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Meet the Aerial Expert of Stonehenge

Updated: Jan 31

SUMO Aerial-Cam’s Adam Stanford has gained expertise over a career spanning more than 30 years. As a leading pilot within the industry, his involvement has been vital in many well-known archaeological projects across the globe. This includes Adam’s long-standing participation in the Stonehenge Riverside Projects. We took some time to ask Adam about his participation in the projects so far...

Aerial Expert of Stonehenge

So, Adam what has your involvement been with the Stonehenge projects so far?

It all started back in 2006 when I founded Aerial-Cam. After many years working as a field archaeologist I wanted to specialise in archaeological photography, more specifically in on-site aerial work. Back then, aerial solutions were particularly limited, and I started out by using a large 21m telescopic mast that I mounted on my Land Rover! This proved to be a very good method for recording excavations from a height. As well as this, the use of my mast was much more versatile than traditional methods which involved the use of scaffolding towers and wobbly ladders.

Bluestonehenge Quarry in 2014
Bluestonehenge Quarry in 2014

The first involvement I had, came when I was asked to try out the Aerial-Cam equipment that I had at the time on a research excavation called the Stonehenge Riverside Project. The results I gained proved the be invaluable to the project and following this, my ongoing participation in the project began. Later, I was asked to return to the site each season for excavations around the Durrington Walls, the Cursus, Stonehenge and the Avenue. This is how we ended up discovering the site that is now known as Bluestonehenge.

Bluestonehenge is a site in Wales from which large stones were taken and erected by the river Avon. What’s more, we now know that these stones eventually made their way to Stonehenge as well. The subsequent discovery of Bluestonehenge set the scene for further investigations into the origin of the bluestones, and this saw the birth of the Stones of Stonehenge Projects. Aerial-Cam now undertakes annual visits to Pembrokeshire to complete surveys and excavations.

What equipment are you currently using to complete the project and has this changed over the years because of technological advancements?

21m mast.
Adam’s 21m mast.

Equipment and techniques have evolved substantially over the last twelve years. The Stonehenge projects have been a fantastic opportunity to try out this new equipment and perfect new techniques so that they can be applied to other projects, commercial and academic alike.

Over the course of the project, we have used all manner of methods to position cameras where we have needed them. These methods include attaching cameras onto vehicle mounted masts, handheld telescopic masts, poles, kites and even manned aircraft. In the last in five years or so, we have also attached cameras to a range of different UAV’s and Drones.

The biggest change I have seen over the last twelve years, is how the imagery that the cameras capture is used to benefit a project. When I started out, it used to be about getting evidence or record photographs of the site from a certain perspective. But, nowadays we take a lot of general photos across the site and use these to create 3D data using the latest Photogrammetry software and powerful computers. You could say (in some cases) that the images captured by our cameras have become part of the process as opposed to the deliverable themselves.

The 3D models, digital elevation models and orthomosaic outputs that we can now generate provide a fantastic resource for site recording, analysis and interpretation. They allow for the analysis of earthworks and changes in the state of vegetation in ways we couldn’t do before. This allows for an understanding of the potential and nature of archaeology. This stands even when it’s not visible on the surface of a landscape.

Have there been any challenges along the way or new things you’ve had to adapt to?

In terms of the project itself, all long running archaeology projects tend to suffer from funding challenges from time to time. However, the crossover from the academic sector into the commercial sector has helped funding considerably.

The biggest challenge from a wellbeing and equipment perspective is always the weather. I have experienced all sorts of challenging conditions which make working with the Aerial equipment difficult at times. As well as this, I usually return from south-west Wales rather soggy and windswept.

SUMO Aerial-Cam Pilot Adam Stanford.
SUMO Aerial-Cam Pilot Adam Stanford.

Your work has been instrumental in finding new sites in the Pembrokeshire area. Can you tell us what new discoveries you have made and how you go about uncovering new sites using Aerial-Cam’s equipment?

The aerial photogrammetry surveys we undertake are a very good way of understanding the landscape in a study area and they can also highlight previously unknown monuments. The photogrammetry data is similar to Lidar however, photogrammetry is much more targeted and at a greater resolution.

On the Stones of Stonehenge Projects, we have found many sites using aerial survey methods. These sites include Bronze Age barrows, ring ditches, a ring cairn, an Iron Age settlement, a Roman Villa and a Medieval burial mound with slate lined graves. These discoveries were not necessarily the archaeology we were looking for, but they are still fantastic finds none the less.

What has being part of such important projects been like for you and what have you taken away from them?

So far, it has been an incredible journey being a part of these projects and it’s not over yet. I can take away from this experience the knowledge that I have helped to accumulate a huge amount of information, survey results and an enormous archive of images from both the Stonehenge and Pembrokeshire monuments. What’s more, the journey has also created what will be lifelong friendships from the kind of camaraderie I experienced during my time in the forces many years beforehand.

All those involved in the projects are working on increasing an understanding and discovering the answers to what Stonehenge was all about. As well as helping to answer questions about why the Neolithic people of five thousand years ago brought together such an extraordinary monument as Stonehenge. There is still a lot more to do yet and I look forward to my continued involvement.

What’s the next big adventure for you?

Aerial photograph of Stonehenge by Adam Stanford
Aerial photograph of Stonehenge by Adam Stanford

Through the Stonehenge projects, I have been fortunate enough to be asked to work on other research projects across the globe. Other projects I have been a part of include the Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project where I ended up doing five trips to Easter Island in the south Pacific. As well this, I have been a part of pilot projects in various destinations such as Qatar and Tunisia, which have all been amazing experiences. My next adventure keeps me on home turf, as we survey some exciting projects throughout Great Britain at a variety of sites such as Castles, Hillforts, lovely country churches and fascinating fields of earthworks.

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