BMCR 2005.09.28

The Past from Above: Aerial Photographs of Archaeological Sites

, , , , The past from above : aerial photographs of archaeological sites. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. 415 pages : color illustrations ; 30 cm. ISBN 0892368179 $65.00.

Over the course of the past 40 years, Georg Gerster has spent 3,500 hours taking aerial photographs from airplanes, helicopters, and balloons. With the help of the archaeologist Charlotte Trümpler, Gerster sifted through his massive portfolio and selected photographs of 249 archaeological sites from 51 different countries for inclusion in The Past from Above. A number of other archaeologists were called upon to contribute short descriptions of each site. The result is a visually stunning and intellectually stimulating collection of images that highlights the fundamental veracity of Gerster’s motto that “distance creates an overview of the subject, and an overview creates a greater understanding” (p. 6). The Past from Above will appeal to anyone who appreciates spectacular photography, and scholars who work with the material remains of a wide range of pre-modern cultures will find it to be an invaluable visual reference work. There is a wealth of material that will be of immediate interest to classicists, including photographs of approximately 75 sites that closely reflect the history and material culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Perhaps more importantly, the nature of the images in The Past from Above and the manner in which they are arranged are such as to help one see even the most familiar sites, such as the Athenian Acropolis, in a new light.

The text in The Past from Above is divided into three broad sections. The first section, which was authored by Charlotte Trümpler, contains a discussion of the importance of aerial photography and a short history of its evolution. Trümpler makes an excellent case for the value of aerial photographs to archaeologists, arguing that “seen from the air, details come together to form a unified whole, fragments acquire a pattern and the abstract becomes concrete” and that “only images taken from above give an overview of the site as a whole and show how it is part of its natural environment” (p. 9). Her history of aerial photography is compact and highly informative. Classicists may be surprised to learn of the pivotal role played by Theodor Wiegand, the excavator of Miletus, who was instrumental in arranging for the aerial photography of a wide range of sites in the Near East in the early years of the twentieth century. Charles Lindbergh also makes an appearance, flying low over Mayan sites in Central America with his wife Anna at the shutter.

In the second section of The Past from Above, Georg Gerster relates a series of amusing, sometimes hair-raising, stories about his adventures and misadventures during a lifetime of taking aerial photographs. Perhaps the single most memorable incident took place on a tributary of the Amazon in 1979. The pilot, flying a Cessna equipped with pontoons, set the plane down in the river and grounded it on a sandbank so that Gerster and the other passengers could relieve themselves. The pilot used the opportunity to take out his rod and do a bit of fishing. While everyone had their backs turned, the plane broke loose and began to float slowly downstream, leaving pilot and passengers stranded on a sandbank in the middle of a piranha-infested river. The quick-thinking pilot saved the day by hooking the plane with his fishing rod and very gently reeling it in.

The third, and by far the longest, section of the text is devoted to photographs and site descriptions. The photographs are organized by subject matter rather than geography, in the following twelve sub-sections: archaeological sites in the landscape; settlement types; palaces and royal residences; festival sites and places of assembly; fortifications and bulwarks; limes and battlefields; graves and cemeteries; monumental geoglyphs; water, land, and mineral resources; looting; and sites lost and saved. Each of these twelve sub-sections is further divided into two parts. In the first part is found a series of full-page images with highly compressed captions. In the second part, those images are reproduced in greatly reduced (thumbnail) size and are accompanied by brief but thorough site descriptions and a short list of relevant bibliography. The book closes with an essay by Gerster on the relocation of the temples at Abu Simbel, information about Gerster and his previous publications, a glossary, and two useful indexes that list the sites included in the book, by name and by country. Both photographs and text are beautifully presented on high-quality paper, and the book is carefully edited.

The only noteworthy flaw in The Past from Above is the absence of a map or maps indicating the precise locations of the sites illustrated in the photographs. The captions give the name of the country in which each site is found, but to say, for example, that the Turfan Depression is located in China (p. 353) does not represent a high degree of specificity. In addition, this reviewer found it to be a little frustrating to have to refer to an historical atlas in order to establish the geographical relationship between sites from the same country or region, such as the numerous places in Iraq and Iran that are included in The Past from Above.

Just about everyone who teaches the history of pre-modern cultures subscribes to the proposition that an encounter with the foreign can (and should) stimulate a reconsideration of the familiar, and this is what makes the collection of photographs in The Past from Above so valuable. As both Trümpler and Gerster point out, seeing sites from above can provide a new perspective.1 The impact of Gerster’s photographs is noticeably heightened by the variety of sites illustrated and the manner in which the images are arranged. More specifically, the organization of the photographs by type of site rather than geographical location makes it possible to compare and contrast, for example, royal residences from widely different times and places. Even the most well-read scholars are likely to learn something valuable from perusing descriptions of impressive archaeological sites from all over the world, and the juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar is as thought-provoking as one might hope. In a world in which academic specialties narrow with each passing year, The Past from Above offers a refreshingly eclectic picture of the material remains of pre-modern cultures, providing just the sort of view from a distance that informs all of Gerster’s work. This is a book that repays close study over a period of time and that becomes more impressive each time one opens it.


1. William Sumner, the excavator of Anshan in southwestern Iran, remarked that he learned more about the site from one of Gerster’s aerial photographs than from ten years of excavation (p. 25).