Publication of Air Survey and Archaeology (1924)

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Bradbury Rings, Dorset, seen from the air, from O.G.S. Crawford and Alexander Keiller, Wessex from the Air (1928).

O. G. S. Crawford (1886–1957) combined his degree in geography with his experience as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I to pioneer the use of aerial surveying in archaeology.

In 1920 Crawford was appointed the British Ordnance Survey’s first archaeological officer. Since the early nineteenth century when the survey had begun mapping Britain, it had recorded all of the monuments and earthworks that were visible from the ground. Crawford provided a different perspective. He began by locating archaeological features on military aerial photos, then he consulted the records of other institutions, and finally he undertook new field surveys mapping the traces of earthworks in the English landscape that were only visible from the air and recorded on photographs. In this way archaeological evidence—prehistoric, such as Celtic field systems; historic, such as Roman military camps; and even medieval and more recent disturbances to the earth—could be located, researched, and recorded. These traces of the past were sometimes in great danger of disappearing because up until this point they were “invisible.” Crawford’s aerial surveys and mapping ensured that they would survive and be recorded and protected.

Crawford’s first book, Man and His Past (1921), described as a “topographical landscape history,” established the new subfield of landscape archaeology. In the book Crawford classified human settlements according to their function and position in a structured landscape and provided them with a chronological framework. Crawford went on to demonstrate how effective the relationship was between aerial photography and archaeology, publishing Air Survey and Archaeology in 1924 and Photography for Archaeologists in 1929. He also surveyed for and drew up a remarkable series of period maps such as Roman Britain (1924) and Britain in the Dark Ages (1935).

Thanks to Crawford, mapping a site from the air became a standard tool of archaeological survey, and over the next few decades it was used to great effect all over the world. Aurel Stein flew over Iran with the Royal Air Force to map the Roman limes, and Sylvanus Morley hired a plane and a pilot in Guatemala to enable him to find Mayan ruins in the jungle. In the late twentieth century, computer and satellite-generated geographic information systems (GIS) mapping provided archaeologists with an even more accurate tool in locating and describing features in cultural and natural landscapes.

Further Reading Chippindale, C. 2001. O.G.S. Crawford, 1886–1957. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 384–386. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Crawford, O. G. S. 1924. Air Survey and Archaeology. Southampton: Printed for H.M. Stationery Office at the Ordnance Survey. Crawford, O. G. S. 1955. Said and done: The autobiography of an archaeologist. London: Phoenix House.

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