Alidades & Archaeology: “It’s the Bloody Steampunks!”

The Grand Canyon survey of 1902.

I have the great fortune to be next to the room with all of the departmental field kit. This office (apparently once the kitchens of King’s Manor) also hold our lovely tech specialists, and I was chatting with them while admiring the lovely wooden tripod we have in the department.

The esteemed Dr. James Flexner taught me how to use an alidade in the field, and is the author of a great article on Reflexive Map-Making in Archaeological Research. Each survey method requires a slightly different approach to measuring the landscape, whether you are hitting a button on a GPS every once in a while or getting sunburned while squinting down an antique.

Anyway, I’d love to try my hand at the alidade & plane table once again, but I’ve been informed that the prices of them are now astronomical. This has been attributed to fans of the steampunk aesthetic, who are buying old scientific instruments and putting them in their drawing rooms and dismantling them to make costumes. Funny ol’ world.

“Steampunk Girl” by HyperXP.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

4 thoughts on “Alidades & Archaeology: “It’s the Bloody Steampunks!””

  1. Too cool! I love alidades. I taught a surveying course when I was a grad student at UIUC a bunch of years. We progressed through creating maps and collecting survey data with alidades, transits, theodolites, and then a total station. When I taught the course, I found 8 alidades, tripods, tables in the basement of a campus building. I took them to a survey instrument store to get them cleaned and calibrated. The young apprentice type guy at the store looked in astonishment and commented “I have always heard about these, but have never actually seen one in person before.”

    So it goes . . .

  2. I totally agree with what you have to say about Steampunk and the effect it has had on these antique and sometimes rare items. As the husband of the Steampunker in the photo I thought I’d let you know that there is a movement in the community to better educate newcomers in the importance of doing a bit of research before ripping apart anything old to find out if it is actually an antique or just junk. Of course, it’s hard to get the point to people that are just hopping on a ‘fashion trend’ as they see it. Mainly because they don’t involve themselves in the community. Although the prices may have been forced up, be sure that any true steampunk that obtains any items like the ones you mention would look after them and treat them with the respect that any scientific instrument should get.

  3. Like most people who became archaeologists in Hawai’i in the second half of the 20th Century, I learned to map with plane table and alidade. This technique combines precision and accuracy commensurate with the task, minimization of opportunities for mathematical and plotting errors, and a complete freedom from batteries, satellites, and other high tech prone to failure. It’s a great technology for mapping surface features and terrain, at a much smaller cost than total stations and software. You shoot points and draw the map on site, which makes them great for work in remote locations. Required accessories are limited to paper, pencil, eraser, pin flags, and something to measure how far the table is above the ground.
    The good news is that the steampunks are not making much of a difference. A glance at alidades sold on eBay shows that alidades cost about the same as 15 years ago, when I got my Gurley Explorer. Swiveling (“Johnson Head”) tripods are a bit harder to come by, as the tables can be, although the latter are easy to make.

    1. Good to hear that they’re still affordable! I admit that my information was second hand. We’ve been thinking about setting up a Victorian archaeology field day, so we will have to source one in a while.

      Did you learn from Pat Kirch? I’d love to try out the ol’ plane table on some of the earthworks here in the UK.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: