Much research = less blogging! A summary of my September (and a brief return to Shetland!)

I’ve been very busy since my last post, as I’ve been getting to grips with learning software, including different Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry programmes, processing and studying old data of the sites for my PhD. I also returned to Shetland in early September for a very brief visit to give a paper on my research at the launch of volume 3 of Excavations at Old Scatness, Shetland. Now I have two more conferences which I’m speaking at this month, that I’m very much looking forward to (keep an eye out on Twitter, I’m more up to date on that platform!), before squirreling away behind toasty-warm processing PCs with copious amounts of tea for the rest of autumn/winter to continue with my PhD data analysis…! But before all of that here’s a quick summary of what I’ve done since returning from Shetland in July:

Slide scanning

All the tools and equipment needed for digitising film slides!

This was certainly an experience. As someone who works with digital data, moving on to working with physical film slides of the Old Scatness excavations was completely different (with the aim of digitising all of those with relevant structural detail). With some handy tips from a conservator currently working in the School at Bradford, I got to work carefully dusting each of the many many slides and gently placing them into the pretty sophisticated scanner Visualising Heritage has acquired for this specific task. (It also encouraged me to keep my workspace meticulously tidy and dust-free – a good side effect I suppose…). It was quite calm, rhythmic work and fun to see a really different side to the excavations with pictures of the Viking re-enactments that took place on site for visitors (see below pic!).
3D modelling of images not meant for photogrammetry

I’ve been working with Tom Sparrow from the Visualising Heritage team at Bradford to test photogrammetry on different groups of old photos from Old Scatness. To do this I’ve been looking beyond Agisoft Photoscan to learn other SFM software packages. It’s interesting finding out all the pros and cons of these different software. Makes me wish I could select different features of them all to make my ideal one for processing data! We’ve had some interesting results so far which I’m still working on, that I’ll be mentioning in my upcoming talks.

A short trip back to Shetland (3 days!)

I was kindly invited by Shetland Amenity Trust to give a paper at the book launch of volume 3 of Excavations at Old Scatness, Shetland on 8th September. It was great to present to such an enthusiastic audience of local Shetlanders and visitors and tell them all about the work I’m doing with this PhD! It really was a flying visit, and the first time I’ve travelled to the islands by plane as opposed to ferry. Quite different getting into Sumburgh in an hour from Edinburgh compared to the overnight ferry – I was impressed the Loganair cabin crew has time to dish out complimentary drinks and caramel wafers before we landed, it was so quick. I was glad the check-in staff made sure I was in a window seat that faced Old Scatness on the run-way, so I could take some photos of the site as we came in to land! It was so nice to network with the museum and Amenity Trust staff and other presenters too. Thanks to the Trust for funding my trip!

Old Scatness from the air!

DigiDoc Research and Innovation day preparations

At the moment I’m finishing off my presentation for next week’s DigiDoc conference (I am SO excited that there is a ceilidh happening…!). I’ve been digitising and studying old (pre-1900) survey illustrations of Mousa and some of my initial finds from this will be discussed, though there’s much more to do! Glad I’ll be talking at the Research and Innovation day on Wednesday so I can get the public-speaking nerves out of the way (which I always get despite having done a fair bit of presenting before – sometimes in period costume*!) and enjoy the main conference on Thursday and Friday.

*I used to work in a spin-off Roman exhibition from Jorvik (York Archaeological Trust)! I have ensured few, if any, photos of this time exist 😉


Some touristy things in Shetland before going back to Bradford – a slightly delayed blog post

Some touristy things in Shetland before going back to Bradford – a slightly delayed blog post

After some great help from Archaeology Shetland volunteers I had all of my fieldwork completed this summer with a day spare – some good guesstimating of how long I would need to get everything done! I was worried 11 days might be too little time if the weather turned bad!

This left me two half days free, after some catching up at the Shetland Museum and Shetland Amenity Trust with my supervisor Val, to do some exploring for myself! Having never had the chance to explore Shetland (due to work!) there was an overwhelming amount of choice of what to do! I figured as I’ve been working in the south Mainland in all my time there, it would be a good idea to explore north. Eshaness is an area famous for its dramatic geology and cliffs, so with a borrowed OS map in tow (thanks Val!) I headed on up for an afternoon of exploring.

It’s a very epic drive up from Lerwick! The landscape really feels different to the south of Shetland, especially as you just reach Northmavine and pass some massive geological features. It feels a bit like being in one of those car commercials where you’re the only driver on a curving swooping road through some pretty amazing scenery somewhere in Scandinavia, only passing impressive lochs instead!

Amazing scones at the Braewick Café!

The sun was still shining as I reached the café at Braewick, which does enormous scones and has a great view out to The Drongs sea stack. As I headed on towards Eshaness Lighthouse, the clouds starting coming in. I wanted to do the popular Eshaness Circular walk, which goes along the spectacular volcanic cliffs and geos, where the sea has carved deep inlets in the rock. As someone who isn’t really afraid of heights, I was surprised at how much peering over the edge of Calder’s Geo gave me the collywobbles! I decided to walk around it with a few metres between me and the very edge!

Volcanic cliffs in Eshaness, and the sea is so blue!

I carried on past more massive geos, seeing seabirds swooping past at head height really gave a sense of just how high up I was. The fog really started rolling in (just seen in the above photo) and after seeing the Moo Stack sea caves and a bit beyond, I figured it would be a good idea to head round soon before visibility got much worse – especially as I passed only two other walkers all the way!

On the way back I walked around the Loch of Houlland, where a ruined broch sits out in a small holm (island) connected by a causeway. With the mist swirling around and not another soul in sight it didn’t half feel like exploring the wilderness of Skyrim (if you play videogames) and discovering lost ancient places (which I suppose I was, if only for myself!).

Ruined broch at the Loch of Houlland

On the way back I managed to get a bit lost. With the fog rolling past it was beginning to feel a bit horror-movie. Fortunately, I spotted a small graveyard which I remembered passing on the drive up (yup, still felt quite creepy!) but knowing that I knew the way back, past a road full of some very daft sheep (less creepy!) and got back to the lighthouse.

Driving back south, the fog wasn’t really shaking off until I hit Lerwick – amazing how different the Shetland weather can be. I decided to stop by Scalloway since I’ve never had a chance to go there before. I had a very quick explore around the town (it was early evening so quite quiet) and saw the castle but didn’t have time to go in.

Scalloway Castle

The day after I had a morning to myself before catching the ferry back to Aberdeen, so I decided to head back to Sumburgh to check out the lighthouse, since I hadn’t been inside the various buildings there. Shetland Amenity Trust runs the place and it has some really nice and varied exhibitions inside the various rooms. My favourite was the marine life exhibit with scale models of different whales that can be seen in Shetland, which really gives a sense of just how massive orcas are!

a very cute puffin mug with hot chocolate at the Sumburgh Head café – another one with a great view!

A quick stop off at the crofthouse museum (also SAT) before the ferry turned out to be a longer enjoyable experience as I chatted to the guide about all the different features of the little house, which is very well restored. It really gives a good sense of how life would have been like for some Shetlanders in the past. After that it was back to Lerwick to catch the Northlink ferry home. It was a pleasant overnight crossing back to Aberdeen. A very early start meant I was driving off at 7am. It was a long but pretty uneventful drive (apart from a stopover at Gretna Green services – the busiest I’ve ever been to…). I didn’t intentionally pick it out, it just happened to be close by around lunchtime. How foolish I was! When the queues to get in to the car park start at the turning off point I should have got the hint it would be busy…!

I got back to Bradford late in the afternoon on Friday 13th, to be struck by the heatwave that I’d blissfully missed for the last two weeks up in the Northern Isles! I had a long restful weekend after all that!

Latest blog update: Surveys continued at Old Scatness! Some fantastic help from local Archaeology Shetland volunteers @ArchShet @ShetlandAmenity #PhD

Latest blog update: Surveys continued at Old Scatness! Some fantastic help from local Archaeology Shetland volunteers @ArchShet @ShetlandAmenity #PhD

This weekend the HES survey team returned home after a hectic and busy week in Shetland, having completed recording Jarlshof and ticking off a few more Rae Project sites on the way. My supervisor Dr Andy Wilson joined me in taking things a bit easier with just one laser scanner on site at Old Scatness over the last few days, and we’re happy to have completed all our scan surveying on site just in time for his Loganair flight back to Bradford!

Some more disgruntled starlings being interrupted by our survey work. I think they’ve got used to us being on their patch now!

With just my lone self still here in Shetland (but enjoying it all thoroughly!), I needed some help to complete my fieldwork, so my PhD supervisor Dr Val Turner from Shetland Amenity Trust helped put me in touch with the group Archaeology Shetland, and two of their members kindly offered to help me conduct a photographic survey of the wall tops of Old Scatness – as these areas were tricky to reach/impossible to laser scan.

Over a day and a half we had the best weather for photography (no wind and mostly overcast!). It was great working with local archaeology enthusiasts who are so keen to be on the site and learn more about how it is being researched. Both picked up on the best ways to stabilise, angle and position mast-mounted DSLR cameras very quickly to take photos over the structures (it’s aerial photography without flight!). I hope it was a useful and interesting new experience for them to conduct this kind of survey! We really got through all the structures and features at an impressive rate given the number of complex features we had to record!

Janet holding the camera mast steady on site ready for SFM photography!

Well over 1500 shots after (!), we’ve now got very good coverage of all the areas that terrestrial laser scanners can’t reach, as well as high quality colour images of much of the site. I hope to use the photos in combination with the scans to create a far more comprehensive 3D dataset than just the scans alone.

Shetland survey 2018 days 5 and 6: back to Old Scatness!

Shetland survey 2018 days 5 and 6: back to Old Scatness!

I didn’t get round to blogging yesterday as we were so busy getting laser scanning underway at Old Scatness again! It was really windy so heavy duty tripods were used as they are extra sturdy, to avoid the risk of any kit blowing over. A mix of howling winds, glaring sunshine, calm breezes and cloud cover just about sums up the typical Shetland weather experienced in a single day! Today it’s been more overcast and it actually rained this morning, giving the hire car a much needed wash…!

Overcast but bright weather at Old Scatness today. Spot the laser scanner! It’s hiding!

Overcast but bright conditions are ideal for laser scan imaging, as scanners have on board cameras to take photos to colourise the point cloud. As such, bright even lighting, not too sunny, is best to get decent shots without too much contrast, just like taking exterior shots for photogrammetry. Some scanners have HDR, but this takes longer than regular imaging, so we’ve managed to get more scans done as a result.

This year I’m focusing on getting detailed scans of the key Iron Age structures at Old Scatness. My supervisor Dr Andy Wilson arrived last night so we had a quick catch up meeting with two of my other PhD supervisors Dr Val Turner and Dr Lyn Wilson this morning. All seems well so it’s time to get more survey done here over the next few days!


The Sumburgh Hotel does the best (and biggest!) cheesecake…


Later in the evening some of the survey team went across to the Ness of Burgi, the site of a prehistoric blockhouse, which had been scanned earlier in the week by HES’ team for their Rae Project. It’s a beautiful and remote place, and quite a dramatic walk to get there with some precarious steep sheer cliffs to walk across!


Sunshine and waves walking to the Ness of Burgi



The path is steep and a tad uneven in places! Impressed the survey team got laser scanners and equipment across and back!


The entrance and rampart of the Ness of Burgi blockhouse

Overall it was a really good day. We got lots done and I’m pretty tired now (though all photos are backed up and the scanner batteries are charging as I type!). It’s the HES team’s last day in Shetland tomorrow though me and Andy are staying on to work on Old Scatness over the weekend. We’ve got a lot done and I’m already looking forward to seeing all of this data registered and how it looks put together!


A very pretty sunset from the Sumburgh Hotel tonight, at 10.30pm!




Return to the Island of Mousa! – personal blog post day 4. Also a comment about respecting personal space during fieldwork (please!) after a visitor jumped me on site today…

Return to the Island of Mousa! – personal blog post day 4. Also a comment about respecting personal space during fieldwork (please!) after a visitor jumped me on site today…

Tuesday evening (I should say night since it was 10.30pm when we departed!) I headed back to Mousa Island to see the island’s tiniest birds, storm petrels, descend on the broch they call home at sundown. This being Shetland in the summer this started around 11.30pm! They have a very eerie, croaking chirrup of a song, and hearing this get louder throughout the night was a surreal experience. What draws the visitors in to head to a deserted island at midnight and walk a few kilometres with just torchlight to see is the spectacular swirling, swooping display these birds perform as they return home to their nests after fishing afar for a few days, to swap places with their mates to guard their eggs. HES’ Digital team brought along 3D audio and video kit to capture some of this magic.

Inside Mousa broch at night, a bit spooky!

Seeing hundreds of tiny flitting shadows flying up, down and around the broch is quite a show, but nothing can capture the live experience of standing close enough to the broch walls to be literally swarmed by them from all angles, as they brazenly and nimbly swoop past you, only inches away. I tried video and photography and it doesn’t have the same awe-inducing effect!

Scanning Mousa brochs exterior with the Z+F 5016

After getting home at 2am(!) I was back across to the Island 9 hours later to complete my 3D laser scan survey of Mousa broch’s exterior with Al and Sophia from HES, who also brought along their 360° camera and video kit to capture the site in daytime. Weather conditions were perfect, low winds and bright but overcast for great texture photography. Many thanks for your help! This blog is about my personal experience as an archaeologist doing survey work, and while I generally focus on the positives as I really enjoy what I do, I think it’s important to share and talk about issues and problems when they come up. For example, I’m getting a bit bored of the cheese and cucumber sandwiches I’ve been making for lunch over the last few days… glad I also bought peanut butter!

But to be serious, while it was a good day of work overall, I had an uncomfortable experience with a visitor to the site who grabbed me “jokingly” when I asked him to step away from being scanned and to stay behind me. I think he took the message too literally and jostled me which was not nice…

I really don’t mind members of the public being interested and having questions about the work they see taking place and certainly don’t want to deter them (see my blog post from Monday 2nd July!) and fortunately this was just a one off incident, but it’s worth remembering researchers, archaeologists and surveyors are carrying out professional work and to respect us and our personal space! I was too surprised to speak out when it happened so suddenly, but now I feel it’s an important thing to raise and bring to attention.

On the bright side I came across Emma’s Cake Cupboard – an honesty box system cake shop in Hoswick! A scrumptious piece of tiffin for tea 😁

Cakes and treats in a bright little cupboard! So quirky and fun!

Shetland survey day 3 blog post – Jarlshof wildlife!

Shetland survey day 3 blog post – Jarlshof wildlife!

Today was a really busy day on site as we had five different laser scanners on the go across Jarlshof, and many different tour groups came to visit. It was really misty early in the day, but as the haar drifted away it was nice and overcast (making it easier to photograph the site as HDR isn’t needed!). It was nice to see how interested visitors are in our work, and to meet a few Bradfordians and university alumni who keenly spotted the university logo on my hi vis!

Scanning selfie! I’m a bit windswept!

I continued to scan the Late Iron Age structures with Bradford’s FARO X330, this time focussing on the central wheelhouse close to the sea wall edge. After this I concentrated on the eastern structures. We got a lot done but I didn’t get much of a chance to take photos during work today!

I think for this blog post I’ll write about some of the wildlife we’ve been seeing around Jarlshof as we’ve been surveying over the last few days, especially considering I saw quite a few disgruntled starling parents who didn’t seem to be keen on the laser scanners while trying to feed their chicks!

There’s a thriving population of starlings onsite who have made the most of their landscape by using the drystone walls as their nests and foraging for food on the shoreline. I even saw some chicks who were chirping behind a particularly large orthostat!

The common and arctic terns (I’m not an expert in birds to distinguish the two in flight from a distance!) are beautiful and elegant as they swoop across the shore and dive for food in the water, though not quite as dramatically as the great skua I spotted on Sunday that divebombed into the water like a torpedo!

Yesterday I was lucky to quickly see a seal pop it’s head up from the water, but it dived back quickly before I got a photo! Luckily other members of the team were quicker!

Grey seal spotted yesterday! It has a pointer nose than a common seal! A great photo by Al Rawlinson.

I’m still hoping to see orca some time on this trip. This time of year is the best time to see them, and there were sightings early this afternoon from Sumburgh Head, just 5 minutes away (but on the other side of the island!). Here’s hoping I’ll still have a chance!

I’m guaranteed to see more wildlife this evening as the team is going to be on the Mousa Boat to watch storm petals return to their homes in the Broch of Mousa late this evening. I missed this event last year and it’s meant to be spectacular, so I’m really looking forward to being back on the Isle of Mousa!

Not quite wildlife but I was really happy to meet a friendly Shetland pony up close, who lives in the field opposite Jarlshof this morning. He loves being scratched under his chin!

Me and Sophia say hi to a pony! It has fabulous hair.

Jarlshof survey day 2 – the Iron Age structures and how to spot a laser scan survey (and what to do during one!)

Jarlshof survey day 2 – the Iron Age structures and how to spot a laser scan survey (and what to do during one!)

On our second day on site I continued to laser scan the Iron Age structures to the south east of the archaeological site of Jarlshof. Here, there is a mix of buildings and features dating to different times, all seen at once. Archaeologists refer to such mixes as palimpsests. In this area of the site, the broch, which dates to the Middle Iron Age in the north Atlantic, is the central focal feature. I used the University of Bradford Visualising Heritage group’s FARO X330 laser scanner to survey inside the intramural gallery between the broch walls as it’s nice and portable, using our sturdy but sleek carbon tripod. A bigger scanner and tripod wouldn’t fit in such a small space! It was helpful to have experience of surveying and processing point cloud data of such galleries from the Broch of Mousa last year, as I had a good idea of how close together the scans needed to be to get good coverage all the way around. HES’s tiny “milking stool” tripod was also handy to perch the scanner in the little drystone window at the end of this passage.

Three different survey drawings of Jarlshof, one by an archaeologist, one by an architect and one hastily scribbled by me today as the other two were printed out too small to write the scan positions on!



During the Late Iron Age extramural buildings were constructed around the broch. Some even directly made use of the sturdy walls of the broch itself to build onto. The most famous and impressive of these are the wheelhouses, so named as the shape of these buildings in plan view is like a wheel, with radial piers jutting into the central area like the spokes of a wheel. James surveyed the wheelhouse with an intriguing medial wall that sits to the west of the broch, whilst I tackled the building to the east. Sofia and Alan used the Leica P40 scanner to survey the Norse longhouses at a long range, while the rest of the team scanned another site in the care of HES – the Ness of Burgi, just across the sea from Jarlshof on a little peninsula! Our radios could reach each other!

It was nice to see so many visitors interested in our work and my research and I’m always happy to tell people more – and direct them to this blog of course 😉

You can tell a laser scan survey is happening as you’ll often spot many large yellow tripods standing up around a site – these are our heavy duty ones that are sturdy and can face most extreme weather conditions! Sometimes these have black and white checkerboard targets mounted on them, or the laser scanners themselves, which you’ll notice rotating around. We use smaller, lighter tripods too, as I did today (see main photo), when the ground conditions are safe enough to do so and in confined spaces. Some of our scanners, like the FARO X330, beep while they’re scanning, so you know it’s doing it’s job, though they stay silent when taking photos!

FARO X330 in action. I stood by the sea wall during this scan so I wouldn’t be in the way of it recording the Iron Age archaeology (bottom of photo)

If you see a scanner on it’s own without an operator, it’ll most likely be recording its surroundings. This is because the surveyor doesn’t want to be in the way of the scan – we’re trying to record all of the amazing archaeology, not ourselves, after all! Because of this, it can really help the surveyor if visitors do not approach a scanner while it’s on it’s lonesome (like in the above photo), so they don’t accidentally get caught in a scan or get photographed by the scanner!

It’s fantastic if they can be helpful by exploring a different part of the site while the scanner’s there. Scans are usually done in 15 minutes and we move the scanner to a new position after that, so there’s time for visitors to return to the part of a site they missed. It’s also important to never touch or be too close to our equipment for safety reasons (scanners and tripods are heavy!) and for accuracy of our data capture! Even a teeny nudge can cause massive problems for us in processing the data, which can take many hours to fix, so understanding this is massively appreciated by surveyors. We had some wonderfully understanding visitors today. I hope the above info is useful to those who are new to laser scan surveys, and a massive thanks to you all for making our jobs a bit easier! 😀