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Photography has been an essential part of the archaeologists’ tool kit since it was invented in the mid 1800s. Today, it is a universal method of recording, demonstrating and publishing archaeology. Video and digital photography have become as important as conventional 35mm film photography. 

The beginnings of photography in archaeology date to the later decades of the nineteenth century, when cameras were used to show general views of monuments, artefacts and archaeologists at work. At that time, photography was regarded as much less important than drawings. Measured drawing was, and is still in many ways, the primary method of archaeological recording. However, photography has become used increasingly to make a detailed and systematic record of features, sections and finds, as well as more general shots. Building up a site photo archive allows cross-checking of drawings and written descriptions. Close-up artefact photography, and the use of cameras within electron microscopes have allowed us to examine and publish details of objects and environmental remains which are beyond the range of human eyesight in size. Photographs of excavations are often taken from overhead, using a metal site tower or an extendable hydraulic lift known as a ‘cherry picker’. All site and artefact photography must include a scale (normally a rod or ruler marked in metres or millimetres), and usually also a sign-board saying which area, context or find is being recorded (this is essential for post-excavation analysis when there may be dozens or even hundreds of similar shots being taken). It is important to remember that photographs gradually deteriorate with age and exposure to sunlight – when assembling a final site archive the photographic negatives should be stored in permanently cool, dark conditions for maximum preservation.
The range of photography is vast, from microscopic scale to aerial photographs of whole landscapes or even satellite photographs of areas, countries or continents. A type of heat-sensitive film called ‘infra-red’ was developed in the 1940s and this is useful in mapping patterns of reflected heat from the sun, a phenomenon which can tell us about soils, topography and past land-use. Measured and scaled photographs of parts of a large structure such as a building can be merged and rectified to reproduce an overall record – this is known as ‘photogrammetry’.