Monday, June 15, 2009

An Old Friend Leica

Although a practical science at heart, surveying is also a poetic enterprise. In the 1980s, archaeologists began to use EDMs, or electronic distance measuring theodolites. Traditional surveyors were horrified to see a new generation of computer users clicking points away without understanding the trigonometric fundamental of surveying. I learned my surveying in the summer of '92 on a 19th century transit up on the top of a Peloponnesean mountain. A year later, I learned how to use an EDM Total Station as an intern at the Corinth Computer Project. Surveying architectural ruins and archaeological landscapes has given me a fantastic education across the Mediterranean. The Leica theodolite has been a loyal friend through the years.

Last weekend, the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project (EBAP) asked me to assist in setting up their surveying instrument. EBAP is an intensive regional survey going into its third season. Looking ahead into geophysical studies and excavation, the project directors recently acquired a new theodolite, a Leica TCR 407. Bryan Burns (above), Camilla MacKay and I put our heads together and explored the tool's potential. After figuring out the command procedures (each machine has its idiosyncrasies), we set up pins and surveyed parts of the ancient and medieval acropolis of Elaion. My personal interests lie in Elaion's two medieval towers, one of which sits on the acropolis. MacKay, who has analyzed the site's medieval pottery, found no evidence for occupation before the 15th century. Once assumed to be a Frankish tower, the evidence at Elaion points to an Ottoman date instead. See EBAP's 2007 field report here. Camilla and I surveyed the tower's foundations and experimented with some digital photogrammetry (using ArcGIS's georeferencing tool).

Using EBAP's Leica felt like reconnecting with an old friend. The instrument's distinctive beeps, its pale green color, the frustrating DOS command system, the bright red hard case, and even the yellow raincoat transported me to the mid-1980s, when the machine was first designed. Although intended to produce hard facts--x, y, z coordinates--the Leica theodolite elicits an entire aesthetic universe reminiscent of its contemporary New Wave music--Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, etc. As a machine, it has visually dominated archaeology throughout the world (see example from Iron Age excavation in Sweden here). The Leica transit has added technological flair to an 18th-century practice. EDMs emit a laser beam which is reflected back through a prism. The Total Station calculates the time of the laser's flight and deduces distance. The laser technology has removed surveying from the domain of trigonometric functions. Strangely enough, it has also absolved the surveyor from some burdens of responsibility. The archaeological user is not asked to provide a margin of error or close the angles. The Total Station's precision, in other words, is often confused with accuracy. As a result, it is a lighthearted instrument once you understand how it works. In its daily operations, EDMs demand a choreography of buttons and commands. When the reflector is sighted and the laser is sent, the instrument emits a beautifully cerebral sound like the clicking of SLR camera mirrors.

For a detailed history of the Leitz company and its transition into Leica, see Leica Heerburgg im Wandel der Zeit (1996). The TC series tachymeter was developed in 1988.
I cannot help but feel sentimenatl about the Leica EDM. Using it once again on the acropolis of a Boeotian town transported me into the universe of synthesizers and drum machines, the musical aesthetics of the '80s. The Leica's sleekness, the lack of userfriendly interface (pre-Windows) and the beauty of its primary elements invokes the world of Brian Eno. Bill Caraher wrote about similar experiences and DIY punk aesthetics while trying to crack a new GPS surveying instrument this summer in Cyprus, see Archaeology, Technology, and Who is the Punk Archaeologist Now? I am struck by the minimalist technological eclecticism of the '80s Leica. I think archaeology and its surveying instruments have profoun aesthetic manifestations. I will never forget a comment that my surveying mentor made one evening in the Peloponnese. His reason for branching out into digital surveying had to do with listening to John Cage's computer-generated music. The world of Cage, Merce Cunningham, Pop Art and Black Mountain College fed the imagination of an archaeological pioneer and the generation before me. In turn, my surveying world is inspired by New Wave and No Wave, the Cure and Sonic Youth. After all, '80s music was playing on the Walkman while clicking the Leica.

One more reason to be sentimenatl about the Leica has to do with its slow phasing out. GPS surveying (especially differential GPS) is displacing Total Stations. The Leica served an interesting role of connecting the 1920s (Weimar Republic, Bertrold Brecht, New Objectivity) with the 1980s, just as David Bowie, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Nick Cave and Tom Waits connected musical traditions. In the 1990s, Leica overlapped with GPS, but GPS embodied an entirely different world: smart bombs, selective availability, Persian Gulf, Desert Storm, video games, Al Gore and corporate navigation. As GPS is winning the battle over EDM, it also eclipses the Leica's aesthetics that made the 1980s a romantic reflection of the 1920s. Surveying truly connects archaeologists with minimalist avant gardes.

1 comment:

Bill Caraher said...


I love Brian Eno as the link between the Pre-windows and Windows world -- especially as he composed the signature "Windows sound". (

I've been listening the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts while doing GIS for PKAP... It seems to make my GPS points more accurate and precise.


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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States