Since the mid-19th century, photography has provided a virtual time machine, allowing us to visit crystallised moments of the past, discovering what has changed from our own perspectives. In the 21st century, the ability to scan pictures and share them online offers the opportunity for wider distribution of images than ever before. This is the story of how one of Oxford’s online image archives allows illuminating access to the past, providing insights into changes through time from the perspective of archaeology.
The Historic Environment Image Resource Project digital image archive, generally referred to simply as HEIR, is maintained at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology. This database contains pictures from the teaching collections of multiple university departments and colleges, as well as pictures that have been donated by individuals, many of them archaeologists or historians, whose personal collections add further depth to the set. Images in HEIR have been scanned at high resolution from glass-plate negatives, film negatives, glass lantern slides, stereopticon slides, 35mm slides, and photographs dating from the 1860s to the current day. More than 32,000 pictures show locations spanning the globe, though more than 40% of the images relate to sites in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man. Other large sections show the Classical world and countries of the former British Empire, reflecting some of the teaching priorities of the past.
The genesis of this rather eclectic collection goes back to 2012, when archaeologists Sally Crawford and Katharina Ulmschneider surveyed the mountains of material that had accumulated in storerooms and cabinets, on shelves, and under desks during more than 50 years at the building on Beaumont Street, Oxford, that has been the home of both the School and Institute of Archaeology. Generations of academics and students had left behind artefacts of their presence in boxes, bags, suitcases, files, or ring binders, filling every available space from basement to attic. Treating the task as an excavation, finds were documented and put into categories.
Two major categories of material existed: paper archives and image archives. The paper archives include material from Professors John L Myres, Paul Jacobsthal, and Stuart Piggott, Dr Mary ‘Molly’ Alwyn Cotton, Cecily Margaret Guido (aka Margaret ‘Peggy’ Piggott), and others. They have already generated books, articles, and exhibitions, as well as student dissertations and thesis research at Oxford and other universities.
Meanwhile, the image archive was a treasure trove, with many images going back to the 19th century, when archaeology was taught as a part of Classics. The most-common type of image was poorly organised lantern slides, mostly stored in wooden boxes and filing drawers that had been untouched since this format was superseded in the early 1960s by 35mm slides. The 35mm slide teaching collections were sitting in metal filing cabinets, having been infrequently used since digital images became the norm in the 1980s and 1990s. Other boxes held collections of photo albums, loose pictures, and negatives – some of these latter items were highly flammable nitrate, needing immediate cold storage, luckily before setting the building on fire.
There were more treasures to come. In 2013, Crawford and Ulmschneider carried out an archive scoping survey (financed by the OUP John Fell Fund) of Oxford University’s humanities and social science departments, which revealed that other departments and libraries also had large – and redundant – visual teaching collections, including lantern slides, which were at risk of disposal. Funded by a three-year grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation, HEIR was created with a two-fold mission: to rescue neglected historic photographic archives, and to unlock the research potential of forgotten photographs, lantern slides, glass-plate negatives, and 35mm slides, which are an important resource to help us to understand changes to historic environments, archaeology, and landscapes over time. I joined the HEIR team as a researcher, with the invaluable support of loyal volunteers Roelie Reed and Pat Day, and the initial contributors of images to the project were the School of Archaeology; the Ashmolean Museum; the Department of the History of Art; the Geography, Plant Science, and Zoology Collections of the Radcliffe Science Library; and Harris Manchester College.
Building a Digital Archive
The initial funding covered the scanning of landscape images, and priority went to the oldest items in the collection. These were glass-plate negatives and lantern slides. It is likely that few readers will have encountered lantern slides; these were developed in the mid-19th century, initially for entertainment, but they were quickly adopted for educational purposes. The images in HEIR suggest that purchase programmes in the university began in the 1870s or 1880s. Most lantern slides were produced in a standard 3.5- × 4-inch (8.9 × 10.2cm) format for the entire 80-plus years they were in use at Oxford. This meant that any department that purchased even a small number of slides every year accumulated large image libraries over time. It also meant that even the earliest lantern slides could still be used for lectures in 1960.
Augmenting these purchases, a significant number of images came from the personal collections of Oxford professors, made from their own photographs or illustrations. As early photographers worked with heavy, bulky cameras and fragile glass- plate negatives, HEIR is fortunate to have the images captured by these intrepid archaeologists and historians. Photographs could not be evaluated until the negatives were developed in laboratories using dangerous chemicals, a difficult process to accomplish while travelling in remote areas. This time-lag is reflected in the subsequent decisions to create lantern slides even in cases where the image is over- or under-exposed, since retaking the photograph was impossible. Although HEIR scans and posts these images ‘as is’, digital enhancement can reveal the intended view. Many of these pictures have never been published and provide behind-the-scenes views of excavations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Lantern-slide production had multiple steps: the first was to coat a glass plate of the proper size on one side with photo chemicals, onto which an image is projected and developed. A mount may have been added around the image and a top glass plate completed the stack. The two plates were then secured with an edge binding. During their heyday, up to the advent of cinemas, numerous commercial firms and photographers produced lantern slides to meet demand from affluent consumers and organisations. Production of lantern slides continued until the 1960s, though by a decreasing number of purveyors. Some firms also produced lectures to be used with sets of themed lantern slides, though none of these commercial lectures were found with the Oxford slide archives.
Despite the continuity of format, though, lantern slides were not without their drawbacks. They are heavy, fragile, and require a great deal of storage space. The projectors used with lantern slides were also bulky and heavy. During the planning phase of the HEIR Project, a few lantern-slide projectors were found in university storage areas. However, in all cases the electrical wiring looked suspect and, as no department had spare bulbs for the projectors, none have ever been turned back on.
Beginning in 2013, lantern-slide storage boxes were reviewed, and landscape images sorted out and cleaned, then scanned and uploaded to the new HEIR database with captions and other information. The cleaning process removed dirt on the two external surfaces of the lantern sides, but there was no way to remove the often-considerable accumulation of dust on the internal image that generated during manufacturing. As a result, HEIR images – like those used as illustrations here – have been digitally cleaned to remove the trapped dirt, but images online show all the actual flaws. It was decided that cracked landscape lantern slides would be scanned when possible, too, due to the uniqueness of the views that they preserve.
Worth a thousand words
The broadest possible definition of ‘landscape’ was used during the sorting process. For example, lantern slides of museum interiors were effectively defined as the landscape of the museum and accordingly scanned. As a result, users of the database can make 19th- and early 20th-century visits to several museums, and see how the displays and even museum structures have evolved. Although not equal to modern 360° immersive online gallery tours, these static glimpses of the past confirm that some objects now in storage used to be prominently displayed. The absence of captions for these exhibits also suggests that visitors may have been expected to have pre-existing knowledge of the material on display.
Images in HEIR include the work of many British photographers whose lifetime contributions have now been erased from general awareness. For example, the archive has more than 60 images by J P Gibson, taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as he chronicled the archaeology undertaken on Hadrian’s Wall and elsewhere in the north of England. A selection of the work of Father Thomas Romans, who visited sites in the same area in the 1920s when not busy with priestly duties, is also part of HEIR. Graystone Bird, an award-winning photographer, is represented by five pictures that capture daily life in early 20th-century Britain. Meanwhile, Scottish photographer and lantern-slide maker George Washington Wilson, whose work spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is well represented with images including premium hand-coloured lantern slides. The dyes used in these early colour images have proved remarkably stable over time, unlike those used during in the late 1970s and early 1980s on some 35mm slides. The modern dye problem means that some images from that period feature purple grass or orange fields.
It is not just the fame of individuals or the nature of museum displays that evolve: things change around us frequently, and images in HEIR provide another tool for archaeologists to discover what has changed in the recent past. HEIR’s 19th-century images provided information during the recent restoration of Liverpool’s Neolithic Calder stones, for example (see CA 347). Images have also been exhibited in Beijing, China, showing long-lost vistas of the city. The once-forgotten images in the collection provide some surprising views and capture some relatively recent changes that have already slipped from our collective memories. For example, two pictures taken from the same viewpoint on Oxford’s Cornmarket Street seem to show a building becoming more medieval as time passed. In fact, the building has an authentic medieval core but gained a modern façade added in the 1980s that had been modelled on earlier frontages known from antique drawings, paintings, and prints. It is now an amalgam of old and new – a point not always mentioned by the tour guides of pre-virus times.
Not all buildings have been as lucky as the one on Cornmarket Street, however, and HEIR has some images keyworded as ‘lost vista’, for a view that is gone forever. Such was the fate of the much-loved Euston Arch at London’s Euston station, demolished in 1962 but living on in an HEIR image. Other examples include the original top floors of London’s Charing Cross station hotel, which were destroyed during the Second World War but can still be seen in all their glory in a picture taken in the early 1890s, now a scan from a cracked lantern slide in HEIR. Oxfordshire, home to many windmills until the early 20th century, has few left now, though they remain in HEIR images.
Some ‘lost vista’ pictures show less drastic changes to places. Few people, including the HEIR team, knew that from the 1880s until early in the 20th century, visitors to Stonehenge saw some of the stones held upright with wooden posts. It was the discovery of a forgotten image by R W Wylie that brought this to HEIR’s attention. Securing all the stones was a task that took until 1964. When Wylie’s picture is included in lectures at history or archaeology societies or other groups, usually less than 20% of the people in attendance raise their hand when asked if they knew the stones as they look today were the result of work during the 19th and 20th centuries to keep them upright. This seems a rather interesting insight into public forgetfulness of significant details in an age awash with information. How much easier it must have been to lose or distort information when literacy was uncommon or non-existent.
Archaeologists are often able to document sites being used in different ways over time, though the meaning of the activity discovered can be the subject of heated debates. An illustration from HEIR demonstrates why that might be the case. The Martyrs’ Memorial is a prominent monument in Oxford. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, it was completed in 1843, having been funded by a public subscription campaign in 1841. It commemorates the executions by burning of Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley in 1555, and of former Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1556 for their Protestant beliefs during the reign of Mary I. A picture from HEIR shows the original design of the monument included a surrounding metal fence. The fence endured until the Second World War, when it fell victim to a scrap-metal drive, and was never replaced. This allowed access to the steps at the base of the monument, which are now generally used as seats by the public. Modern use, as the photo shows, means that those using the monument are looking away from it and its Protestant Christian message, a situation unlikely to generate prayer or contemplation of the martyrs’ sacrifice for their beliefs. This relatively rapid, but major shift in usage would be difficult for future archaeologists to detect using only physical evidence from the site.
As discussed earlier with the views of Cornmarket Street, HEIR features a collection of rephotographs – contemporary images that attempt to replicate the original viewpoint of photos taken in the past to document change, or its absence. This is trickier than it sounds, as the old photos were generally taken with cameras that used plates or film calibrated in imperial measurements, whereas all modern cameras work to metric sizes. Additionally, trying to precisely duplicate the position taken by the camera in the past might require a modern photographer to stand in the middle of a busy road. Finally, if the area of the photograph has been redeveloped, there may be few remaining visual cues to help align the shot. The majority of the rephotographs in HEIR have been contributed by volunteers. Our image of Tynemouth Priory from the late Victorian period clearly shows the inscriptions on the headstones, but the two images from 2016 show how badly the headstones have deteriorated; the priory ruins, however, show only subtle differences.
HEIR is available for use for free. Public access was part of the project from its inception, as was planning for non-specialist users when keywording images. For example, pictures of active excavations are keyworded as both ‘excavation’ and ‘dig’; bronze artefacts are also keyworded as ‘copper alloy’; and pottery is also labelled ‘ceramic’, a blend of specialist and general terminology that the HEIR staff hope is helpful. Keywords also include hierarchies, so a picture of a house will usually have three descriptions, as a structure, a building, and a house. Much of the keywording is done by volunteers, a process that the virus has inevitably but temporarily slowed to a crawl. With much keywording still to be done, as well as researching the images, HEIR will try to recruit additional volunteers when normal operations can be resumed.
For anyone who would like to explore these images or find out more, the database can be found at http://heir.arch.ox.ac.uk. You do not have to sign up or register to use HEIR, and user data is never sold or shared with anyone. From the home screen, simply use the search box at the upper right side, and you can search by location, site type, time period, artefact type or material, archaeologist or photographer name, or object class – to provide just a few examples. Search results appear as an array of small photos. Click on one of these and you are taken to a detail screen that provides more information about that photo, which is shown in a larger size. Any text in the caption line that has quotation marks was copied from the original object. Given the age of many of the images and the reappraisal of things in the light of new information, captions may be at odds with modern understanding; when this revised information is known to HEIR, we make note of it in the caption or on the ‘more information’ tab, which you can click to read.
The detail screen of any image also provides for free downloading of low-resolution versions of the HEIR images. High-resolution images can be purchased by contacting the HEIR Project – any income from such sales goes back to the project and is used to help cover ongoing server costs to keep the database online. Please contact the project if you plan to publish any of our images to confirm the credit information.
You can stay in touch with HEIR by following the project on Facebook at ‘Archaeology Archives Oxford’, where we feature three images each week and provide more information about each picture.
Twitter users will find us @HeirOxford, while blogs about our ongoing work and research discoveries are posted at https://archaeologyarchivesoxford.wordpress.com. You can contact the project via email with questions, comments, or rephotographs of your own at firstname.lastname@example.org. Using HEIR is always free, but, if inspired to do so, those wishing to contribute will find a ‘Donate to HEIR here’ button on the left side of the website homepage. Enjoy your time exploring the past with HEIR!
D Harlan (2005) ‘The Archaeology of Lantern Slides: the teaching slide collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford’, in R Crangle, M Heard, and I van Dooren (eds), Realms of Light: uses and perceptions of the magic lantern from the 17th to the 21st century, Ripon: The Magic Lantern Society, pp.203-210.
Sally Crawford and Katharina Ulmschneider (2017) ‘Archaeologists, Early Photography, and the Search for Time’, in Wu Hung and Gou Weiqi (eds) Sites and Images: catalogue for exhibition 15 September-31 December 2017, OCAT: Beijing, pp.28-48 (Chinese), pp.56-67 (English).
Janice Kinory (2018) ‘The Historic Environment Image Resource’, PAST 90 (Autumn 2018): 15-16.
The HEIR Project digital image database would not be what it is today without the countless hours devoted to the project by our loyal team of volunteer image-scanners, keyworders, researchers, and rephotographers. Additional thanks go to the individuals and organisations that have allowed the scanning of their lantern slides, 35mm slides, and photographs. Finally, we thank the public for their feedback about our images and especially for their contributions that improve the accuracy of the information we provide.