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!
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 https://www.archaeologyshetland.org/, 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!
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.
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 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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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 😁
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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! 😀
Today I safely arrived on Shetland after a really pleasant ferry crossing from Aberdeen. The cabin was very cosy and comfy! Driving on and off the ferry was a fun first experience (I’m enjoying the hire car a lot!) and from catching that first glimpse of Lerwick harbour, literally sky blue sky and rolling green hills in the distance I couldn’t help but grin!
After a quick look around Hay Dock (we heard rumours of a bearded seal lurking around Lerwick but no luck today!) I stocked up on essentials at the supermarket and drove on to Sumburgh, where I’ll be based for the next week and a half. A spectacular drive down Mainland Shetland (waving hi to Mousa broch on the way!) and after getting settled into accommodation kicked off the days survey.
I spent the day with James Hepher taking detailed scans of the surviving broch structure at Jarlshof using Historic Environment Scotland’s Z+F 5016 laser scanner, along the cliff edge. Beautiful blue skies and glorious sunshine couldn’t distract from the fact it’s been really windy all day long! Tomorrow I’ll bring more layers, though I’m quite grateful for my wooly Shetland hat that I bought last year!
Some evening puffin spotting just before tea makes it an excellent first day overall!
This blog post comes a fair bit delayed as I’ve been so busy travelling to different events over the last month (and now settling back into scan processing in the office at Bradford), but I wanted to say thanks to Iain McClean and Ken McElroy of the Caithness Broch Project for inviting me up to Thurso to speak at their fantastically-named Brochtoberfest seminar – an annual event where broch-related researchers and enthusiasts gather to hear about the latest in broch-related studies and archaeological work. It was a sell-out event, and located in the wonderful Caithness Horizons Museum – well worth a visit to see its impressive collection of carved Pictish stones.
It was great to meet other broch researchers and be informed on the many interesting activities being done to study and present these sites and their archaeology. I also got to see the impressive Lego broch model on display in the museum, which was fun (much heated discussion was heard about the features the model includes, and also the technical difficulties of modelling a round tower using square bricks…!). Dr Samantha Dennis also brought some artefacts from the Old Scatness Broch excavations with her, for her presentation on cataloguing the finds in the Shetland Museum, which were great for the attendees to handle.
I must add a thank you to the owners of Pennyland House B&B for their kind hospitality during my stay in Thurso. I explored the town and nearby Scrabster the day after the festival, before I caught the train back down south (main image at the top shows the view of the island of Hoy, Orkney, from outside Pennyland House, plus some rather sleepy sheep!). An interesting fact: Thurso station is the most northerly in the UK, so I travelled quite literally to the end of the line! It’s a very scenic journey, spotting many deer and birds of prey on the way. I must visit some of Caithness’s broch sites the next time I am in northern Scotland.