Aerial photography is one of the most powerful ways to document the changes in the landscape of Wales from earliest times to the modern day. From high above archaeologists can look down on centuries of landscape change, photographing known monuments, discovering long-hidden sites, and providing a new perspective on our cities, towns and built heritage.
The Royal Commission’s aerial photograph archive illustrates the breadth of Welsh culture and landscape, from prehistoric tombs, Iron Age hillforts, Roman towns and medieval castles to country houses, historic docks, wartime defences, and modern architecture. More general views of the Welsh landscape are also available, whether you are looking for limestone coastal scenery, a beach in summer, the Millennium Stadium or the summit of Snowdon. At the National Monuments Record of Wales ‘oblique’ aerial photographs (looking out from a light aircraft) taken by the Royal Commission since 1986 form part of a wider archive of historic (post-1940) oblique and ‘vertical’ photographs (looking straight down from a survey aircraft), showing the changing face of Wales.
This online gallery showcases some of the best aerial imagery from the Royal Commission’s oblique archive, showing not only traditional archaeological sites and landscapes but also more unusual views of Wales’ modern buildings, coastline and landscape.
Discovering the past from the air – cropmarks
Each year Royal Commission archaeologists discover long-forgotten sites and monuments from the air. Countless archaeological sites have been lost to agriculture, destruction and erosion in the centuries since they were first built. At ground level nothing may remain to show us the position of prehistoric farmsteads or Roman villas, but beneath the topsoil substantial remains may still survive of buried ditches, wall footings and other features. Crops growing on well-drained lowland soils in dry summers can reveal the shapes and positions of these buried remains through cropmarks.
Cropmarks happen when plants growing over buried archaeological features, like old ditches or postholes, grow taller and greener over the more fertile, damp soil in the holes. Conversely, those growing over buried stonework and walling quickly ripen and turn yellow in response to the shallow soil and lack of nutrients. These differences in summer growth, which can appear like an X-ray of the field, are best seen from the air. In very dry summers, when conditions are exceptional, many hundreds of new cropmark sites can be discovered in the space of just a few months, showing the fundamental contribution aerial photography can make to understanding the archaeology of Wales.
Recording earthworks in low light
A great many archaeological sites in Wales survive as grass-covered ‘lumps and bumps’. Some earthworks are prominent and well preserved, like some medieval mottes (castle mounds) or Iron Age hillforts. Others are far less well preserved. Vestigial earthworks are best photographed under low, raking sunlight to reveal their patterns in light and shadow. During the summer months late evening shadows can provide ideal conditions, but vegetation can obscure some detail. During winter, especially after the first fall of snow, grass and bracken are low and many upland earthworks can be photographed with breathtaking clarity.
The outlines of very faint earthworks become much clearer from the air if photographed in sharp frost or under a light dusting of wind-blown snow. In Wales the amount of new discoveries made during earthwork recording in the hills and mountains is comparable in number to the summer discoveries of cropmarks in lower-lying areas.
Without the addition of aerial discoveries our understanding of the nature and extent of early settlement in Wales would be very limited. We know that Wales was intensively farmed and settled from the Neolithic, 6,000 years ago, and thousands of significant ancient monuments have been ‘rediscovered’ since the flying programme began.
The Royal Commission holds specialist aerial photographs of sites and landscapes from across Wales. Welsh geology, archaeology, history, industry and architecture are well recorded. Regular photography of Scheduled Ancient Monuments for Cadw also ensures that Wales’ most important heritage sites are featured in our archive.
Medieval castles and defences
Varied examples of castles, fortified country houses and defended moated homesteads of the medieval period survive across Wales. Their strategic locations and general layout can often be shown to advantage in the aerial view.
The surviving structures of the medieval church in Wales, as well as sites of towns and villages, form enduring sights in the landscape.
Country Houses and Parks
Wales has many famous country houses and estates, of which three are shown here. There are contrasts in this type of monument. While Aberglasney has been rediscovered and restored over many years, Gwrych Castle still awaits restoration. Aerial photography remains a particularly effective method of recording historic gardens and estates, because it is able to illustrate not only the main houses and stables, together with other ancillary buildings usually hidden from view, but also the wider context of landscaped grounds and planting schemes with broader views to the world beyond. Historic air photographs capture the great estates of Wales in working order, before post-war dereliction and demolitions altered them forever.
Industries of Wales
Since 1986 the flying programme has recorded the changing face of Wales’ industrial heritage, as well as examples of contemporary architecture and civil engineering.
Docks and harbours
Across Wales docks and harbours attest to largely lost industries of shipbuilding, fishing and the export trade. At Cardiff Bay buildings for leisure and government have been redeveloped on the former docksides.
Bridges link Wales to the south-west of England, across the Severn Estuary, and to the island of Anglesey across the Menai Strait in the north. Our historic aerial archive shows the Second Severn Crossing under construction.
Towns and Cities
One of the great strengths of the aerial perspective is its ability to bring coherence to complex patterns of buildings or structures which may be difficult or time-consuming to record at ground level. New roads, out-of-town superstores or housing developments can also have a tremendous impact on the overall shape and character of a community. Recording the towns and cities of Wales is an integral part of our flying programme.
Wales is famed for its coastline and seaside resorts. While piers at Bangor and Llandudno still attest to Victorian splendour, resorts in other parts of Wales have enjoyed more fluctuating fortunes.
The recording of contemporary architecture and the changing built environment of Wales is central to our national reconnaissance programme. Aerial photographs exist in our archive for most of the major building and civil engineering projects carried out in Wales over recent years.
Mountains and uplands
The mountain scenery of Wales can be immensely evocative and dramatic, as these aerial photographs captured during winter flights demonstrate.
The lakes of Wales often have their own stories and legends linked to mystic tales of healing, as with Llyn y Fan Fach in the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain, or harbour tales of lost cities and water monsters, as with Llyn Tegid/Bala Lake in north Wales. The serenity of Hanmer Mere, in the fertile lowlands of the north-east borderlands, contrasts dramatically with the lakes of upland Wales.
Estuaries form arresting subjects for the aerial photographer and are often fringed with the remnants of coastal industries and former fishing villages.
The Coast of Wales
The battered and weather-torn western coast of Wales has a long history of greeting travellers, saints and merchants, and repelling or assimilating intermittent invaders. To historic seafarers the changing coastline was at the same time full of inviting landing places and treacherous cliffs. Coves and beaches offered impromptu harbours, while larger ports continue to offer some of the best harbourage in the Irish Sea.
Rocks and Islands
Wales’ islands are archaeologically very rich, and today some of the larger islands house isolated communities. These images remind us of the perils of navigating around islands, past rocks and currents, guided by a network of coastal lighthouses.
In recording Wales from the air one sometimes sees surprising or unusual scenes and events which can form memorable images in the archive. For example, the ‘world map’ made by 1400 pupils of Penglais School, Aberystwyth, was undertaken for a global charity event and photographed by prior arrangement with the Royal Commission as part of a longer archaeological flight. The images in our aerial archive are comprehensive enough to answer most enquiries, and if you are looking for a particular type of image, please ask our experienced enquiry staff at the National Monuments Record of Wales.
The breadth of the aerial archive at the Royal Commission has been showcased in a number of publications. Most recently, Pembrokeshire: Historic Landscapes from the Air (RCAHMW, 2007) has shown the stories that aerial archaeology can tell about just one of Wales’ counties. Royal Commission aerial photographs formed a significant component of the illustrations for The Archaeology of the Welsh Uplands (RCAHMW, 2003). Both books are still available from our bookshop. Wales from the Air by Chris Musson was published in 1994 as the Royal Commission’s first major treatise on aerial archaeology and the landscape of Wales. It is now out of print, but still available to buy from selected second-hand booksellers and to borrow from libraries.