Taking to the Skies – Cumbrian Archaeology from the Air

As an undergrad I once heard a lecturer describe the pursuit of aerial photography as being “the most fun a person could have with their trousers on”. Once I’d recovered from the mental pictures conjured by that unfortunate analogy, I’d always fancied having a go myself.

As luck would have it my friend Kieran Baxter offered me a spare seat on his next aerial photography trip to photograph some of Cumbria’s prehistoric sites. In his own words, Kieran’s current PhD research “aims to better understand how an emerging array of aerial platforms and digital image processing techniques can be used creatively to disseminate ancient heritage sites, and their accompanying archaeological narratives”. When I first met Kieran he was flying kites, needless to say more recently he’s expanded his interests onto a much larger scale!

So yesterday I joined him and Aaron Watson to take to the skies…

Our ride for the day.

Our ride for the day.

Can you tell I'm excited?

Can you tell I’m excited? (Pic by Kieran)


We flew from Carlisle airfield in a Cessna 172 high wing aircraft to fly anticlockwise over some heritage sites Kieran and Alex (our pilot) had agreed on. For most of the flight we zipped around at various altitudes ranging from 3000 to 1000 feet, orbiting each site a few times before moving on to the next.

Flight plan.

The flight plan.

Kieran gets the window open to start shooting.

Kieran gets the window open to start shooting.

The first site on Kieran’s itinerary was the Iron Age hillfort on Carrock Fell which still had some lingering patchy snow which really helped to bring out the features more clearly. Kieran got the window open and I began an epic battle to control both my hair (nightmare) and my core body temperature (not nearly as traumatic as the hair thing)…

Looking down towards Skiddaw.

Looking down towards Skiddaw.

I have to say that it was a little difficult from my seating position to get a clear shot at the hillfort as the plane was tilted to optimise Kieran’s shooting angle, but I did get a lot of great shots of the hills! I’ll link to Kieran’s photos when he puts them up on his website, I promise!

Flying over Carrock Fell Hillfort Alex pulls some exciting manoeuvres at Kieran's request...

Flying over Carrock Fell Hillfort Alex pulls some exciting manoeuvres at Kieran’s request…

Cumbria Flight 064

After a couple of circuits around Carrock Fell and some interesting manoeuvres to help Kieran get the photos he needed, we headed off – literally right down the centre of a deep valley, absolutely breathtaking – towards out next site, Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Castlerigg from the ground - note the line of the mountains.

Castlerigg from the ground – note the line of the mountains.

If you follow the blog you’ll remember me talking about a visit to Castlerigg I made in November 2011 with Aaron, where we’d discussed how the stones aligned with the surrounding mountains, giving the impression of the visitor being centred in the landscape. A view which is only possible to appreciate for a viewer standing within the site itself. From the air the site just appears to be unceremoniously plonked on the ground, something which reinforces how important it is to experience the site in person as this is an aspect which cannot be understood from remote observation – be that in the air or from an ArcGIS map. Experience is key.

Clearly from my expression I was thinking hard about all this archaeological theory while we were up there…

Having a blast!

Aaaaaah exciting!!!! Me, having the best time ever…still with my trousers on you’ll be pleased to note!

Castlerigg in context.

Castlerigg in context.

Next we flew towards two henges, Mayborough and King Arthur’s Round Table.

Mayborough Henge.

Mayborough Henge.

Then on towards Long Meg and her Daughters. Long Meg was interesting yesterday as we went straight from the plane to the site….I say “straight from the plane”, I should clarify – I mean we landed the plane, then drove to the site! There were no parachutes involved or anything.

Long Meg and Her Daughters.

Long Meg and Her Daughters.

Long Meg on the ground.

Long Meg from the ground.

In the same way as Castlerigg can be understood differently from the air and from the ground, Long Meg affords a similar story with the surrounding landscape, and it was great to be able to contextualise the site from both perspectives in the space of a few hours.

Me, Aaron and Kieran - Team Visualisation! (Pic by Kieran)

Me, Aaron and Kieran in the air – Team Visualisation! (Pic by Kieran)

Kieran and our brilliant pilot Alex.

Kieran and our brilliant pilot Alex, coming in to land.

After about an hour and a half in the air we headed back to the airfield. As a child for some unknown reason I formed an obsession with wind socks (those of you who were on St Kilda with me will remember this fun fact well!), I was a little afraid of the billowing sound they made but loved them at the same time, and as we landed I took more photos of this wind sock than I’d like to admit…

A wind sock - love 'em, not really sure why.

A wind sock – love ’em, not really sure why.

Me, Kieran and Aaron next to the Cessna.

Me, Kieran and Aaron next to the Cessna.

Admittedly that morning from waking up I’d told everybody who would listen that I was going up in a tiny plane – my flatmate Kyla who witnessed me leap out of my room shouting “I’M FLYING IN A PLANE TODAAAAAAY!!!” at 7.30 am; the ticket man at the subway station, the woman in Boots the Chemist who sold me travel sickness tablets ‘just in case’….really, I only bought some so I could tell someone else what I was doing that day. I’m delighted to say my excitement at the prospect of aerial archaeology was completely justified – it was an absolutely fantastic day, I really loved every second of it!

Thank you Kieran!!



  1. Cathymac · · Reply

    Were the core body temperature regulation issues because you weren’t wearing any trousers at that point? 😉

    1. *note* I’m never pictured below the shoulders while on the plane….make of that what you will…

  2. […] of ways, especially for my research and archaeological pursuits. It was the year I got a taste for aerial archaeology flying over Cumbria thanks to Kieran Baxter, the year we released our Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae film on the […]

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