CBHC / RCAHMW > About Us > Our Recording Work > Sharing our Digital Past

Sharing our Digital Past

1. Our Digital Past Conference

2. A century of survey

3. Archaeological survey

4. Recording our built heritage

5. Digital and gigapixel photography

6. Terrestrial laser scanning

7. Reconstructing the past

8. Airborne laser scanning

9. UAV Survey

10. Photogrammetry

11. Archaeological geophysics

12. Geographical Information System (GIS)

13. Digitisation

14. Working in partnership


1. Our Digital Past Conference

The Royal Commission is dedicated to providing programmes that promote innovation and excellence in investigating, recording, archiving and understanding our heritage. Since 2009 we have held the annual Digital Past conference to promote understanding of the latest digital applications in our field.

© Jeff Griffiths. The LightStage, Department of Computer Sciences, Aberystwyth University, 2018.
© Jeff Griffiths. Miro the Robot with our youngest delegate, Department of Computer Sciences, Aberystwyth University, 2018.

The event aims to showcase innovation and best practice in a range of technologies, including laser scanning, LiDAR, photogrammetry, data manipulation and management, visualisation, immersive technologies, museum technologies and web resources. It brings together a diverse audience from a wide range of heritage backgrounds. Over the last ten years more than 1450 delegates have attended 211 talks and seminars, and 71 training sessions.
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2. A century of survey

Since its inception in 1908 the Royal Commission has established a reputation for maintaining expertise in the survey, interpretation and reconstruction of sites and buildings. This has encompassed visual records using a variety of techniques from metric hand survey to Virtual Reality reconstructions.

Detailed survey of Tre’r Ceiri, Caernarfonshire, completed by the Royal Commission in 1956. NPRN 95292
[Click on the NPRN (National Primary Record Number, Coflein’s unique reference number) to find out more about the site.]
Elevated photography at Pen Dinas hillfort excavations in the 1930s. NPRN 92236
The first Total Station in use on the Chapels project. NPRN 6938

We have strived to develop and disseminate standards in survey through the use of new technologies: our first Electronic Measuring Device, bought in 1984, has since been supplanted by the new generation of reflector-less Total Stations, GPS, Laser scanning and LiDAR, gigapixel photography and drones. The focus of our survey however, remains an emphasis on understanding and interpreting.

Wash-drawing of St Asaph Cathedral by Mervyn Pritchard, 1912. NPRN 140540

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3. Archaeological survey

Total Station Theodolite (TST) and high precision Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technologies are the Royal Commission’s standard tools for undertaking archaeological survey. A detailed and accurate three-dimensional record of a site or landscape provides the essential data upon which interpretation is based. It also provides useful information on the form and condition of features and identifies chronological relationships between them.

GNSS survey at Castell Grogwynion hillfort. NPRN 303671
Total Station at Holy Trinity Church, Sudbrook. NPRN 96627

Computer drawing software (such as AutoCAD or Adobe Illustrator) is used to produce the final survey illustrations which underpin further interpretative outcomes such as reconstruction drawings and animations.

Royal Commission interpretive hachure plan (above) and reconstruction drawing (below) of an earthwork site and two late-medieval deserted rural settlements on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains in upland Ceredigion. NPRN 15220

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4. Recording our built heritage

Investigations are made of a wide range of historic buildings and structures, from recording heritage assets at risk to supporting nominations for World Heritage Site status. From medieval castles to twentieth-century complexes, digital technologies are aiding the documentation and analysis of our built heritage.

AutoCAD elevation of the west facade of Denbigh Shire-hall showing different building periods. NPRN 23423

The use of reflector-less total stations theodolites and TheoLT, together with photo-rectification software such as PhoToPlan, allows for accurate three-dimensional recording which can inform a multitude of digital outputs. Alternatively, laser scanning a building or structure allows for highly detailed capture of the building and its environment. Computer packages such as AutoCAD are utilised to produce clear and informative drawings and models for dissemination.

3D Studio Max cutaway model showing the construction of the Leighton Farm piggery, Montgomeryshire. NPRN 85873

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5. Digital and gigapixel photography

Photography has long played a crucial role in the Royal Commission’s recording strategy. In-house photographers have produced some of the most iconic images within the National Monuments Record of Wales. Initially using film and in black and white, from 2006 all photography has been digital.

Night-time photography of an inscribed stone using directional light: the Fishguard South stone, Penwaun, Pembrokeshire. NPRN 276068
Detail of the Tree of Jesse, east window St Dyfnog’s Church, Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch. NPRN 165239

The Commission also makes use of 360˚ gigapixel photography in recording sites and buildings. This involves the production of a 360˚ photographic sphere through the stitching together of hundreds of individual, detailed images taken from a single point. It allows the full context of the site to be photographically recorded as a single entity and offers the ability to zoom in to see individual elements and details in high resolution.

Unfurled 360° spherical gigapixel photograph of the Library, Penrhyn Castle carried out in 2017, produced as part of an online tour for the Journey to the Past project. NPRN 16687

A number of 360˚ spheres can also be brought together to make an accessible online tour of a site, into which historical images, video and text can be embedded to create a narrative.


You can explore our interactive gigapixel tours on:

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6. Terrestrial laser scanning

3D scanning allows for the capture of highly accurate and detailed information to record landscapes and structures in a short space of time, making it a very efficient survey tool. Over the last few decades terrestrial laser scanning has become a well-established technique within the heritage sector, including at the Royal Commission, which holds its own laser scanning capabilities.

Section through a laser scan point cloud of the bell tower at St Michael’s Church, Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn carried out by the Royal Commission in 2019. NPRN 105145

The versatility and speed of laser scanning means that it can be utilised across the diverse landscapes and environments of Wales. The captured data is used to create stunning 3D models that not only provide fantastic visual reconstructions of landscapes and structures, but also offers millimetre accurate data that can be used to preserve and monitor the most at-risk heritage assets in the digital record.

Laser scan of Tintern Abbey, Wye Valley, Monmouthshire produced to form the basis of Virtual Reality reconstruction for the Journey to the Past project. Scanning carried out by Luminous. NPRN 359
Point cloud of the façade of Bethania Baptist Chapel, Maesteg, produced through laser scanning in 2014 as part of the Digital Dissent project. Scanning carried out by Aberystwyth university. NPRN 13780

You can explore our laser scanned fly-throughs of Welsh chapels:

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7. Reconstructing the past

The Royal Commission has long been known for its skilled reconstructions of sites and buildings, but computer animation, interactive gaming environments and Virtual Reality have brought a whole new life to our ability to reconstruct the past.

‘The Bridge’ by Jonah Jones, formerly at Coleg Harlech. Still from an animation by See3D Ltd and the Royal Commission used in the TV series Hidden Histories. NPRN 409586

You can explore our Tintern Abbey Virtual Reality Experience, produced by the Royal Commission in collaboration with Luminous as part of the Journey to the Past project:

These new dissemination technologies allow people to explore buildings as online virtual museums, follow reconstructions of long disappeared processes and experience immersive recreations of heritage assets and their environments.

Such techniques help the public gain a fuller and clear understanding and appreciation of their heritage, be that at shows and lectures, in museum exhibitions or online from around the globe. These techniques can also form an important research tool in our understanding and interpretation of a site.

Reconstructed view of Ystrad Einion Metal Mine, Ceredigion. Still from an animation produced by ay-pe Ltd, the Royal Commission and the Welsh Mines Preservation Trust. The work was funded by Ceredigion County Council’s PLWM project. NPRN 33908
Ladelling molten copper in the smelting sheds at Hafod Copperworks, Swansea. Still from an animation produced by ThinkPlay Ltd and the Royal Commission as part of the ESRC project ‘The Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper’. NPRN 34089

You can view all of our animations on our YouTube channel:

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8. Airborne laser scanning

Detailed models and visualisations of landscapes are invaluable in the recording and interpretation of the historic environment. Airborne laser scanning or LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) as it is also known has been used by the Commission since the turn of the millennium and has played a vital role in the discovery of countless new archaeological sites across Wales as well as enhancing the understanding of existing sites.

A LiDAR survey consists of the transmission of an active laser beam from a fixed-wing aircraft towards the ground. The reflection of the beams transmitted back to the aircraft are then measured to create a 3D Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the landscape below. From the collected data it is also possible to strip away any trees and vegetation which may have previously obscured underlying archaeology from being sighted from tradition aerial reconnaissance.

A ‘slope’ visualisation of Ramsey Island from aerial LiDAR data. Shown in shades of grey and black representing the steepness of slope, the natural topography and man-made features of the landscape can be seen clearly. LiDAR produced by Blue Sky International for the CHERISH project. NPRN 404188
A view of Bardsey Island created from aerial LiDAR data. Artificially illuminated from three directions, the topography of the island can be seen in sharp detail, ensuring countless archaeological features are visible. LiDAR produced by Blue Sky International for the CHERISH project. NPRN 402783

LiDAR data coverage for Wales is increasing year on year with the vision to obtain 100% coverage of the country within the next decade. The Commission is contributing to the gathering of this data through the commissioning of high-resolution LiDAR for some of the richest and most at-risk historical landscapes in Wales.
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9. UAV Survey

UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) provide heritage professionals with a unique opportunity to inspect and record monuments and landscapes from an aerial perspective. Compared to tradition aerial survey, UAVs are able to capture photography at lower altitudes meaning that sites can be recorded to much higher levels of detail. UAVs can also be used to carry out photogrammetric and laser scan surveys of landscape features, providing data that can be used to create 3D models for research and outreach purposes. 

Flying the UAV at Tan-y-Bwlch. Awarded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) certification ensures that certain requirements for the safe operation of UAVs in the UK have been met.
A low altitude 4k aerial photograph of Pen Dinas Hillfort and the Wellington Monument taken from a UAV, December 2017. NPRN 92236

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10. Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique used widely throughout the heritage sector to record objects in 3D. The technique uses overlapping photography and the principles of light ray intersection to produce a 3D point cloud of a subject for monitoring and research purposes. The range of this technique is immense where it can be used to record everything from individual artefacts to entire landscapes. The ability to use photography to create 3D products has seen the technique surge in popularity in recent years and now forms a core method used for archaeological survey.

Dense 3D point cloud of Caerfai Camp promontory fort, Pembrokeshire. Each blue square represents each individual overlapping photograph used in the 3D reconstruction of the model.
A photograph of the large ramparts at Caerfai Camp promontory fort, Pembrokeshire. This image shows the individual ‘tie points’ matched between overlapping photographs used to reconstruct the 3D model.
Dense 3D point cloud of Castell Bach promontory fort, Ceredigion. NPRN 93914

You can view all of our 3D models on our Sketchfab page.

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11. Archaeological geophysics

Archaeological geophysics remains one of the few non-invasive ways to accurately ‘see beneath the soil’ on an archaeological site, producing a digitised plan of buried ditches, banks, postholes and structures. Contracted geophysics has been used by the Royal Commission on projects ranging from an investigation of the Abermagwr Roman villa and assessments of newly discovered cropmarks to surveys of coastal promontory forts for the EU-funded CHERISH Project. Different techniques can be used depending on ground conditions, geology and the nature of the archaeology being surveyed.

Aerial photograph of Fach Farm cropmark site taken during the 2018 drought conditions. a complex later prehistoric defended enclosure at Abersoch, Gwynedd. NPRN 423304
Magnetometry survey and interpretation of Fach Farm cropmark site by SUMO Services Ltd for the CHERISH Project 2019.

Magnetometry is one of the most common survey techniques. A magnetic gradiometer measures the relative change in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the varying magnetic susceptibility of underlying soils and features such as infilled ditches, burnt areas or hearths. Standard hand-held sensors have long been used to survey smaller sites, while impressive cart-based multi-sensor systems are now employed to survey larger areas bringing improvements in resolution and the speed of data collection. Resistivity and Ground Penetrating Radar are different methods of geophysical prospection particularly suited to the survey of buried structures and buildings.
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12. Geographical Information System (GIS)

The Royal Commission’s GIS is at the core of much of our work. It enables us to map and search our records in a specific area, explore LiDAR imagery for unrecorded archaeological sites, and consult historic mapping to trace changes in the landscape and create accurate digital historic boundaries. Georeferenced finding aids now make our historic aerial photography collection easier to use and the polygonisation of our data will enable greater locational accuracy.

The Royal Commission’s remit to record archaeological and historic sites extends to the boundary of United Kingdom territorial waters around the Welsh coast. National Monument Record data and bathymetry are combined here to display the extraordinary density of shipwreck sites in Welsh coastal waters and downed aircraft.
The combination of modern aerial imagery and historic mapping can provide fascinating insights into the changing nature of our urban environments.

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13. Digitisation

The in-house Digitisation Unit at the Royal Commission provides high-resolution scans of archive material for our publications, exhibitions, lectures and the digital archive. This service is also available to the public, and digitised material in web format is made directly available to the public via our online database, Coflein.

The 2011 excavation at Abermagwr Romano-British Villa (NPRN 405315) led to the unique discovery of glass bowl fragments, one of which is pictured above. A digital recording of the finds, using high-quality scanning techniques, displays the beautiful detail of the decorative facet cutting in the glass. NPRN 40531
Indenture loaned to the Royal Commission for digital preservation through scanning by the United Reform Church. This indenture, dating 1731, is for Maesyronnen Congregational chapel, the oldest surviving nonconformist chapel building in Wales (1690s). NPRN 8328

The Royal Commission has an established conservation programme of digitising at-risk items from the National Monuments Records of Wales (NMRW) archive, especially the substantial photographic collection, to enable dissemination and the preservation of historical images.
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14. Working in partnership

The Royal Commission works with many partners to further our understanding of, and expertise in, digital technologies as well as sharing our skills with other groups and organisations.

We are currently leading on the EU-funded CHERISH project, in conjunction with Aberystwyth University, the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Discovery Programme, using drones and laser scanning to create accurate 3D models that can be used to detect changes in heritage assets affected by climate change. We have recently completed a National Lottery Heritage Fund project exploring the U-boat war around the Welsh coast during the First World War, bringing marine survey data collected by Bangor University to a wider audience.

Model of the remains of the HMS Derbent created from multi beam echo sounder (MBES) data points. Image produced by SEACAMS2, Bangor University for the U-boat Project, 2018. NPRN 272125

A virtual museum on Nonconformity in Wales was created in partnership with Addoldai Cymru: The Welsh Religious Buildings Trust. The AHRC funded a project in conjunction with Bangor University and The Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies to use accounts of continental visitors to Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to create a suite of digital resources, including a Virtual Reality visit to Tintern Abbey. A new project, funded by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, will link our shipwreck records with the digitised casualty returns, putting users in touch with the source materials on which are understanding of the past is built. 

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