by Tom Baker

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Aerial archaeology is the acquisition of archaeological information from aircraft, as well as certain ways that information is used.

Aerial archaeology is a form of "remote sensing," a term that means gathering data at a distance from the subject.

Many people equate aerial archaeology with aerial photography, but photography is only one facet of aerial archaeology. Not all aerial archaeological activity requires photography.

Aerial archaeology has a long history going back to the earliest years of aviation, and even before, if we include any means of getting up off the ground for an "aerial" view. In the early years of this century Leonard Wooley located Egyptian tombs from the top of a hill, another famous archaeologist in the Middle East reported that his view of his digs "improved remarkably from the back of a camel," and pioneer Southwestern archaeologist Earl Morris was fond of climbing telegraph poles beside his excavations to get "aerial" pictures with his camera.

Such low-tech approaches to aerial archaeology have achieved spectacular results over the years. Besides climbing hills, telegraph poles, and camels, people have used captive balloons, camera-equipped kites and model airplanes, and even tall ladders to get the overhead view. Advances in airplane and camera technology since 1903 took aerial archaeology to new heights (excuse the pun), and now, although things like airborne multispectral scanners have brought high technological sophistication to the field, the human eye coupled with any means of getting a view from above the ground can still be a highly effective archaeological tool. A 1991 discovery of a pottery-filled cave in a cliff in Arizona required no more than a sharp set of eyes in a helicopter (they were in an alert person's head, of course).

We at Baker Aerial Archaeology use simple visual reconnaissance from conventional light aircraft to detect things of archaeological significance, and our photographs are taken using ordinary cameras and (mostly) common daylight films, with the results you see in most of the illustrations in this newsletter.

Coming to terms:

Should it be called "Aerial Archaeology," or "Remote Sensing for Archaeology?"

There is a bit of confusion of terms right at the outset. I say I am doing aerial archaeology, and someone else tells me I am doing "remote sensing." We are both right, for the same reason that the archaeologist is doing both archaeology and anthropology. Aerial archaeology refers properly to the use of aircraft for archaeological purposes, though the definition is often stretched to cover any method of getting "up in the air" (off the ground) for a remote view of the earth, even a perch in a tree (see the Historical Page of this Newsletter where one such instance of tree-limb aerial archaeology is mentioned: photography of mounds).

Remote sensing, a more vague but all-encompassing term, can cover any method of gathering information at a distance from the subject, but is most often seen with reference to the new techniques of the last few decades: satellite imagery, which operates above air, and ground-penetrating sensors that never get off the surface. It seems too great a stretch to try to cover all these methods under "aerial archaeology," and equally unsatisfying to subsume the latter under something vague like "remote sensing for archaeology."

Rather than generate useless semantic arguments, we vote to let "aerial archaeology" continue to mean what it traditionally has: primarily the gathering of data from aircraft, but in popular usage any method of getting up off the ground to get the "big picture." Satellites don't operate in air, but they do "fly," so we are inclined to include them under aerial archaeology.

In describing our own activities here at Baker Aero, which involve flying airplanes (and flying them, as you might expect, in air), there is no question that "aerial archaeology" is the appropriate term. But we will use it and "remote sensing" interchangeably in the Newsletter, as most people do nowadays.

And so, having discussed what it is, how, we might ask, does it work?

The Secret of Aerial Archaeology

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