Friday 31 July 2015

Historical Imagery: The Earliest Aerial Archaeology in the Middle East - 1914?

Standard accounts of the origins of aerial photography of archaeological sites report photographs taken from balloon (Stonehenge in 1906) and kite (Wellcome’s excavations in the Sudan in 1913). However, the significant development only seems to have come in 1916 when Theodor Wiegand persuaded the German air force in Syria to take hundreds of aerial photographs of archaeological sites in Palestine and Transjordan (100 of which were published in 1925). Further aerial views of archaeological sites in the wider Middle East were taken during the First World War (albeit often for principally military objectives).

Now we have this astonishing discovery – an album of aerial photographs of archaeological sites in Egypt by a man who never figures in any accounts of the beginnings of Aerial Archaeology. Theodor Kofler (1877-1957) was born in Innsbruck a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but lived much of his adult life in Egypt then in East Africa and South Africa. In Egypt he operated as a professional photographer and in early 1914 when several successive aircraft arrived for brief visits, he joined Marc Bonnier, a French pilot, between 2 and 12 January on one or more flights to photograph pyramids and other ancient sites. He probably flew again in April that year but with the outbreak of war in August, he was interned in Malta as an enemy alien. Later that same year aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) arrived in Egypt for the first time and with a year or two were taking aerial photos of archaeological.

Some of Kofler’s archaeological aerial photos – all usually labelled with his name and the year (1914) were included in the publications of others in the 1920s but his own album was forgotten until a near-complete set turned up in a sale in 2000. Thanks to Patrizia Piacentini (Universit√† degli studi di Milano)  and colleagues, we now have this delightful bilingual (Italian and English) exhibition catalogue with a series of useful essays on Kofler, the flights and the photographs and reproduction of 21 aerial photos of sites ranging from Giza to Thebes.
Piacentini, P. (2015) Egitto dal cielo 1914. La riscoperta del fotografo pioniere prigioniero professionista (Egypt from the Sky 1914. The Rediscovery of the Photographer Pioneer Prisoner Professional), Firenze (Phasar Edizione).

 - DLK

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