Aerial Photography

When one thinks about what archaeologists typically do, digging underground immediately comes to mind. But the Theban Mapping Project has found that going up, in airplanes and hot air balloons, can provide equally valuable archaeological data.    
Airplane Photography
In 1979, after several months of discussion and negotiation, the Theban Mapping Project signed a contract with the Remote Sensing Center of the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research under which the Center would provide complete aerial photographic coverage of the Theban Necropolis and areas immediately adjacent. The area covered included over 60 square kilometers. All equipment and supplies, as well as the specifications of the flights themselves, were governed by standards for aerial photographic work set forth by the State of California, standards that equalled or exceeded those of other American and international government and research agencies.    
Two scales of aerial photography were required for the desired photogrammetric mapping. For the general mapping of all the Necropolis, five flight lines were photographed at 1700 meters (+ or -) above sea level elevation. For one-meter contour interval mapping, this results in a "C-factor" (a limiting factor) of 1600 (+ or -). The larger scale mapping of areas of intense archaeological interest required nine flight lines at 900 meters (+ or -) above sea level elevation. The C-factor for this photography is an optimum value of 850 for one-meter contour-interval mapping. We also flew flights at 1100 meters.    
For the ground control of all fourteen flight lines, 47 of the transverse control points were pre-targeted [17813]. The analytical control method that was used in the photogrammetric mapping does not require that many "picture" points. However, the additional points were targeted to provide the aerial photographic team with orientation marks and check points in areas where there was no existing mapping that could be used as flight guides. In addition, the beginning of all fourteen flight lines were pre-marked for further guidance of the flight crew. Flights were run twice, mid-afternoon, in spring 1979.     17813
A section of this image, focusing on the area of the ancient monuments, is now available in a zoomable format in our new Atlas of the Theban Necropolis. It was prepared by TMP photographer Francis Dzikowski, who montaged together fourteen 9x9 inch diapositives in Photoshop.    
Hot-Air Balloon Photography
The use of hot-air balloons for archaeological surveying is by no means a new technique, but it was one that had not been used in Egypt until the 1982 season of the Theban Mapping Project. Our reasons for wishing to make use of balloons for aerial photography were simple. We hoped to obtain low-level oblique photographs, and at the same time, to explore the numerous wadis and cliff faces in the Theban Necropolis for archaeological features that had not yet been noted. Such photographs are of particular usefulness for the study of architectural details, small-scale landforms, and for the plotting of unexcavated archaeological remains, which are nevertheless visible from low-level flights [13016].     13016
A balloon was the perfect vehicle for such work: it is able to fly very slowly, at very low altitudes, and provides a perfectly stable photographic platform. It also is inexpensive, burning only local Egyptian butagaz (butane) as fuel. Flights, depending upon the areas or monuments to be photographed, might be at altitudes of as little as 3-4 meters, or as much as 500 meters. Speed, dependant on the wind, is rarely greater than 1-2 kilometers per hour.    
In May 1982, two balloons were chartered from a firm in Napa, California and brought to Egypt by the TMP. The flights proved so successful that the TMP purchased one of these balloons for continued aerial photography in the following season [17815]. The TMP no longer owns its own balloon, but the balloons proved to be such a hit that several companies offering balloon flights over Luxor for tourists have since been established, and the Theban Mapping Project continued to use their services for obtaining more aerial photography in the subsequent decades.     17815
The opportunity to obtain bird's-eye views of the Theban Necropolis resulted in the discovery of several interesting features. Indeed, one of the more intriguing aspects of the aerial work in the first season was the discovery of an archaeological feature that probably would not have been seen had we not had the balloons available.    
During one of our flights in 1982, our balloon was blown slightly northward of its intended flight plan, over the Thoth Temple at the northernmost end of the Theban Necropolis. As the balloon descended, the crew noticed a rectangular hole in the cliff of a small spit of the Wadi ar-Rumalla. The location of this opening led us to suspect that this might be a cliff tomb similar to those queens' tombs of the New Kingdom. We marked the tomb entrance at the top of the cliff, and a few days later, surveyed its precise grid and made plans to explore its interior. This was accomplished by several team members who were experienced rock climbers, who rappeled into the "tomb" from the cliff face above. Inside, they discovered that all of the evidence suggested that the chambers actually served as a Christian hermitage, possibly dating to the seventh century A.D.    
All of the photographs obtained by the TMP show temples and hillsides from angles never seen before, and many of these photographs will soon be available on this website.    
(Excerpted and adapted from The Berkeley Map of the Theban Necropolis: Report of the Second Season, 1979 and The Berkeley Map of the Theban Necropolis: Report of the Fifth Season, 1982.)    

Published or last modified on: June 4, 2003
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