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Osbert Crawford

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 4 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford Aerial

Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford is generally described as being the modern inventor of aerial photography in the pioneering days of archaeological reform.

Better Methods of Analysis

Crawford’s main contribution to the developing science of archaeology in the early 20th century was in the methods that he developed for producing and analysing the results of photographically acquired archaeological data. His proven methods have remained almost unchanged for the last 70 years.

Orphaned

Osbert Crawford was an English archaeologist born in October 1886 in Bombay India. He was the son of a civil servant serving in India but Osbert moved back to London where his maternal aunts raised him after the premature death of his mother in the year he was born and then the death of his father when he was yet only eight years old.

Academic Experience

Crawford was schooled at Marlborough and Keble Colleges where he began to specialise in geography. He graduated in 1910 and immediately worked in the Department of Geography at Oxford but this lasted for only one year. Crawford was eager to extend his interests into archaeology and to this end he joined the Scoresby Routledge archaeological expedition to Easter Island. However, holding a strong-willed personality, Crawford entered into a dispute with the expedition directors and departed from them before they reached their destination.

He transferred his enthusiasm to Henry Wellcomes’ archaeological excavations in the Sudan, where he worked at Jebel Moya and Abu Gelli. He is one of the few early notable archaeologists to take any real interest in archaeological excavations in Great Britain, and upon returning to England from his Sudan expedition he excavated with E. A. Hooton on the Wexcombe Down.

During the Great War he first served with the London Scottish Regiment before transferring to the Survey Division of the Army. His introduction to aircraft came when he later served in the Royal Flying Corp as an observer. In the last year of the war his aircraft was shot down and he remained a Prisoner Of War until the war ended.

Mixing Aircraft and Archaeology

During this brief encounter with aircraft he realised the great potential for combining it with the camera and using aerial photography in the field of archaeology. He attempted to convince other academics of the benefits of aerial photography even demonstrating the advantages by showing and explaining his photographs taken from high above Wessex in 1928.

Primitive attempts at aerial photography had been undertaken as early as 1906 by P. H. Sharp and aerial photos had been widely used throughout the Great War for enemy recognisance purposes. Crawford was the first to really marry the aerial art to archaeological purpose. He realised that it was more sensible to photograph landscape features from the air at times of the day when the hidden elements of the features where accentuated by lower angles of the sun’s rays. He also seemed to understand contrast and patterns created by light and dark areas such as caused by vegetation or ground depressions. Through his innovative approach he was able to reconstruct ancient British farming systems as well as old village-scapes. Crawford concentrated solely on local British sites.

Cartographic Recording

As the first archaeological officer of the Ordinance Survey, Osbert Crawford served from 1920 to 1940. This twenty-year period saw him develop cartographic recording of archaeological sites. He also founded and edited the archaeological journal called ‘Antiquity’ up until his death in 1957. The Crawford collection of antiquities of Africa and Europe was donated in 1938 and an extensive collection of his photographs are held at the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford.

Osbert Crawford was the pioneer of the use of aerial photography to enhance the archaeological understanding of the landscape. Having witnessed the magnitude of the Atom bomb at the end of WW2, in his book ‘Archaeology in the Field’ he declares his belief that future archaeologists will excavate ruined factories of the 19th and 20th centuries when the effects of atomic radiation has died away.

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