From castles to cows: exploring the photographic archives at Aberdeenshire Council

As the first Council archaeology service in Scotland, we hold a large archive dating back to the 1970s and beyond. While this means we have a fantastic resource collected over the years, it also means there is a large amount of data that needs to be digitised to make it more accessible.

Pitsligo Castle emerging through the mist in 1988 (Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service © ACAS – www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/archaeology)

One of the projects I have been working on recently is going through our slide and printed collection of ground and aerial photographs. These have all been scanned, and my task has been to ensure that all the images are digitally indexed and attributed to the correct record within our publically available Sites and Monuments Record.

Contact sheets and index from 1989.

As someone relatively new to the area, working on the photographs has been a great opportunity for me to get to know some of these sites better, from the well-known castles to lesser-known but equally important sites such as areas of prehistoric field systems and hidden cairns.

A cow in 1980 tried to become famous, today is its day (Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service © ACAS – www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/archaeology)

There have been a couple of challenges in identifying the sites from the photographs. Sheets of slides can throw up some odd sites with little or no description or context. Often these can still be identified by comparing with other sources or by asking colleagues, who have so far shown an impressive ability to know where a blurry field is or what a close-up of a stone shows. The second challenge has been the handwriting. I have begun to develop an eye for reading the scrawls of the previous archaeologists, but some of the scribbles will have to remain a mystery for now. Despite these challenges it is always exciting to find photographs of a site that we did not realise we had pictures of, as well as the occasional outstanding picture of a particularly spectacular site.

Someone at Dundarg Castle in 1988 had the best day at work ever (Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service © ACAS – www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/archaeology)

Having these images properly digitised and cross referenced means we are able to manage and protect the sites within out area better – has that large crack in the wall appeared or changed within the last few years, or was it like that thirty or forty years ago? Images of excavations also offer a great insight: to see the sites being dug,  and the “interesting” approach to health and safety standards of yesteryear, not to mention the fantastic fashion on display.

Monuments and Maps – A day working with the SMR

Having recently re-joined the world of traffic lights and bustle from my four years spent on Orkney studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I find myself working from an office on the outskirts of Aberdeen where I work in the Archaeology Service at Aberdeenshire Council as Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) assistant.

2016 Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology logo2

Click the logo to see the full spread of what the Archaeology Service does and offers.

Studying archaeology allowed for a time of fairly self-indulgent research where there was usually enough wiggle room that I could find a way to write about things I wanted to look at. Coming out of that into the world of working in archaeology has been exciting, as I have been forced to move beyond my comfort zone of Neolithic Orkney and into the full spread of archaeology in the North East of Scotland. While I work at Aberdeenshire Council, the Service covers Angus, Moray and Aberdeen City, as well as Aberdeenshire, so we have a large and varied area to cover. Once I had got over the idea of recumbent stone circles (I mean, really?!), discovering the archaeology of a new area has been hugely exciting and rewarding.

Whole area GIS

The full spread of sites and monuments that we cover (each coloured dot represents a unique site)

So what is it I actually do? Well the Archaeology Service has a wide ranging role, from answering enquiries from members of the public and getting involved in local community digs, to working with developers to ensure that  any archaeological remains are dealt with appropriately. Whatever we are doing, the focus is always on providing the best protection, management and promotion of the historic environment for the benefit of all. An important part of this is knowing what archaeology there is in the area we cover, and where it is, and this is where I come in. What I do most days is ensure our publicly available SMR is as up to date and accurate as it can be.

At desk

Today, I am working my way through the records for listed buildings in Moray. I check what is entered on the digital SMR against the Historic Environment Scotland listed building description, and make sure any discrepancies are checked and any additional information is added. I also aim to make the descriptions of the monuments as user-friendly as possible. Finding the balance between technical descriptions of specific aspects of monuments, and language people might actually understand, is always tricky, but I hope it helps enable those without a background in archaeology to get an overview of what there is out there, as well as being of use to those with a more specialist background. I also make sure that the monument is marked in the right place on the map, and that the mapped  area covers the whole monument. Looking at old maps is something I have always found great joy in doing, and checking these to see the evolution and origins of a site is always a highlight.

Elgin cathedral

GIS map showing Elgin Cathedral. Click on the image to go see the publicly available SMR details of this fantastic site.

I have found working within archaeology from an office side of things to be very fulfilling. While sitting in a cold muddy hole for several hours a day will always be my first true archaeological love, this job has similar aspects to it that can make it just as exciting. Like anything within archaeology, the unknown and unexpected is always just around the corner, and there is always something new that we will suddenly have to respond to. The various specialisms within the team mean there is always something to learn and discuss throughout the day, discussions can go from a Mesolithic flint scatter to an 18th century farmhouse in a flash. The job has also highlighted to me the importance policy effecting archaeology, and how imperative it is that, as archaeologists, we are engaged in this and ensure our voice is heard and consulted at every stage of the process.