Mrs John and I were stuck in a traffic jam on the A303 and about five miles from our ultimate goal, one of the great wonders of the world. In those sixty minutes or so it took us to reach our destination, I had already completed (in my head, at least) four super magazine articles, umpteen clever phrases made up from car number plates and feverishly tried to work out a devious scheme in which I could relieve myself without attracting the attention of others. The latter soon became my top priority! I desperately needed a pee! So, how come my wife and I found ourselves in this predicament on one of the hottest days of the year, sans air conditioning and with an irritability factor almost reaching maximum?
It was like this …
In August 2006, English Heritage celebrated the centenary of the first aerial pictures taken by light aircraft by staging an exhibition at the ancient Neolithic site of Stonehenge. A display of vintage and modern photographs told the story of these early images as well as exploring the world of aerial photography. In addition, English Heritage promised that a tethered air balloon would be on site and there would be an opportunity to go up in the basket and take photographs.
Like the big red balloon, I was also a Virgin. In my naivety I imagined it would be rising majestically above the stones and I might just be able to grab a picture. What a magnificent introduction it would make to an article on aerial photograhy and how detectorists might benefit.
Alas, the balloon was about 300 metres away, was only inflated about once every hour and carried just three people in the basket. It remained for the rest of the time totally expired in a languid, sprawling heap. Not only that, I soon realised that there was little chance of hitching a lift anyway. To claim a ride, you had to put your entrance ticket in a bucket from which a couple of winners were plucked out every hour on the hour. With hundreds of people visiting that day, there seemed little chance. So I didn’t bother and the intended article was almost forgotten.
However, the touring exhibition proved to be very useful and showed how aerial surveys have become one of the most powerful and least invasive tools of the archaeologist.
In the temporary marquee I saw images of Bronze Age crop marks looking like idle doodles on the landscape. Some pictures showed the long shadows cast by the evening sun turning inconspicuous bumps into ghostly recreations of Roman pillars or gateposts.
There was also a machine reminiscent of the Viewmaster 3D toy of my youth, but rather more sophisticated that enabled me to gaze in wonder at remarkable images of popular archaeological sites. Fascinating! And not only that, a new article was beginning to take shape …
Extract from a longer article first written in 2006