Every picture tells a story

marked on reverse: ‘For consideration for use in Ross Dallas’s paper for the Conservation Bulletin- Terry Ball 9.1.89 ref No: C880009/15 date: Dec 88 Subject: Jewell Tower, Westminster

This is a staged shot of the Ancient Monuments Drawing Office (AMDO) Survey at work. Out of the complete team of 8 at that time you have the early risers. I remember it like yesterday, special arrangements for parking, a great deal of grumbling from Sue (2nd from left) we were at the height of the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign and Terry Ball (1st on left) instisted on wearing a provos beret. We are wearing our newly authorised outdoor clothing allowance in the form of rustling Gortex. 3rd from left is Mike Sutherhill, soon to move on to the dizzing heights of Assistant Inspector …and on the right my good self, dutifully logging imaginary data on the SDR2. I still have that tripod. The Sokkisha SET3 was upgraded to a Wild T1000 and Distomat DIOR set 3 years later. The Jewel Tower is closed, the photo was taken between 8.30 and 9 in the morning. At that stage adaption of EDM to building survey hadn’t really got started, AutoCAD was a novelty, and we hadn’t got a mini-prism yet; the kit was that new. I washed my hair, fired up the Alfa and launched out across the West-end from the underground carpark below Fortress House.

The Set3 was to be my principal tool in getting survey digital at AMDO; the technique was centred on getting big plots of points ( sometimes even joined by lines!) on the drawing boards and plotting table of the team to fix tricky building shapes on 1:50 and 1:20 scale plans. It was an awkward and controversial business in a drawing office which prided itself in draughtsmanship, heroic smoking habits, a close affinity with the Directing Architect, their works teams who cut stone and wood to our drawings and a direct lineage from the Office of the King’s Buildings.

This photo arrived on my desk this morning with a comp slip with ‘Jon’ scrawled across it. Thanks Jon for sending this on, these are your ancestors at the Metric Suvey Team, at the time the old drawing office ways were just beginning to change, the formation of the Metric Survey team was still 2 years off, the photogrammetric unit was a bureau of the University of York. Ross Dallas, the author of the piece this photo was taken to illustrate was yet to throw his weight arround and my 27 year career with English Heritage had just begun.

This rendered plot from the survey at Castle Acre Priory conducted during the winter of 1995/6 gives you an idea of the richness of the skills the Metric Survey Team was able to call upon. Once we had joined with Ross’s Photogrammetric Unit draughtsmen were released from much of the volume work and able to focus on reference works like this: the standard was set and is,  even to this day, rarely surpassed. There is very little, if any, work of equivalent quality being done today as the skills slowly fade away in favour of thematic work. Recording the condition of conservation is not the priority it once was. I was privileged to work with the very best of the AMDO; we may have lost a few draughtsmen along the way but we were able to show what could be done by applying our draughtsmanship through CAD.

Looking back on those years, I’m astonished it all unravelled so suddenly in 2009. The Metric Survey Team formed an expert body of knowledge 2nd to none, largely because it was a practice based outfit. Once the team were put under the management of Royal Commission  managers in 2000 its days were numbered, the team was divorced from its primary conservation function, and its standards of practice considered ‘blue collar’ compared to the ‘everyman his own amateur expert’ approach so redolent of RCHME practice. My favourite example of this technical snobbery is in the complete ignorance of cartographic standards expressed as a standard for archeological practice: the published guidance reveals the failings of technical standards borne out of improvisation rather than by properly trained skilled technicians:

Published by English Heriatge in 2007 in ‘Understanding the Archaeology of Landscapes, A Guide to Good Recording Practice’ Who ever put this together was completely unaware of good cartographic practice.

Do I need to point out the errors? Oh all right then:

1. The first is the ambiguous coastline; the use of shading and the imposition of the scale-bar completely disrupt the visual impact of the coast line. If you don’t know this site you would not realise that the top and right margins of the page are in fact in the North Sea!

2. Layout of the topography. The whole job is crushed in to a space too small for it as there is no good reason for this other than the designer was unable to resize the coastline to fit the page. The fitting is so poor the map border line grazes the coast line at ‘Cushat Stiel’ why?

3. Layout of the ruberic. The space occupied by the title, scale bar and key block is greater than the map itself, the question has to be asked, “Did you want to use a map or describe the content in words?”

4. Text size and positioning. The alignment of text ignores the alignment of the terrain and the features in it; the text is placed as if the designer was unable to rotate it or align it. The text is over-struck by the map border at Queen Margaret’s Cove and hilariously squeezed at ‘Cushat Stiel’. Capitalisation of place names in inconsistent e.g.: ‘west gate’. The line spacing in the key is reduced towards the bottom of the panel..a sure indicator of a lack of design!

Which is the sea?

5. Line weight and Colour. The use of colour confuses the reader as to what is actual and what is historic, particularly the use of blue. The use of different tones for ‘exposed rock’ and ‘steep natural slope’ leads the reader to believe the shore line (dear reader, I assume you have found it now!)  is of a grey slab platform of rock and if you were to walk due North from Dunstanburgh Castle your walk would take you across strip field to a level shore. Wrong!  You would plummet to your death from the beetling brow above Rumbling Churn!

I could go on but I leave it you to ponder this map of wonders: all the effort of gathering the information to make the map is wasted because a decision was made to ‘cut a corner’ and ignore the training and skills of the cartographer and assume, as many do, a map is ‘just another diagram’. Many believe map making is all about heroic research and mastery of impressive field equipment but all of that comes to naught without cartography. Mercator gave us many things; he is remembered not just because of his work on the projection that bears his name, but also because his maps were legible, reproducible and edited diligently. The maps that guide us today need the same principles of clarity every bit as much as those he made to feed the hunger for knowledge of the world in the 16th Century.


so the saddest thing is that this is offered to practitioners as ‘Good Practice’ and sadder still that those responsible for this are those responsible for the closure of the Metric Survey Team. Standards in draughtsmanship are a tricky thing, a blend of the technical, scientific and artistic but above all borne out of practice. I’m sure my team won’t be the last to suffer the shame of being shut down but once the practice of using a skill ends so does ‘good practice’.

About billboyheritagesurvey

Heritage worker
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One Response to Every picture tells a story

  1. Pingback: Digital past 2011 | Billboyheritagesurvey's Blog

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