My very first role at RCAHMS, back in 2000, was a short-term contract in the Collections team. It was a wonderful job for a brand new archaeology graduate, as I got to know the Commission’s collections; not just the archaeological archives and photographs that I was already vaguely familiar with, but also the huge range of architectural material, and the massive aerial photographic collections.
Working with aerial photography took up much of my time in my first few months. RCAHMS holds a lot of early aerial photography, including surveys of Scotland undertaken in the years following the Second World War, when RAF pilots who had been undertaking overseas reconnaissance missions took part in Operation Revue. This provided detailed domestic photographic coverage for use by the Ordnance Survey in mapping, and also helped guide post-war reconstruction.
This early aerial photography is of great use to archaeologists today as it pre-dates the large-scale plantings of the Forestry Commission, thus providing some of the only evidence of archaeological sites subsequently shrouded in tree cover.
Amongst other Collections Assistant tasks, one of my duties was to check through what must have amounted to miles of photographic negatives – the products of Operation Revue. In particular, I was looking for signs that cellulose nitrate film had been used.
Used until the 1950s for aerial photography, cellulose nitrate film can degrade over time and become volatile, releasing poisonous gases and catching fire easily. The temperatures at which this can happen are relatively low – around 38 degrees centigrade, and although all the RCAHMS film canisters were stored in a secure, temperature-controlled store, it was very important to carry out a thorough check for this type of stock.
In the first round of checking, it was enough to open the tins one by one, and check for indications of cellulose nitrate film. A small number were found – the film having reacted with the metal canister to produce a distinctive brown powder and acrid smell. They were safely disposed of, the film having decomposed too much to be useable.
Once the initial fast checks were completed, I moved onto more general condition checking. Although the fast check had demonstrated that most of the film was of less hazardous types, research had shown that different types of film were often spliced together to create larger, continuous rolls, so there may still have been some cellulose nitrate lurking in the collection.
To carry out the condition checking, I loaded the spools of film onto a hand winder, and whirred through the negatives.
This is where Dundee comes into the story.
There were a lot of films to check, so I couldn’t spend a long time looking at images – although it was tempting. It was difficult to make out much detail at first, as the risk to cellulose nitrate from any form of heat meant that the films couldn’t be viewed on a light box. As an Edinburgh native, I could occasionally make out the regular streets of the New Town, but other than that I was surprised and frustrated at how little I could identify. However, as I began to get my ‘eye in’ I quickly noticed how certain features stood out, especially in smoke-filled, uniformly-arranged urban areas. As a football fan, my eye was often drawn to football pitches with their distinctive markings and I realised that the only city I could quickly identify as I was whirring across it was Dundee – because the two football clubs in that city have their stadia across the street from one another! ‘Spotting Dundee’ became a game I played whenever the task became a little tedious, and I also began to regularly recognise the sinuous paths up Dundee Law.
Once I recognised Dundee, I could also make out some of the nearby coastal towns in Angus, and this led to my best discovery – an incredible moment-in-time shot of prefabricated housing being delivered and constructed in Arbroath. The image seems to have been taken from a much lower height than others – I like to think the pilot was going in for a closer look! Since that first contract, I’ve been lucky enough to have a range of posts at RCAHMS, but I will always have great memories of that first job and introduction to aerial photography.
This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.