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Historic Photographs

Exploration and Archaeology

The superior accuracy of the photograph in comparison to artists' impressions was swiftly appreciated by the scholarly and scientific communities, and from the mid-1840s numerous attempts were made to document archaeological sites and explorations by means of the camera. Many of these early trials met with indifferent success, but by the late 1850s, when more reliable paper and glass negative processes were commonplace, the use of photography in the field became established.

Photography was used as the preferred tool of record by the Archaeological Survey of India from the mid-1850s, and when shortly afterwards the British Museum sent an expedition to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum) in Asia Minor, two photographers from the Royal Engineers were attached to produce a detailed record of its progress. The Royal Engineers also supplied the photographer attached to survey work in Jerusalem and Sinai in the 1860s, while individual explorers increasingly took their own photographs in the course of their travels. Whether produced as a scientific record, or for subsequent sale or the illustration of published narratives, photography in the 19th century provided an invaluable tool for travellers and scholars.

Linnaeus Tripe, Burma, 1855

The Thapinyu Pagoda, Pagan, Burma Enlarged image
The Thapinyu Pagoda, Pagan, Burma
Photo 66/1 (15)
Linnaeus Tripe The Thapinyu Pagoda, Pagan, Burma, 1855.
Albumen print from a waxed paper negative

In 1855, following the conclusion of the Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, a diplomatic mission was sent by the Indian Government to the Burmese court at Ava. The expedition offered rare access to the little known territories of Upper Burma, and was accompanied by officers instructed to gather information on all aspects of Burmese life. Included in the contingent as official photographer was the Madras Army officer Linnaeus Tripe, who, in the course of the journey up the Irrawaddy River, took over 200 photographs on large paper negatives. 120 of these prints, which are among the earliest surviving photographs of Burma, were later issued in portfolio form by the Madras Government. This view is one of an extensive series of architectural studies taken at the ancient royal capital of Pagan.

Corporal J. McCartney, 1858

Raising the colossal lion at Cnidus, Enlarged image
Raising the colossal lion at Cnidus,
Add. MS 31980 f.196
Corporal J. McCartney, Raising the colossal lion at Cnidus, June 1858
Salted paper print

In 1857 Charles Thomas Newton received official authorisation to make archaeological investigations and excavations at the site of the great Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (Bodrum, now in present-day Turkey). In addition to artists and craftsmen, his team included a party of sappers, two of whom, Corporals J. McCartney and B. L. Spackmann, had been trained in photography at the South Kensington Museum. The pair made an important photographic record of the course of the excavations and of finds at the site, many of which were reproduced as lithographs in Newton's published account. In addition to the work at Bodrum, excavations were also undertaken at Cnidus, where the colossal lion sculpture, now in the Great Court of the British Museum, is here seen being raised. Newton himself is posed at the lion's head, with a sapper on the left.

Desiré Charnay , 1860

The Great Palace at Mitla, interior of the Court, Enlarged image
The Great Palace at Mitla, interior of the Court,
14000.k.4 (11)
Desiré Charnay, The Great Palace at Mitla, interior of the Court, 1860
Albumen print

Sponsored by the French Ministry of Public Instruction, Charnay travelled in Mexico between 1857 and 1860, exploring and photographing archaeological sites in Central America, often under the most arduous conditions. On his return to France, forty-nine of the original photographs were published in his Cités et Ruines américaines (2 vols., Paris, 1862-3), a work which provided European scholars with the first accurate visual record of the great Mayan and Zapotec remains of Yucatan. Charnay's later photographic travels took him as far afield as Madagascar, Java and Australia.

James McDonald, Jerusalem, 1864

West entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem Enlarged image
West entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
AdF72/27947 (27b)
James McDonald, West entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, 1864
Albumen print

In 1864, in response to the inadequate and unhealthy state of the water supply in Jerusalem, a team of Royal Engineers under the leadership of Captain (later Sir) Charles Wilson, was sent to make a survey of the city. Among its members was Sergeant James McDonald, who in spare moments from his surveying duties, took an important series of architectural studies of the city. Although photography was not considered an essential part of the survey, the quality of McDonald's work was such that 87 of his photographs were included in the official published report. Hidden away in this technical account, McDonald's photographs never received the attention they deserve, nor the public acclaim of commercial contemporaries like Francis Frith. A few years later, in 1868-69, McDonald once again visited the Near East in a similar role, producing an equally distinguished and more extensive body of photographs for the Ordnance Survey of the Peninsula of Sinai.

Ordanance Survey Photographer , 1867

Stonehenge. Trilithons (B and C) from the south-west Enlarged image
Stonehenge. Trilithons (B and C) from the south-west
Maps 10351.i.2
Ordnance Survey Photographer, Stonehenge. Trilithons (B and C) from the south-west, 1867
Albumen print

Much of the credit for the employment of Royal Engineers in photographic work is due to Colonel Sir Henry James, who was keen to see photography employed as an integral part of their duties in survey and mapping work. This photograph is one of eight original prints pasted into his Plans and Photographs of Stonehenge, and of Turusachan in the Island of Lewis (Southampton, 1867). In the preface James, who was Director-General of the Ordnance Survey, wrote that he had compiled the work 'for the information of the officers on the Ordnance Survey, in the hope that it may stimulate them to make plans and sketches, and to give descriptive remarks of such objects of antiquity as they may meet with during the progress of the survey of the kingdom.'

Emil Salingré, 1869

Miss Tinne and her followers during her visit to Gerhard Rohlfs' camp near Tripoli Enlarged image
Miss Tinne and her followers during her visit to Gerhard Rohlfs' camp near Tripoli
Maps 15.d.21 (3)
Emil Salingré, Miss Tinne and her followers during her visit to Gerhard Rohlfs' camp near Tripoli, 1869
Albumen print

Alexandrine Pieternella Françoise Tinne (1835-1869) came from a wealthy Dutch family and made several self-financed voyages of exploration in Africa, accompanied by members of her family. Shortly after this group photograph was taken, she was killed by her guides at the start of an expedition across the Sahara. The photograph comes from a series of 40 views and portraits taken by Salingré during Gerhard Rohlfs' expedition to the classical sites of the Libyan littoral in 1869. These photographs were later made commercially available in a published portfolio entitled Gerhard Rohlfs Afrika-Reise 1869 (Berlin, 1870).

Thomas Mitchell , Greenland, 1875

Hans Henri, Esquimaulx dog-driver, with his son and daughter, Proven, Greenland, Enlarged image
Hans Henri, Esquimaulx dog-driver, with his son and daughter, Proven, Greenland,
Maps 20.c.12 (8)
Thomas Mitchell, Hans Henri, Esquimaulx dog-driver, with his son and daughter, Proven, Greenland, 1875.
Albumen print

The role of the Royal Engineers in the development of the use of photography as a tool for explorers and surveyors is again seen in the photographs taken during the 1875 expedition of the ships Alert and Discovery. Commanded by Sir George Strong Nares, the vessels were sent to investigate reports, subsequently proved erroneous, of the existence of an open sea route to the North Pole. In order to provide a photographic record, two members of the expedition, Thomas Mitchell and George White, were given tuition in photography by the Royal Engineers. In the course of the expedition the pair took a series of 107 views that were later marketed by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company. A number of these photographs were also used to illustrate Nares' own account of the journey, Narrative of a voyage to the Polar Sea (2 vols., London, 1878).

Sir Marc Aurel Stein, China, 1913

, Excavated house at Niya, Xinjiang, China, Enlarged image
, Excavated house at Niya, Xinjiang, China,
Add. MS 74791 f.49
Sir Marc Aurel Stein, Excavated house at Niya, Xinjiang, China, 17 December 1913
Printing-out paper

By the early 20th century simpler and more portable cameras had become widely available, allowing travellers to create their own photographic record. In the course of three major expeditions to Chinese Central Asia between 1900 and 1916, the Hungarian-born explorer and archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein took many thousands of photographs recording the landscapes, peoples and sites of the ancient Silk Road. Stein had taken up photography in the 1890s and used it throughout his career, both as a tool of archaeological record and to illustrate his more popular published accounts of his travels. This photograph shows his excavations of the buried oasis settlement near Niya, on the southern arm of the Silk Road.

Further pages from the project:

Photographic Processes Photographic Processes
The world in focus The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology Exploration and Archaeology
The image of war The Image of War
Making the modern world Making the Modern World
In the public eye In the Public Eye

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Discover more:
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Photographic Processes
The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology
The Image of War
Making of the Modern World
In the Public Eye


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