Breaking Through Rock Art Recording: 3D laser scanning of megalithic rock art

Durham University, 2005

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Dr Margarita Diaz-Andreu
Department of Archaeology
Durham University
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Durham University (2005) Breaking Through Rock Art Recording: 3D laser scanning of megalithic rock art [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]

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Interest in British prehistoric rock art has undergone a revival in recent years, with increased inclusion in academic studies and concern from national bodies with the conservation of this rapidly disappearing link with past ideologies. With a few exceptions, the majority of recordings currently available were produced by enthusiastic amateurs with basic tools. Although these provide a guide to the motifs they are unsuitable for detailed stylistic analysis or comparison.

Laser scanning at Long Meg

3D laser scanning has the potential to revolutionise rock art recording. It produces highly objective and accurate 3D models providing reliable, detailed information for both researchers and conservationist. Laser scanning, however, needs an equipment and expertise not yet generally available in universities and currently cost of purchasing the equipment is prohibitive. This is why the job needs to be carried out by a contract specialist.

The recording of each site with 3D laser scanning was undertaken in several phases. The first phase included the laser scanning and pre-processing of data. This was undertaken by a team led by Dr Alan Chalmers, University of Bristol. The data set was acquired with a Minolta 910 laser scanner.

The second phase was the development of new processing and 3D visualisation methods to visualize the rock art contained in the data. This was undertaken by two different approaches. A new method was developed by Immo Trinks and Richard Hobbs of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Durham using freely available shareware (either Visualization Toolkit (VTK) and Generic Mapping Tools (GMT) software or Tight Cocone and Paraview). A second method of visualising the data was undertaken by Nick Rosser, Geography Department, University of Durham. Data was processed using firstly Demon3D (Archaeoptics Ltd) and then ENVI RT 4.0 (RSI).

Laser scanning offers significant advantages over previous methods of recording, namely:

  • Objectivity in recording is hugely improved in relation to traditional techniques such as rubbing.
  • Results are reliable and reproducible.
  • The level of precision achieved is much greater than that obtained with digital photography with resolution of up to 170 microns.
  • The recording process is non-invasive and so not detrimental to fragile rock surfaces, and hence it is a technique recommended in the recent English Heritage Rock Art Pilot Project Report
  • Three dimensional recording overcomes issues with irregular surfaces, allowing the petroglyphs to be viewed from all angles.
  • The electronic dataset produced can be easily and rapidly disseminated.
  • Purposely developed software allows extensive manipulation of the dataset including: 360 degree rotation; adjustment of position and strength of illumination; slices through 'layers' of the image

English Heritage logoThis archive was one of the case studies for the English Heritage funded Big Data Project. To find out more about the project go to the Big Data Project Web Pages