photographs

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.

Photographs as Sources: Documenting a World War II PoW Camp

A picture is worth a thousand words the old adage goes. For historical archaeologists, photographs can provide important information about the location of buildings and activity areas. They can also provide insight into the everyday lives of past inhabitants. One of my current projects is the mapping and documentation of a World War II Italian Prisoner of War (PoW) camp in Monticello, Arkansas. Camp Monticello opened as a training facility for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1943 and served as a Prisoner of War (PoW) camp for Italians from 1943 to 1946. Photographs of the camp provide important context for archaeological research, but as with any primary source they have to be examined carefully.

Section of a map of the PoW Camp showing Compound 2.

Section of a map of the PoW Camp showing Compound 1.

Camp Monticello consisted of three compounds that housed enlisted men, two compounds that held officers, a hospital and other facilities. The buildings of the camp have mostly disappeared from view. But the archaeological evidence of the PoW camp is relatively widespread and exhibits good preservation as concrete foundations mark the landscape. Archaeologists are increasingly interested in research on prisoner of war camps. Research in Europe, Canada, and the United States has fostered new understandings of PoW camps and their inmates. See for example, Michael Waters, Lone Star Stalag about a German PoW camp in Texas or Harold Mytum and Gilly Carr’s edited volume on prisoners of war. Archaeology at Camp Monticello has the potential to yield new information about the Arkansas’ role in World War II, the lives of women at the camp, and the ways in which the Italian PoWs adapted to confinement and expressed ethnic and cultural identity through daily practice.

Gate to a compound at Camp Monticello.

Gate to a compound at Camp Monticello. Photograph courtesy of the Drew County Historical Museum

I use historic photographs and documents to provide context. Photographs help me understand what the camp looked like, as well as how people may have used the space. But as with any source of information, I have to examine the photographs carefully. Photographs may appear to give an unmediated view of the past, a promise of truth and neutrality that is free of the partiality of written documents (Edwards and Hart 2004). However, this sensation is deceptive, because for each photograph the subject has been selected, framed, and thus partially constructed by the photographer. Plus, the photographs preserved in archival collections tend to have been taken for specific reasons. As Barbara Little points out, documentary history — photographs, deeds, wills, maps — offers us one set of evidence about the past. Archaeology offers us a different kind of evidence. Historical archaeology is a kind of scholarship that challenges our certainties in useful ways.

A makeshift clothesline at Camp Monticello

A makeshift clothesline at Camp Monticello. Photo courtesy of the Drew County Historical Museum.

Photographs are great sources for archaeological research, since archaeology provides a way to test and corroborate the information contained within the photographs. As we head into the field to map and test the site, we hope to find activity areas like the makeshift clothesline that show what everyday life was like for the PoWs at Camp Monticello. Like the Arkansas Archeological Survey – UAM Station Facebook page for updates on this project and other happenings in southeast Arkansas.