Gerster, Georg. The Past from Above; Aerial Photographs of Archaeological Sites.

Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. [orig. publ. in Munich, 2003]

Aerial photographs began being taken in the mid-19th century, from tethered hot-air balloons, but it was a very iffy business. Among other things, the balloon gondola had to include a darkroom because the glass plates of the time couldn’t wait the photographer to return to earth. The invention of the airplane in the early 20th century made things much simpler in a technical sense, but also more complicated when it came to politics and borders.

Most of the earliest aerial photos of archaeological sites were a byproduct of World War I reconnaissance flights, and some of the first locations surveyed no longer exist at all, or not in their earlier form. You’ll find all the details of this early history in an introductory chapter, along with Gerster’s reminiscences of his own often hair-brained aeronautical adventures with a camera. (No, he never acquired a pilot’s license.)

The main section of this large, heavy, glossy book is organized into ten topical chapters covering settlement types, royal residences, fortifications, battlefields, cemeteries and gravesites, sacred sites, monumental carvings in the land itself, and natural resources, with two more chapters on the scourge of looting and on sites later lost to dams and such, or saved at practically the last minute. There’s a final chapter on the rescue of the statues of Rameses at Aswan, which Gerster documented for the National Geographic Society. Altogether, there are some 250 large-format color photos of subjects ranging from famous places like the Athenian Acropolis, the Great Wall of China, Avebury, and Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to much less well-known ones like the prehistoric settlement of Yoshinogari on Kyushu, the Sigiriya palace in Sri Lanka, the Blythe Giant in southeast California, and the ancient Tell Brak in Syria. Each photo includes a pretty detailed explanation of what you’re looking at, but these are set on separate pages, to allow the photos as much space on their own page as possible. Even if you’re the sort of person who (like me) reads a lot of armchair archaeology, I guarantee at least one-third to one-half of these sites will be new to you. Find a comfortable chair and settle in for the weekend.

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