Aerial photography is often a necessity in archaeological research. Entire sites can sometimes be mapped more effectively from the air then from the ground. Chan Chan or any desert site in Peru would be an example.


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Taking Photographs from the Air

In the Maya area, the thick jungle cover makes normal aerial photography for mapping purposes not as useful except in areas where the land has been cleared for cattle or milpas. Since such land clearing is on the increase, aerial photography will begin to take on an importance even in areas of the tropics. In the meantime there are plenty of sites where all kinds of settlement pattern information could be gleaned from aerial photography. The placement of ballcourts at El Tajin (Veracruz), Cantona (Puebla), and even Chichen Itza could better be revealed with aerial photography then almost any other method.

But the real utility of aerial photography in many areas of archaeology is for aesthetically pleasing records of monumental architecture. Orsen Wells once narrated an impressive television documentary which was filmed almost entirely from a helicopter. Chichen Itza and other sites were included but Palenque was featured. This film must date back to the late 1960's or early 1970's. There are directories of documentary films at any good Library, in their reference department, that would have the exact title and where the film can be rented.

An immediate use of aerial photography is in recording the thousand-year old Maya sacred highway system, the sacbe, "white ways." These are monumental walkway systems (the Maya had no beast of burden and no wheeled vehicles either). The sacbe are often 30 yards across and may run for up to 80 miles, such as between Coba and Yaxhuna (near Chichen Itza).

panorama photography
Taking photographs from the air

These ancient Maya highways are easily visible from the air despite the thick jungle cover. Actually it is precisely because the jungle is still there that makes the sacbes visible. When you fly over the seemingly limitless expanse of luxuriant tropical rain forest of the Maya areas of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, what you see is the mile after mile extension of the sacbes as they cross the land. For example, when the Maya built their sacbes across swampy area, the Maya engineers had to arrange bringing in tons of fill material. Today, a thousand years later, this fill material provides an attractive place for several species of trees to grow. These particular kind of trees would otherwise not be in the swamp at all. So from the air what you see is a straight line of tall trees, a band 100 feet wide going for miles across the landscape (most of the Maya area is seasonal swamp, known as bajo(s) in the local Spanish language.

The same situation prevails across normal landscape. The Maya construction crews brought in tons of dirt and other material to raise their roadways above the land the sacbe was crossing, even if there was no water. Sometimes these sacbe are ten to fifteen feet raised above the terrain. Since the land which is not swamp tends to be bedrock near the surface, the result for local trees was a wonderful ten-feet deep area of fill dirt and rubble. Hundreds of years after the Maya abandoned maintaining their highway system, certain species of local tree have taken over the sacbe fill material. Again, from the air you can notice these distinct species of tree, in lines going as far as a eighty miles across the landscape.

The result is that often the only way to see where the causeways are going is from the air. On the ground the jungle may be so thick that it is difficult to find the sacbe in certain stretches. So the ideal way to photograph the Maya "highway system" is from the air.

I have tended to use a Hasselblad to do aerial photography, mounting it on a Ken-Lab gyroscopic stabilizer. But to get even sharper photographs, the Linhof Aerotronica 69 is available. To learn more about the technical capabilities of this remarkably precise example of German engineering, I visited the home base of Linhof in Munich. The head of sales, Dipl.-Ing. Ullrich Weigand, kindly made time to take me to the technician who handled these systems. Linhof actually makes two professional aerial systems, one uses 4x5 inch film, on a continuous roll. But the exposure is a maximum of 1/500th of a second, rather slow for aerial photography. The technician suggested that if I was shooting from a helicopter that I would be much happier with a model 69.

69 stands for 6 centimeters high, 9 centimeters long format, using a 100-foot roll of film. This way there is no need to reload film during the flight. You get 320 photographs! This means that with a single flight you would end up with the most impressive aerial photography record ever achieved of Maya archaeology.

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