Friday, August 30, 2013

Aerial Excavation

Over the last week I spent some time on my very first archaeological excavation.  You'd think doing volunteer work for the CIG would be all about going out in the field regularly, always getting my hands dirty.  Unfortunately since I’m their IT/Communications specialist, all of my work is done at home or at the CIG library.  However when I was given the opportunity to head out on the dig at Kastro Kallithea, if only for a week, I jumped at the chance.

For the most part my role on the dig was that of labourer, working on backfilling a site, but I did have a unique opportunity to do something dealing with my interest in photography.  The project was doing aerial photography of several features, and fortunately I came to the site as this photography work was in full swing.  While I’ve photographed many different objects using many different methods, this is a form of photography I'd never experienced.  Dr. Margriet Haagsma, the leader of this excavation asked me if I'd be interested in helping her photograph several features of the site using an aerial photography rig she discovered on the internet.  I can’t tell you how thrilled I was at the chance to learn about this form of photography.

I’ve learned that there are several companies in Greece that can shoot aerial photographs professionally, however many of them are very expensive, and did not fit the budget for this particular dig. Dr. Haagsma did some research and came across the website that sold an inexpensive balloon photography kit that allows anybody to become an aerial photographer for about one hundred dollars.  The intended purpose of their kits is to allow anybody to map their own environment, without relying on government or corporations.  For Dr Haagsma it was perfect for her research, and well within her budget.

There was a little bit of custom work done to the original plans provided in the kit, most notably an extra line was added for more control. The rig is very simple, and other than a plastic bottle (used for the body of the rig), the helium, and the extra string for the guideline, all is provided with the kit. The kit does not come with a digital camera, however most standard cameras work perfectly well. The project used a Nikon Coolpix P330, 12.2 Megapixels.

Early in the morning it looked as though the weather gods were smiling upon us with a fairly still day. After filling the balloon, we were ready to go.  It is a little challenging to control the balloon when the wind picks up even a little, but for the most part it was very smooth.  You have to set the camera to shoot continually (in our case: one photo every 30 seconds) and you don't really know if your shots are successful until you bring the camera back down.  However the results were fantastic, and after an hour or so at each site we shot many great pictures perfect for Dr. Haagsma 's needs.

You could improve this rig with a bigger camera set up, and with a long distance remote, however if your camera gear becomes too heavy and it would require more (or bigger) balloons to get any altitude.  You would also run the risk of damaging an expensive camera should the balloon(s) fail.  I think that the best bet is either to use an inexpensive camera that you wouldn’t miss if there was a mishap, or consider purchasing a very sturdy camera designed for rough and tumble play (such as a go pro camera).  With the advancements in inexpensive digital cameras, using anything more high tech really isn't necessary at all.

On a side note, I'd like to thank Dr Haagsma and her whole team for making me feel welcome, showing me a real dig experience, and even teaching me a thing or two about the history of Kastro Kallithea.  Although I'm sore from a great deal of digging and lifting, it was truly an experience I will not forget.

Chris Stewart


  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this article about the amazing success of Margriet's courageous entry into archaeological aerial photography. The ultra-cheap, ultra-simple stuff worked like magic. As an old-time, heavy-wight kite aerial (35mm film and even 4x5 inch!) photographer I was delighted (and perhaps astonished) by the easy success. The little 12.2 Mp Nikon returned very high quality images that didn't require weeks of waiting for rolls of Kodachrome to come back from Kodak in Switzerland! Day after day of nearly zero wind made it possible, easy even. It demonstrates the good Karma of the Kastro Kalithea project, helped by exemplary leadership and organization. So far none of the good archaeological images have been posted. I'm sure we'll see some soon.

    Thanks again,

    Richard Anderson...the owner of the green "control line" string (and the dead person in the photo above). The second string was an ingredient missing from the on-line kit and necessary for flying in near-zero wind conditions.

  2. I believe that this project would not have had a leg to stand on without your assistance Richard. While I can provide a quick written explanation, if anybody needs a helping hand, you are the man to call upon.

  3. Hello both,
    Thanks again Chris for your and Allison's contribution. It was fun to have you in Kallithea! Richard, Chris is right; your experience was essential in the endeavour. The pictures turned out great, but I cannot publish them here; a new condition in the permit forbids us to post pictures of artefacts, features etc. on social media.
    Thanks again!

  4. Hello both,
    Thanks for your blog, Chris and for your and Allison's contribution to the project. It was fun to have you in Kallithea and I hope we will meet again in Athens.
    Richard, Chris is right; your experience with aerial photography was essential. Thank goodness for that second line! See you soon,