Visualising Heritage at Swandro

Even though we haven't been able to dig for a while, our laser scanning supremo Nicole Burton, known to everyone as Bonnie, has been working away on her PhD:


Investigating the loss of archaeological heritage to coastal erosion through multi-disciplinary 3D digital documentation and developing a digital recording framework for fragile coastal archaeology.


Bonnie has been with the project since her undergraduate days, and did her Master's degree at Swandro too, and I realised that I've been a bit remiss and not given her PhD the attention it deserves (despite having lots of lovely pics from her research), so here she is in action, setting up for the scan of the smithy at Swandro:


I'm a bit of a Luddite at heart and am generally not allowed too close to technology in case it spontaneously destructs (and since I found out how much the laser scanning kit is worth I always give it an especially wide berth) I really don't know how it works, but I can appreciate the amazing images that result, here's one of the finished scans from the smithy:



Here's a summary from Bonnie of her research aims:

Vanishing Heritage – When its gone, its gone.


Climate change has had a drastic change on our landscape and our cultural heritage, causing intense weather conditions: storm surges, flooding, rising sea level and wave heights, inevitably pushing our cultural heritage sites to the extreme, which they were not built to withhold. This anthropogenic activity is the cause of our vanishing heritage, this project will act as a means of understanding and investigating methodologies for safeguarding our heritage for future generations.


During my Undergraduate and Postgraduate degree, I have had a longstanding interest in Visualising Heritage and research in the Northern Isles at the coastal eroded site at the Knowe of Swandro (2014-present), experiences have allowed me to recognise the potential and necessity for the application of 3D approaches to create a digital archive of our archaeological heritage.


Since graduating I have gained insight and a variety of experience from Archaeological Geophysics, Surveying, Field Archaeology, and a professional traineeship with the Digital Documentation Team (2019-2020) within Historic Environment Scotland’s Conservation Directorate. My passion for safeguarding our heritage was highlighted whilst involved with prestigious climate change events, including the Historic Environment Scotland Climate Action Plan Launch events (CAP) and the Global Launch of the climate Heritage Network, speaking at the DigiPast conference 2020 and public outreach events.


This scan was taken looking down the entrance passageway at Swandro, with the walls of the Early Iron Age roundhouse either side. You can really see how the walls at both sides are subsiding due to being undermined by the sea:

Bonnie's images really do bring the site to life, and will provide a valuable part of the site archive as well as contributing to the final publication:


In fact looking at some of her images I think she might be able to develop a second career as a modern artist, maybe we should consider an exhibition in the Pier Arts Gallery? Mind you, considering some digital art sold for $69 million at Christie's maybe we're missing a fundraising trick here?


Although we weren't able to dig at Swandro this year due to the pandemic, Bonnie, together with our UAV and photogrammetry supremo Lindsey Kemp, did manage to get to Rousay and worked on the Westness coastline, including at South Howe broch, just along the shore from Swandro. This is another Orkney site that's being steadily destroyed by coastal erosion, and was the subject of limited excavation in 2010. This year Bonnie produced the image below, which is made by combining billions of x,y,z points creating a 3D point cloud:

This image was produced by laser scanning and will then have the photogrammetry results overlain on it, and this will be used to monitor the coastal erosion, which has visibly progressed since 2010.


And finally here's my favourite shot of Bonnie at work, taken from inside Midhowe Broch looking out to the Atlantic on a typical beautiful Orkney day:


In case you're wondering why the Iron Age builders of Midhowe were daft enough to build the broch's entrance facing out onto the Atlantic in the direction of the prevailing wind, rather than round the other side in the lee of the tower, the answer is that there used to be more buildings on the seaward side which have gone to coastal erosion, and would likely have sheltered the main door from the wind. Either that or they were just masochists who liked living with a howling gale blasting through the interior!


More information:


Digital Documentation Team at Historic Environment Scotland


University of Bradford Visualising Heritage


Twitter: @visheritage @HistEnvScot


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