The earliest episode of people looking at landscape from on high as something significant, created and occupied by human beings, to my knowledge is the episode in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew that tells the story of the Temptations of Christ by Satan. Its probably a later interpolation but even so in Verse 8 we find a wonderfully evocative moment where what you see from a high vantage point is impressive and significant:
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them …
These words create a powerful sense of excitement as they assemble for you all the things that humankind has created upon the surface of the earth. It reminds one of what a bird sees flying on high or a photograph taken from a satellite circling the earth.
No one was around to draw a picture of the wide expanse pointed out by Satan, but artists had already begun to depict, in various media, very extensive landscapes, often involving narrative, centuries before Jesus was born. Take, for example, this very large mosaic in the Palestrina Museum south of Rome, that once covered the apsidal end of a room in a temple complex.
The artist, working in a late Greek style in the First Century BC, positions himself up in the air so that he can look down on the Nile River meandering along its course. In a 5.85-metre-wide space he compresses the perspective, the way a telephoto lens does, so that he can include a great distance in a shortened depth of field possible. It is full of the most interesting detail of daily life along the river and in the days when I taught Roman Art I used to look forward to the moment when I would begin to explore this mosaic with my students, bit by bit, until we had penetrated its stories.
A simpler but no less aerial view is this fresco from the House of the Priest Amandus at Pompeii painted some time between 40-79 AD. It tells the story of the boy Icarus, the first person to fly.
Back in mythological times there was a clever craftsman called Daedalus who was employed by Minos, the King of Crete for various dubious projects. One of them was to create a sort of wooden cow apparatus so that his wife, Pasiphaë, could mate with an exceptionally fine white bull. The result of this was the Minotaur, half man and half bull, who had voracious appetites that led to more fascinating stories in the myths that I am not going to tell you about at this time. In one story Daedalus was commanded to create a vast stable in which to contain this monster and so he built the Labyrinth, so complex that anybody who entered would never come out again. But that too is another story. The story that concerns us is about Daedalus’ fascination for flying which developed after a sulking King Minos had imprisoned him and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth. He constructed wings with wax and feathers and with no trouble at all they escaped. The father had quite specifically told Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as the wax would melt. Being a typical teenager Icarus freaked out with joy at this new thrill, flew too close to Apollo in his Chariot, which was the sun, and drowned in what is now called the Icarian Sea. Devastated, Daedalus flew on to Sicily where he did more clever things.
I have always loved this fresco which I share with you as a scan from an old art book where the design is still strong. The original is now peeling off the wall as you can see on the recent photo on the right. The artist is very ambitious in trying to depict several events at once and succeeding. In the background, in a fine bird’s eye view, is the Palace of Minos with its Labyrinth, while in the sky are Apollo in his chariot, doing their daily round, and poor Icarus who is starting his tumble into the sea. In the foreground, but from a raised view, is Daedalus with his drowned son, accompanied by mourners and a funeral urn on a column.
This poorly known fresco, now turning into coloured dust on its wall, is a highly sophisticated work of art, not only for its story but also for the attempt to show events from a raised or aerial point of view.
Roman painters, as we know them from the remnants at Pompeii and the other cities at the base of Vesuvius that were buried in the Eruption of 79 AD, seemed keen on working with the bird’s eye view of landscape. There are quite a few examples that survive. This fresco of a seaside villa, embedded into a plaster wall probably by the merchant who sold it to the clients, is full of peaceful nostalgia, as opposed to the action and emotion seen in the death of Icarus we have just looked at. It was found at Stabiae and is in the National Museum at Naples. It is not so sophisticated as the death of Icarus, but its distant representation of waterside comfort sets a pleasant mood.
A similar seaside scene, but more ambitious in its elevated panorama perspective is this waterside view from Stabiae, in the National Museum in Naples. It is thought to be the ancient port of Puteoli.
The scene is full of agitation and implied movement and is very impressionistic in style. The best reproduction of it I have is this scan from an art book.
When we study the frescoes from Pompeii and its sister cities around the base of Vesuvius, we are often surprised by the tremendous variety of styles used by artists in what was historically, quite a short time before the eruption of Vesuvius brought everything to a terrible end.
The Middle Ages
There would be no more attempts to show the landscape from the air that I know of during the centuries after the fall of Rome. There is one instance of flying that I can think of during the Romanesque period, and it is this depiction of Simon the Magician, wings failing and falling to the ground. This amazingly graphic Twelfth Century capital is from a column in the pilgrimage church of St. Lazare at Autun in Burgundy. The composition is very dramatic, made more so by its location far above.
The image probably depicts the moment when, in an apocryphal biblical account, Simon, who had mastered the skill of flying, levitates above the Roman Forum to show off. Saint Peter was there and deplored this action so energetically that Simon fell on the Sacred Way and broke his legs. Another account, from a similar source, inspired a manuscript illustration of Simon flying to heaven in a chariot drawn by demons which is brought down by the combined prayers of Peter and Paul.
Three hundred years later at the end of the Middle Ages, during what we call the International Gothic Style, the physical geography of Rome was made more visible when the Limbourg Brothers illustrated a prayer book for the very wealthy Duc de Berry. It dates from 1412-16 and today is in the Musée Condé at Chantilly. It depicts a plan of Rome, showing its walls and major buildings and it does so using an aerial view.
The plan is completely inaccurate, of course, because no competent survey of the city had been made at that date. Major buildings known from travellers’ accounts are shown but do not resemble what has survived to this day. All the same it is evidence for that desire, going back to antiquity, for people to be able to see buildings and landscape, at a glance, just like a bird!
Many wonderful things were to happen in the evolution of painting in Fifteenth Century Flanders. Here is one of them.
Late Gothic in Flanders
Up until the 1400s pictures were painted on laminated wooden panels using paint made by mixing ground pigments with egg. This was called egg tempera and had been in use since Antiquity. For hundreds of years paintings had been mostly of a religious nature and we call those icons, which is a Greek word that simply means “picture.” or “likeness.” As you may recall these pictures are not bright, except for tooled gold leaf which was often used in the background for such things as saints’ halos. The richest colours were made by grinding very expensive semi-precious stones like blue lapis lazuli into a powder.
The van Eyck brothers in Flanders are credited with exploiting a new technique that sought to add richness and depth, like atmospheric haze, to paintings by using tinted finishing oil glazes over the tempera. The effect was spectacular and soon became the trademark of Flemish painting. The technique travelled down into Italy and soon the wooden panels, especially in Venice, were replaced by canvas and tempera abandoned in favour of oil paints.
A few years after the Duc de Berry Hours, a fascinating and absorbing painting by Jan van Eyck, one of the greatest painters of all time, done in 1434-35 and now in the Louvre, shows the man who commissioned the picture, Chancellor Rolin, on the same scale as the Virgin and Child, separated from her by an open window looking from very high up on a fascinating landscape that disappears into the blue mists on the horizon. His self-satisfaction and arrogance are palpable, and we wonder if he was ever excited by the amazing view out his window.
When we look at a close-up of the view through the window, we can see that van Eyck – and this can be seen in several of his paintings – was deeply interested in what we would call today an aerial view.
The town on the river looks as if it has been drawn from a height of at least 1000 feet so that we can look down into the streets and even into the foothills of the mountains in the distance. This is quite remarkable and makes this painting, emerging from the Gothic period, even more important as a milestone in the human perception of topography from a great height.
The Renaissance in Italy was a time of extraordinary development in the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. There was an explosion of interest in the art and architecture of Ancient Rome which lay in ruins all over the country. This would bring classical forms and details into European culture so thoroughly that today, whether we know it or not, Roman style through Renaissance adaptation influences design in every sphere of our lives. New ways of introducing mathematically based perspective into landscape and townscape were introduced in such a way that, in some pictures, we feel as if we could hop over the frame and just walk in. By the 1500s, during what we call the High Renaissance, artists had mastered these techniques and gone far beyond in their depictions of the world. One such painter was the 21-year old Leonardo da Vinci who in 1473 drew this sketch, now in the Uffizi, of the countryside in which he grew up, near the town of Vinci, west of Florence, across very hilly country.
Leonardo was very interested in the possibilities of human flight and several drawings, like this one in the British Museum, preserve his ideas of how it might be done.
Fifty years later, in 1529, at the height of the High Renaissance in Germany, a painter by the name of Albrecht Altdorfer painted this quite extraordinary picture that is now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It is called the “The Battle of Alexander at Issus” and depicts, in the widest detailed panorama possible, the defeat of the Persian king by the hero.
In the foreground are the two contending armies, packed closely together, yet with every little detail carefully painted in. It is the landscape in the upper half of the picture that grabs your attention because it is the first truly aerial view, presenting a vast panorama from a great height. It is breathtaking. This could only have been painted by a person who had experienced the world from Alpine altitudes.
In the history of art he is considered to be the father of landscape painting and it is believed that the impetus for this came from travelling in the Alps and seeing the world from exalted vantage points.
Germany, since the Middle Ages, had been one of the most important centres of map-making in the world. In the 1500s maps were engraved on wood blocks which were then inked and pressed on thick sheets of paper. Colour was added at the buyer’s expense.
By the middle of the Sixteenth Century Rome was the focus of the European world for a number of reasons. Starting in 1517 the Protestant Reformation would tear the Catholic Church apart as well as the countries of Europe whose leaders demanded religiously loyalty from its people as they chose whether to remain loyal to Rome or set of on their own. Rome was in turmoil for many reasons, the chief one being the Reformation and the lost of communicants and revenue that implied, but also because the city was going through a period of amazing reconstruction, with the building of a new basilica to Saint Peter starting in 1506 and going on into the 1620s. Pope Sixtus V (1585 1590) engaged upon the first massive city planning project since Roman times, clearing out slums and setting up public areas with long vistas ending dramatically with eye catchers such as Egyptian obelisks brought to Rome 1,500 years before and which lay collapsed and abandoned.
A new city plan emerged at this time which in later years would have Rome called “the Mother of all Cities” as other European capitals sought to imitate long avenues radiating from a single point and ending in a significant monument.
It is not surprising that there would be an enormous demand for new maps of Rome that would represent the city with these great improvements carefully delineated. This 1549 woodcut map by Sebastian Munster attempts to show those features of the city that people were talking about.
Munster’s knowledge of the topography of Rome was based on older maps, of which, over the years, there had been many due to the importance of Rome both as the site of Ancient Rome and the Emperors but as the city of the Popes. This map, made 137 years after the bird’s eye view of Rome found in the Duc de Berry’s prayer book, shows what had been learned about Roman topography in that time. It is still largely fantasy.
More Flemish Achievements
Flemish painting continued to influence the art of the rest of Europe for three centuries. First there was the introduction of oil glazes that brought richness and depth never before seen in painting. Then there was its representation of landscape, especially in the Sixteenth Century, that went beyond anything that had been seen before in its scope and depth. One of the greatest artists of the time was Pieter Bruegel (its spelled in different ways) who lived from 1525 or ’30 until 1569. His accomplishments would make possible the great Flemish and Dutch Golden Age of Painting in the Seventeenth Century. His focus was on painting peasants living their lives, but on a stage that was often vast beyond imagining in those times.
We return again to the story of Daedalus and Icarus, more than 1,500 years after it first appeared on a Pompeian wall, in a work called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” that is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. What we see is something quite extraordinary. In the near foreground a farmer calmly ploughs his fields while below shepherds tend their flocks. Great ships sail calmly on the sea. Not one of them has noticed the extraordinary sight of a boy, flying high, suddenly plunging into the sea. This disaster can be appreciated today by reading Auden’s poem on the subject:
Musée des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Other poets have also responded powerfully to this amazing painting. This is what William Carlos Williams has to say about the event.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
I must share with you another Bruegel painting before we move on. This time it is a winter scene – not the first in the history of painting – but the first to interpret topographical features that are enveloped in snow.
At that time Europe was going through a brief Ice Age that brought unaccustomed cold and a great deal of snow. Even the Thames and the Seine would freeze before the climate warmed again at the end of the Eighteenth Century.
In 1565 Bruegel painted this vast winter panorama showing hunters in the foreground, and way down below the villagers skating on the frozen dykes and ponds, and way beyond that, the jagged peaks of the mountains. Snow on the ground gives you an entirely different perception of the landscape because it reduces everything you see to a single colour that is toned by the brightness or shadows created by the sun. You see everything with new eyes.
Amazing Maps in Rome
As our story continues the action shifts back – wouldn’t you know it? – to Rome where a great geographic project was taking place at the Vatican. In 1580-83 Pope Gregory XIII decided to construct a Gallery of Maps in a narrow corridor on top of the structure that enclosed the Vatican Gardens. The gallery was 120 metres long and only 6 meters wide so the perspective plays tricks on you and you think that it goes on forever. Well it does, and you only have to walk it, back and forth, as you study the maps on the wall to realise that you will not have to go out for your jog at the end of the day. The walls are covered with 40 huge frescoes of maps of those parts of Italy which were under the control of the Papal States. Each map, except for smaller ones at each end, is about 320 by 430 centimeters in dimension.
I love this map gallery and spent a lot of time there studying those parts that interested me up close when I could, and looked at the other parts with a pair of short range binoculars I had thoughtfully bought at Canadian Tire before I set off. You were allowed to take flash-less photographs but when I looked at my collection of colour slides of the gallery I took 28 years ago, their poor quality and lack of sharpness made me rush to the net for modern digital images that show every detail. Take for example this section of wall that shows that part of Italy – ancient Latium – in which Rome is situated. The peninsula is divided by the Apennines and we see the roads through the mountain passes that head north.
In the lower left corner is an inset map – a very modern design trick – that provides us with the most up-to-date map of Rome available in 1580. It is absolutely essential in studying the evolution of the city.
Another map that interested me for its intimacy of detail is a view of a little island in the Adriatic Sea directly east of Rome. It is the Island of Saint Nicholas – San Nicola – part of a group of islands subject to violent seismic activity.
It had recently been acquired by the Papacy and given to the Canons Regular of the Lateran as a defensive spot to intercept Ottoman ships that might get too close to the coast of Italy.
In the Seventeenth Century – the great century of Baroque Art which began in Rome – paintings were concerned by grand opera scenes of religious and political events, so there was little room for flights of fancy into the aerial realms. However since Rome was arguably the most important city in the world at that time because of its city planning, innovative architecture by Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini and Borromini, new trends in sculpture and illusionistic painting, the best source of looking down upon the world from a high vantage point was to be found in the maps of the city that were being produced.
One of the greatest city maps of all time was engraved in 1676 by Giovani Battista Falda. It is huge and filled with pictures of just about every building in the city.
This tiny reduction of a very big map indeed tells you nothing. It is when you begin to look at full-size details, such as this one of the Vatican, that you see how important it is.
Even in the context of this off-the-topic essay I am driven to provide those of you who just have to see a little bit more with a pdf of the entire map!
Aerial Thoughts in New France
It is time that we begin to pay attention to North America and our region of Eastern Canada because since the beginning of the Seventeenth Century there has been often quite intense activity among the French and English owners of Acadia (Nova Scotia), Ile Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Ile Royale (Cape Breton Island).
If we are looking for a semi-aerial view of a portion of New France we can do no better than to examine this 1730s watercolour by a French engineer of the fortification and town of Port La Joye, the capital of the French colony of Ile Saint-Jean established in 1720.
While we are not actually soaring in the sky or standing on a very high hill across this harbour (there is no high hill) we nonetheless are given an elevated view of the town and fort that makes them stand out quite vividly.
A much better attempt at an aerial view is found in this 1750 map of the newly-established city of Halifax, which had just been laid out the previous year when a brave sailor climbed to the very top of the highest mast of his ship in the harbour and produced – and proudly labelled – this plan of the city, ringed with palisade forts until city walls could be planned.
Just ten years or so later a British cartographer whose identity is not entirely clear but whose last name was Hebert, made a careful study of all the French settlements that had grown up on Ile Saint-Jean in the past 40 years. It was part of a larger project to document exactly what the British had achieved through coquest. This copy survives in the PEI Provincial Archives.
The map has been recognised by scholars, and published as a minor illustration, but it has never been fully studied or analysed. It contains bird’s eye sketches of all the French settlements on the Island and gives a stylised view of the land they cultivated and the churches they built. Drawn just before the great survey by Captain Samuel Holland in 1765, it lacks the true outline of the Island as would be revealed on his map, but most importantly, and in considerable detail, augmented by a slight bird’s eye view, it summarises the exploitation of the Island by the French and Acadians in the 38 years of the Colony’s existence.
Developments in the Nineteenth Century
The Nineteenth was the first century in the history of map-making where most of the necessary surveying tools to measure contour and land acreage were developed. It is a wonderful time for the would-be map collector to begin a collection because of the number and high quality of the maps produced.
The century would be characterised by the production of books for the amateur traveller illustrated with the new steel plate illustrations that gave sharp detail never before seen either in wood or copperplate engravings. The books produced were often small sized – octavo – and so the plates had to be very clear for an ever-expanding audience.
This copperplate engraving of the Town and Fortress of Lille in France is a first-class example of the quality expected by and delivered to armchair travellers.
The other great advancement of the Nineteenth Century was flight, made possible by hot air or gas balloons. Actually, the hot air balloon was first invented in the 1780s but getting it aloft, and controlling the heat necessary to keep it there by means of open flames, made flying dangerous.
The First Aerial Photograph
The first aerial photograph is believed to have been taken in 1858 by a clever French entrepreneur called Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 – 1910), known by the single pseudonym Nadar. He was a caricaturist, journalist, novelist, balloon enthusiast who supported manned flight and the first person to take an aerial photograph. This little composite shows a caricature of him in as balloon while clutching a camera, one of his early pictures and on the right the first aerial photograph of Boston taken by an American at the same time.
The connection with archaeology was still quite a few years in the future but the fact that aerial photographs could be produced at all interested geographers and topographers greatly.
The Bird’s Eye View City View Craze
In the 1870s and ‘80s there was a great craze that developed, especially in the United States and Canada, for bird’s eye view of towns and cities. This enthusiasm coincided with the industrialisation of North America and city growth and expansion was usually connected to the money generated by industry. Perhaps the greatest of these aerial view entrepreneurs was an American called Albert Ruger (1829-1899).
He and his team travelled extensively in the US and Canada and produced large lithographic images of towns and cities that were remarkably accurate in their detail. He did two on Prince Edward Island in 1878, one of Summerside and one of Charlottetown. They are so rare that I have waited my whole life for a copy of the Charlottetown view to appear on the market and never once has it materialised. I know of one copy only and it belongs to the PEI Museum. When I was employed there in the 1980s it eventually found its way into my office where it served as my guide in exploring that great Eighteenth Century city. It is as exact a picture that you can get of Charlottetown at that time, still consisting mainly of the old city, but with development in the Royalties. This small reduced image tells you little of the riches found in the full-scale drawing.
This detail of Government House estate and Victoria Park shows you the treats that are in store when you study the print.
Of course, I can’t possibly leave those of you who are already drooling to see more of this in an unsatiated state so I enclose a pdf of the full-sized view.
In 1880 J. H. Meacham & Co, publishers in Philadelphia, produced the Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Province of Prince Edward Island from Surveys made under the Direction of C. R. Allen C. E. Fondly known to all students of PEI history as “Meacham’s Atlas” it is by far the most important and complete topographical work ever produced about the Island. All of us who in one way or another study PEI use it frequently for geographical, genealogical and architectural history purposes, to name the first that come to mind.
Not only did Meacham produce large folio format maps of all 67 lots, and an exceptional map of the Island itself, but he also illustrated the properties of subscribers who paid for a drawing of their property to be included among the illustrations. There are about 100 of these, showing properties mostly in the country, often set in a broad landscape which illustrates the first hundred years of land being exploited regularly within the lines drawn by Holland’s 1765 survey.
This view is one of the most extraordinary and unique in Meacham’s collection because not only does it give the patterns of farmland and woodlots, but shows road and water transport, and most unusually, industrial activity with the kilns on the left. This was the time when brick as an architectural material flourished. In the distance on the left is the spire of a church, including community in the composition. Before the days of aerial photographs such views must have been marvels to those who first saw them.
Pigeon Photographers in Germany
A strong interest in aerial photography developed at the turn of the Nineteenth Century in Germany. Julius Neubronner, an apothecary and inventor from Kronberg, developed a passionate interest in photography, especially aerial photography.
He conceived of the idea of attaching tiny cameras to carrier pigeons and sending them up with devices that exposed the bit of film inside the camera. The wonderful photograph in the graphic above shows the landscape around Kronberg framed by the pigeon wings. Neubronner’s photographs captured the attention of many people, including historians, and in the years before World War I his work was widely appreciated, and he was given high honours. Knowledge of aerial photography spread.
Aerial Photography during World War I
The work of Neubronner and others came to the attention of military authorities and during World War I cameras were developed to take vertical photographs of the layout of the trench systems on the various battle fronts. This was done by both the Allies and the Germans.
When these photographs were studied after the war, historians noticed that certain features, invisible from the ground, showed up with astonishing clarity and seemed to delineate plans of buildings. Archaeologists were amazed by the clarity of the information visible from the air. Whole plans of large Roman villas were revealed. While this Federal Government photo does not portray a Roman villa, it is a feature of the French town of Beaubassin I have been discussing in my previous posts. What could those marks in the field mean? Are they cellars or circular features? And are the dark marks in the ploughed cornfield next to the Trenholm house in the lower right corner part of Fort Lawrence which was built on that spot?
These features in the ground are now called crop marks, and revealed by ploughing, or in season, by irregular growth of vegetation, they can direct us where to dig and quickly find buried sites. This was the beginning of interest in aerial archaeology – indeed, predicted its future use. There are various books you can consult that tell this fascinating story, but in my opinion the best are by Bradford and Deuel, listed in the reference section below.
After World War I aerial photography became more and more popular as the aircraft industry developed. Just as air stunts were wildly popular as public entertainment after the war, so were rides to view the countryside at fairgrounds. As part of this wild enthusiasm for flying, photographs of towns and cities were taken and sold.
Return to Canada
This aerial photograph of Charlottetown taken in 1928, and which I found on the internet, was typical of what was available. The original Eighteenth Century Old City is clearly visible below Euston Street and the expansion predicted by Holland is visible in the Royalties, which are rapidly filling up.
Aerial photography in Canada developed rapidly because of the interest shown by the Royal Canadian Air Force and later by various Federal Government departments interested in surveying Canada’s northern regions to produce new accurate maps. The photographs taken were vertical, at a fixed altitude and overlapped so that ground features could be seen in startling 3-D with a simple device that was inexpensive to make and available to anybody.
The story of aerial photography in Canada is told very well, with lots of illustrations, in Don Thomson’s book, Skyview Canada, which is listed in the reference section below.
When Dr. Clarence Webster began his intense study of the Chignecto topography, which has been the subject of my last several posts, he was about to make archaeological history in many ways.
Webster believed that the topography of an extensive historical site could best be explained by the use of oblique photographs taken in a fly past. The light had to be just right so that the cast shadows emphasised the shape of features on the ground.
In his book, The Forts of Chignecto, published in 1930 he was able to take advantage of the new craze for aerial photographs and somehow – he was very well-connected – got the RCAF to take photos for him of the Chignecto sites. This, with all important features numbered and identified in a legend, is archaeological history in the making. Soon aerial photos, both vertical and oblique, would become a standard tool for archaeologists in the landscape.
Beginning in the 1930s – in Prince Edward Island it was 1935 – the Federal Government began to produce complete series of aerial photographs for most of Canada. As decades went by and technology improved, Canada would be photographed again and again, and the overlapping pairs made available for study of historical features. Here is one such photo of Fort Beausejour taken in 1968. It was a big negative, nine inches square, and the print was contact, so filled with a lot of detail that now can be computer enhanced.
Federal aerial photographs are freely available to Canadian citizens, unlike other countries, where such things seem to have military value of a dubious nature. Colour photographs eventually replaced the high resolution black and white prints.
The Return of the Pigeon – Mechanised and Digitised
Not long after the first pigeon aerial photographic experiments before World War I, the British military began to experiment with pilotless planes that could be used as flying bombs. It was not successful. Interest in remotely directed flying objects continued to develop and by the time that transistors became widely available in the 1950s and ‘60s it became possible to construct flying drones, controlled remotely, that could carry small cargo or cameras. A new era of aerial photography was born.
Today archaeologists have in drones a resource for survey and recording the progress of a dig that we could not imagine back in 1988 when, as part of a Parks Canada excavation team at Port La Joy, we attempted to take aerial photographs of the progress of our excavation of a French house dating from the 1720s.
We screwed together lengths of pipe which joined at the top with a hinge that carried a camera mount called a bipod. LABOURIOUSLY, with ropes, we hoisted up the bipod over a section of the dig, tripped the shutter with a long string, lowered the bipod to advance the film and move it to a new location so the next picture would overlap the first. When the film was developed a mosaic was produced. As you can see, it was of the greatest use in interpreting the features in the ground that were starting to show up. It was very labourious and, at the end of the season, as we prepared to shut up the excavation, in a state of euphoria, the team bipoded itself in the exposed French cellar.
Today somebody clever with a drone would have taken the required perfectly level photo in seconds and danced around the site photographing it and the landscape from every desired angle.
At present there is a drone photographic service on the Island called Osprey Cove Productions that has taken and published the most amazing photographs of the Island landscape and its architecture. I praise their efforts in generously making Islanders aware of the beauty and history of their home with their drone photos.
Recently I was particularly taken by this splendid photograph of the very significant Gothic Revival church at Tignish taken by the company.
Here is the church, beautifully lit, with all its parts visible and enhanced by the slanting light, sitting in a landscape that was selected by an amazing priest whose purchase of this little hill eventually determined the present location of Tignish.
This photo is all the more poignant for me because it was from the bell tower of this very church that I took my first aerial photograph ever, imitating some observant enthusiast from 1926 who had done a complete circle of photos of the village as it appeared that summer when the spire was being sheathed in copper. In this graphic is the first ever aerial of a part of Tignish, followed by my attempts, as I moved from a black and white Kodak Brownie camera to a smart 35 mm SLR with colour film. I remember vividly and painfully that climbing the tower to the open bell level was a major ordeal to somebody suffering from acrophobia.
Photos taken of the earth from outer space have captivated human imagination since they first began to appear in the 1960s. With the passage of time governments the world over sent up many unmanned satellites into space that were in essence nothing more than high resolution cameras. There has been so much progress in this field that high-resolution photographs of even tiny things taken by these satellites can be used for military, topographical and archaeological purposes. As civilians, through the services of Google, we can now check out, at various resolutions, major archaeological sites all over the world. Individuals with access to the very best satellite photos can see even more detail.
I will finish this little essay, quite appropriately, with a satellite image taken about 300 miles up in space that I found on the internet.
I began this post with a quotation from the Bible that had Jesus being taken up a high mountain by Satan to see, and possibly, control the wonders of the world. HEAVEN has always been imagined as being “way up there,” just as we are, when we look at this satellite photo of the region I found on the internet.
To finish, I imagine myself in heaven as with this satellite photo we look down on my neck of the woods. Immediately three things come to mind, the first being that I can see exactly the places from which my maternal Acadian ancestors were deported – a black, evil episode in our history. Counteracting that I see evidence all over Prince Edward Island of Samuel Holland’s 1765 survey of Ile Saint-Jean when he divided the world, God-like, into 67 lots that would exactly control and define the way the island would be settled and exploited. It is a beautiful thing which I never cease to admire and celebrate. Finally I see, especially in the woodlands of northern New Brunswick, the devastation that greed for money and power has wreaked on this Garden of Eden, where vast areas of the virgin forests have been stripped bare. The scars are ugly and reprehensible, even from space.
The human desire to see the world from on high so that all its secrets are revealed has led us to this point. Our desire for knowledge of the earth has been amply satiated while our conscience, contemplating what we have done, suffers.
Bradford, John, Ancient Landscapes: Studies in Field Archaeology, G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., London, 1957.
Deuel, Leo, Flights into Yesterday: The Story of Aerial Archaeology, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1969.
Thomson, Don W., Skyview Canada: A Story of Aerial Photography in Canada, Energy, Mines and Resources Canada, Ottawa, 1975.
Webster, John Clarence, The Forts of Chignecto: A study of the Eighteenth Century conflict between France and Great Britain in Acadia [With Plates, Including Portraits, and Maps], Privately Published, 1930.
Werle, Dirk, “Historical Air Photo Missions in the Maritimes during the Early 1920s: Coverage, Thematic Scope, And Utility 100 Years Later,” Proceedings of The Nova Scotian Institute of Science, Volume 51 Part 1, pp. 145-167, 2021.