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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can view all of our animations on our YouTube channel:
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.
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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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.
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.
You can view all of our 3D models on our Sketchfab page.
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.
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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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 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 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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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.
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.