the flight down shows the Solway Firth - Scotland is somewhere to the left of the estuary and England to the right but from up here the observers isn't really anywhere (no topical politics intended!)

I was reminded again of different view that high altitude can provide when I cam across this Sidney Nolan painting in the Tate Modern (full details and image here), where I spent some spare time in London. It's often been commented that the Australian interior is too vast to really represent. Nolan has drawn from his travels across the landscape, including by plane, to present this aerial impression of the desert.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Aerial Iceland: What I Did on My Holidays

I went to Iceland for a long awaited holiday and, while I promised myself some computer-free time for hiking, camping and coffee drinking (Reykjavík offers a mean cappuccino), I did also manage to cram a few kites into my luggage. Here are some of the low altitude aerial photographs from the trip, taken while my companions waited patiently (for the most part) while I flapped around with a kite.

Iceland presents a beautiful yet bleak landscape where human settlement sometimes feels against the odds. Causeways built to avoid erosion from glacial melt water at Borgarnes make an attractive sweep from above (top left) and between rain showers one morning I got some shots of the two lighthouses on the peninsula at Akranes (top right and above). That is our "experienced but well maintained" vehicle (according to the hire company) at the bottom of frame.

We also had the skilled drone pilot Jacob Rowland in our midst for some of the trip, seen here dodging geysers with his phantom (and getting some fantastic footage at the same time). It was great to see Jacob's UAV in action and the Phantom is now firmly on the Christmas list (you'll find no kite related bias on this KAPers blog!)

We had little wind for much of the trip but walking a little way onto Skaftafell glacier I managed to launch the kite in the breeze created by cool air sinking off of the Vatnajökull ice cap and streaming down the glacial valley. While quite reliable, this 'fake' wind had quite a low ceiling so the shots above where taken after a bit of running kite line in and out to gain height.

The volcanic black beaches at Vik (above and below top left) were one of the excellent locations for aerial imagery along with some of the more desolate stretches of the ring road, which crosses mossed-over lava fields and glacial rivers along the south coast of the country (below top right and bottom). You will notice our "well maintained" vehicle has changed colour, not after a paint job but because we had to swap it for a slightly less broken one.

We were also lucky enough to catch this higher-altitude glimpse of the Westman Islands (below) from the plane on approach to Keflavík. You can make out Eldfell, the crater of the volcano on Heimaey (to the left of the large island), which came close to destroying the town and harbor in the winter of 1973.

Iceland has a way of captivating people and after a very busy visit we left with a list of places to go back to, and another of things that we didn't have time to do. The striking colours and landscapes make for something of a  photographic playground. I hope to have more fun with aerial photography here some time in the future! 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Musket Fire and Ruins at Tantallon Castle

Historic Scotland recently hosted an event at Tantallon Castle that combined the current archaeological excavation work with a re-enactment of the siege by Oliver Cromwell's men in 1651. I was asked to come along to document the event with kite aerial photography and despite overcast and rather blustery weather was able to get these shots of the re-enactment in action.

Members of the excellent First Captain’s Company open fire on the public.
It's not often in recent years that smoke rises from the battlements of Tantallon.
Alongside the musket fire and cannons, less violent work was being undertaken in the archaeological trenches and 17th century crafts where on show at the encampment where the re-enactment team were based.

A tour of one of the trenches where excavations were underway.
A nice location for a campsite.
Photographing events can be challenging because there is no waiting for better weather conditions, but despite this the day was a lot of fun and with some dramatic results. The organisers, archaeologists from Historic Scotland and Kirkdale Archaeology, and the fantastic First Captain’s Company all did a fantastic job of pulling off a great event. I look forward to getting up above more special events in future!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Over the Tay: Aerial Photos Above Dundee and Broughty Ferry

These photographs were taken in transit between Fife and Angus during a light aircraft flight to gather material for my hillfort PhD case study project. It was fascinating to pass over the city where I live and am familiar with from ground level.

The Tay Rail Bridge with the stumps of the previous bridge visible at low tide.
Dundee from near Ninewells with an oil rig undergoing work in the distance.
From height it's easy to get a sense of how the city relates to the narrowing of the Tay Estuary, which was first taken advantage of by ferryboats and later by the two bridges. Before the construction of the first rail bridge, Broughty Ferry (below) was the staging point for boats that carried railway wagons to and from Tayport.

Broughty Castle guards the narrow Firth of Tay with the bridges behind.
A view of Dundee and the Tay Road Bridge from above Fife.
Photographing from a light aircraft can be intense with a lot of ground is covered very quickly and wide areas of landscape compressed into a series of brief vignettes. It's a fantastic experience but always a good feeling to have two feet firmly back on the ground!

Our trusty ride the Cessna 172 is ideal for aerial photography.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

From Sky to Soil: Excavations at Castle Law Forgandenny hillfort

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to photograph during the SERF (Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot) excavations at Castle Law Forgandenny hillfort. This was a rare and fantastic opportunity to see a buried hillfort structure revealed and I was keen to use low altitude aerial photography to pick out the details of the trenches as they where under excavation, as well place them within the broader site and surrounding landscape. Here are some of the resulting shots.

Kite aerial photograph of Castle Law Forgandenny under excavation.
Excavators busy in trench G seen from the kite. Apparently G is for Gigantic.
I even got to do some mattocking! This was near the beginning of the process where we were removing relatively recently disturbed debris from the main wall. This is possibly why I given this job - where my enthusiastic but uninformed efforts couldn't cause any damage!

After years of photographing hillforts I finally get to stick a mattock in one.
Vertical shots of trenches that intersect parts of the outer wall and platforms.
Castle Law Forgandenny sits in a stunning location overlooking Strathearn with views out towards the entrance of the Tay, as shown in this high altitude photograph from last year. When it comes to visualising the site (and it just might)the position within the wider landscape will be a key point.

Castle Law Forgandenny seen in its landscape context from high altitude.
Many thanks to Tessa Poller and Cathy MacIver for catering for myself and Alice Watterson on site during the excavations. I'm very much looking forward to doing more work with this intriguing and dramatic site.