I stepped from my car in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh one morning last week, and I was met by a very strange sight: the Iron Age hillfort Maiden Castle as viewed from the air.
It soon became clear that I had not stumbled upon some strange hallucinogenic breakfast cereal (own brand ‘shreddies’ actually) or fallen through an aerial archaeology wormhole, but rather that there was some kind of street exhibition of aerial photographs stretching along the central paved area of this historic corner of Edinburgh.
The exhibition is entitled Britain from the air, and has been appearing across the UK since 2010, ending its stint in Edinburgh on the 20th May (four days after I discovered it!). This ‘free outdoor gallery’ was put together by the Royal Geographic Society and offers an opportunity for the general public to engage with large format aerial views of Britain’s landscape, historic monuments, cityscapes, industry and occasionally prehistoric sites like the aforementioned Maiden Castle. According to the exhibition’s website:
An opportunity to celebrate, explore and be inspired by our small island, the Britain from the Air street gallery encourages visitors to learn more about and enjoy Britain’s most breathtaking and thought provoking environments. From coastal erosion and abandoned villages to transport networks and the growth of our cities, Britain from the Air, combines the beauty and abstract contours of these landscapes with their stories; inviting the viewer to explore their local, regional and national environment from a completely different perspective.
This is indeed a different perspective, the landscape of Britain viewed from the air on the ground.
The exhibits themselves consist of wooden tripod-like structures, with three large air photos affixed to each structure, and the whole thing supported by a big silver metallic thingy underneath. Each photograph is accompanied by a short piece of text giving some information about the image, as well as some brief ‘did you know’ type factoids.
I saw a number of these in the Grassmarket, but also encountered one across from the National Museum of Scotland, and later when looking at the exhibition website, I discovered that these giant air photos were scattered around central Edinburgh, connected by a loose trail as outlined on this map:
Online, the whole thing is enthusiastically promoted by Michael Palin, who has the Pythonesque title ‘The Immediate Past President of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’. So far the exhibition has been based in the streets of Bath, Chatham and Oxford. The Edinburgh version comes replete with new Scottish images for the Scottish audience. I know not where it goes next.
What interests me about this exhibition, apart from my general enthusiasm for air photos and the aerial view, is that it does indeed offer a different perspective. The photos are rather like giant photo frames, TV screens with static images set to pause, around which people are expected to gather and gaze. Some of the images are surreal – fish farms, giant quarries, crop circles – yet are so photo realistic that it looks like the frame does indeed offer a window onto an alternative reality, a portal to another place and another time.
The choice of Maiden Castle for a subject is an interesting one. In a sense this is an iconic image of late prehistoric England, a massive fortification where evidence has been found that in its final phase of use resistance to the Roman invasion was encountered. (The Iron Age defenders were essentially fighting off the end of prehistory.) This massive fort employed huge ramparts, and also a weird maze-like entranceway that supposedly allowed deadly slingshots to be hurled at attackers. And we know from deadly wounds received by the defenders that the Romans were firing arrows and ballista bolts into and on top of the fort to presumably devastating effect. In this sense at least this prehistoric monument is an implicitly political choice to include, and stands aside other monuments of power and conquest included in the exhibition, from castles to Hadrian’s Wall to monuments of industry and Empire. Yet as with most aerial photos of contested landscapes and buildings – like the millions of images taken from the air of the Western Front for instance – the true horrors that happened in these places lies just beyond the gaze of the human eye beneath the surface of the photo.
Prehistoric monuments are barely represented in this exhibition, and it is disappointing that cropmarks appear not to have not been featured, given that this phenomenon is perhaps the most significant outcome of decades of archaeological aerial reconnaissance in Britain. Of course Stonehenge is shown (in the exhibition it is entitled ‘A prehistoric puzzle’), and the Uffington White Horse.
Bizarrely, another allusion to prehistory was to be found on the ground a few metres away from one of the tripods – a standing stone that was erected in 1977.
Less than 1m in height, this squat megalith is set into the paved central area near the pubs and cafes of the Grassmarket and on the day I saw it was festooned with bird shit. A rectangular metal plaque fixed to the stone suggests that it was erected 26 years ago to celebrate ‘the 500th anniversary of a reorganisation of Edinburgh markets authorised by King James III on 3rd October 1477’. The erectors were the business community: the Grassmarket Area Traders Association. Quite why the incredibly exciting historical event (it wasn’t even the reorganisation!) was marked with a little standing stone is not clear, but once again it emphasises as I have written in other blog posts that megaliths continue to hold a fascination when we are memorialising people or events from the past, and this is as likely to happen in the middle of a city beside a crepe van and car parking zones as anywhere else.
I want to finish by returning to the topic of aerial photography. Millions of views from the air, both vertical and oblique, have been captured more or less right from the start of powered flight (and indeed before, from hot air balloons) and the majority of these are an untapped resource which depict our landscapes and how they have changed through time. Recently, thousands of aerial photos have been made available online via the Britain from Above website.
A collaboration between English Heritage, and the Welsh and Scottish Royal Commissions on Ancient and Historical Monuments (and funded by the HLF), this webpage depicts images from the Aerofilms Collection that were captured over the period 1919 to 1953. As well as offering a unique and intriguing view onto Britain from many decades ago, the website also includes a selection of images that are of unidentified locations – and the public have been asked to help work out the subject of these photos which is a great idea.
What I find particularly intriguing about this whole venture is the inclusion of remarkable images derived from damaged prints and negatives, like the one I have included above. These dull, shattered and partial images reflect an analogue technology which seems hopelessly outdated in our modern digital world. Yet this website has proved very popular, and coupled with the ‘from the air’ street gallery, aerial views of the world around us seem to strike a chord with the public. And perhaps this is why the analogue megalith continues to fascinate as well, a throw-back to a different time – viewed from afar, black and white, an unfamiliar perspective.
Sources: Information about Britain from the Air, and Britain from Above, came from the respective websites of both projects, linked to above. The logo and cracked negative image was sourced from the Britain from Above webpage. The Maiden Castle wound images are available widely online, while the Edinburgh Britain from the Air map comes from the Britain from the Air website.