This post is by community member Stephen Eastmead of Altogether Archaeology, published by Sketchfab.
We are blessed in Great Britain in having inherited such a large cultural heritage from our ancestors. In most parts of the country you can see evidence of their aspirations and way of life wherever you go. Having said that, most people do not recognise much our ancestors’ endeavours even when they walk over or passed them. For the most part archaeology has been in the hands of professional archaeologists, even though there always has been a place for the amateur contributing their findings.
The latter half of the twentieth century saw massive economic expansion, particularly in the development our towns and cities together with various communication infrastructures, like the major road and rail networks. Changes in planning regulations, made it compulsory, when indicated, for comprehensive archaeological assessments and excavation to be completed prior to development, frequently at significant cost. The slowdown in the UK economy experienced in the last ten years has encouraged many organisations to look towards cutting their costs. In the field of archaeology this has created many more opportunities for the volunteer members of Britain’s local archaeology groups to participate in many aspects of the subject.
This is how I became involved. In 2008, after working from the age of seventeen in our National Health Service within the field of Pathology, I seized the chance to take early retirement. During the last few years at work, I changed from my normal scientific duties within the area I specialised, to manage Pathology’s many IT systems and interfaces to various analytical instruments and databases.
In 2009, the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group (SWAAG) was created by a small group mainly of fellow retirees. Naturally a website was required (swaag.org), which I still manage for the group.
SWAAG mainly work in the northern section of the Yorkshire Dales National Park (above the dotted line on the Map 1: below).
In 2014, I also joined a larger cultural heritage group called Altogether Archaeology (AA), which work further north in an area called ‘North Pennines Area of Outstanding National Beauty’ (North Pennines AONB – see Map 1). Altogether Archaeology began life as one of several sub-groups within the North Pennines AONB project, which was largely funded by a UK Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant. The project ran from 2010 until completion in 2015. When that it ended, the volunteer archaeologists within the sub-group reformed AA as an independent organisation. In 2016, the new AA group successfully applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a ‘Start-up Grant’. This amongst other requirements the money enabled AA to commission an Archaeology Research Framework document, that will be used to focus AA activity during the next three years. Hopefully, this will result in a further successful application to the HLF to substantially fund this archaeological heritage project within the same North Pennines AONB area. As you may well have guessed, the newly formed group required a webmaster and altogtherarchaeology.org was duly created. The website also hosts the large body of reports created during the 2010-2015 project period.
In 2013, just before excavating a Romano-British archaeology site in Swaledale with SWAAG (Image 1), I had bought an early Go Pro camera whilst in the United States, and started using this to top of a 5-metre pole to take overhead images of the trenches. The fish-eye lens was always a pain, as you could never fully correct the distortion it created. Affordable drones at that time where not very impressive, and it was while investigating if there was a better camera to use on the pole in early 2014, that I became aware of Agisoft PhotoScan 3D software, and its phenomenal price for the Professional edition, which without grant funding is generally not affordable by volunteer community groups. Later I bought the Standard Edition of Agisoft as a Christmas present to myself, and entered the realms of 3D models.
Around this time, AA was involved in a large LIDAR survey of the North Pennines in conjunction with Stewart Ainsworth, who is a Visiting Professor in Landscape Archaeology at the University of Chester and former Landscape Archaeologist with what is now known as Historic England. Most know Stewart as the Landscape Archaeologist in the Channel 4 TV archaeology series called Time Team. I am not sure of the date, but around 2013/14 the UK LIDAR images commissioned by the UK’s Environmental Agency, mainly for monitoring the watercourses for flood management, became available as open data. It was a brief discussion with Stewart Ainsworth on how the LIDAR data can be used in QGIS, that opened the door on how to use this valuable resource.
I started using Sketchfab as soon as I became aware of it. It is a marvellous resource for those working in the Cultural Heritage and associated educational fields, especially for the not for profit community organisations with limited finances who are always having prioritise what to fund.
I guess you must be a little nerdy to work in this field, as you don’t have to be phased by relatively complex software and how different applications can be brought together to achieve your goal. There are many fellow workers with far more knowledge than I, who are producing some marvellous LIDAR images and 3D models. In my experience, they have been very helpful at answering my queries. Those I would like to mention within the Sketchfab community who have helped me include: jost_hobic and markwalters, and indirectly from twitter: @M_J_Gill, of the Avon Valley Archaeology Society. Recently the Memola Project followed me, and when I looked at their profile page I was impressed with their ‘vertical layered’ models. At that time, I had no idea how they did it, but a few minutes on the Sketchfab Forum revealed where to start.
The work I have done in this field for Altogether Archaeology includes 3D models created from multiple oblique images taken with either a Nikon or Canon digital cameras mounted on the 5-metre pole and processed using PhotoScan, and creating 3D models from the UK LIDAR data. These include (amongst others):
LIDAR model and Agisoft 3D sections across a previously unknown Roman road.
A complex 18C double vinery-pinery at Auckland Castle
Excavation of a newly discovered Medieval Curtain Walls and round tower at Auckland Castle
Surrender lead smelt mill and peat-house
In addition, a selection of 3D LIDAR images from the region including that of a 2017 summer excavation at the village of Holwick in Teesdale, which appears to be a medieval settlement perhaps with Anglo-Saxon roots. Time will tell!
Altogether Archaeology and SWAAG both welcome new members of all ages, both websites have details of their activities and membership information. Because we ‘oldies’ have more time to devote to archaeology, the groups tend to be biased to the more mature, but they are very keen to work with all generations. Students taking Archaeology courses at the surrounding Universities of Durham, Newcastle, Bradford and York should always look at gaining more experience within the volunteer community of archaeologists. Both groups are advised by professional archaeologists and share a common educational aim. Altogether Archaeology has several qualified archaeologists amongst it’s volunteer membership.
What of the future? Well it would be nice to have a small but functional drone with a good camera; however, I cannot really justify buying one myself, and I am not convinced that a community owned drone would be a very practical idea unless it was primarily used by a limited number of individuals who live close to one another so they can easily work together. For the most part, the archaeology I do with the two community groups is generally suited to the ‘pole cam’ technique, although it is not always ideal and has obvious limitations with tall structures. No doubt there will be future enhancement with the various software applications and websites like Sketchfab, which will enable us to display the data in new or improved ways.
I have been adding links to my models to entries on the Historic England (the body that protects our ancient monuments) website, like the Surrender Smelt Mill, which can be seen here. Thank goodness for Sketchfab and their support of cultural heritage groups.