Aerial Photography and Visualisation for Built Heritage - PhD Portfolio by Kieran Baxter
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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Noltland to Newcastle: Visualising travel and arrival at Links of Noltland and the Further North conference

Links of Noltland is an archaeological site that is defined by its remote island location as much as by the intriguing material culture and stories that are emerging from the excavations. Following on from my previous post on the Links of Noltland collaborative project, one of the challenges is to move away from a representation of the site which is fixed like a map or site plan and instead give an impression of a place that is constantly in flux and has its own transient sense of place. While photogrammetric survey carried out over the last two years using kite aerial photography (see below) provided a useful and revealing spatial model of the site (viewable here on GigaPan), during fieldwork in 2014 our focus was on incorporating other visual elements from beyond the site boundaries.

A second KAP rig was used to get this view of camera, electronic rig and operator on site in 2013.
With this in mind, and drawing upon Aaron Watson's "Trans-scape" animations, we explored the use of time-lapse photography on and around the site as well as from the ferries on the way to and from Westray. We used the Gentles GentLED device as a intervalometer, neutral density filters to allow for longer exposures and handlebar camera mount to shoot securely from the ferry railings.

The ferry time-lapse set up and running. Time to sit back with a coffee and wait.
We wanted to use the analogies of travel and arrival to introduce the site in our animated visualisation. While we considered that the remoteness of the site has changed context between present day and prehistory, where long distances where perhaps more likely to be traveled along coastal routes making the site a potential "hub", it is still a place that for most lies at the end of a significant journey.

A slightly "bumpy" crossing on the Hamnavoe to Stromness.
With these ideas in mind and with a draft version of the animated film (which is still in the works) I set out on another journey to present a paper entitled "Approaching Links of Noltland" at the Further North conference at Northumbria University, the closing event of the Norther Peripheries research network. I found the sessions of a very high standard and it was great to be amongst a truly interdisciplinary debate around Northness, marginality and the identity of place. The session that I presented in was chaired by Orkney-based archaeologist Antonia Thomas who also presented her work alongside Dan Lee on their Archaeology Residency at the Papay Gyro Nights Arts Festival.

Speakers ranged in subject from walking as performance art to heavy metal music and Norse mythology.
Now back at the office with a lot of inspiration I am currently working on bringing together the visual material gathered at links of Noltland, with the help of Alice Aaron and John, to form a short film that introduces the site and begins to explore its archaeological interpretation. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Kite aerial photography of the excavations at Links of Noltland on Westray, Orkney

The Links of Noltland is a complex prehistoric settlement in the care of Historic Scotland and under rescue excavation carried out by EASE Archaeology since 2006 when erosion was identified as a significant risk to the site. I have been involved in a project, backed by Historic Scotland, to tackle the challenges of visualising the site for public outreach as part of a team of four practice-researchers: Dr John Was, Dr Aaron Watson, (the newly Doctored) Alice Watterson and myself.

This kite aerial photograph covers a large portion of the Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement areas and shows the proximity to Grobust beach. Positioned on the north coast of the remote island of Westray, Orkney, Links of Noltland is exposed to a barrage of "high energy" weather that backfills unattended trenches, tears at anything not tied down (including caravans apparently) and is in danger of destroying archaeological remains as quickly as it reveals them.

One of the challenges of visualising a rescue excavation such as this is that the site is constantly changing. This vertical view into Neolithic Structure Seven was taken during excavation last year. On the right is Alice, sketching from the vantage point of the sand dune. Alice is working on a digital reconstruction to speculate on how Structure Seven might have looked in its complete form.

I used kite aerial photography to gather images for structure-from-motion photogrammetry in order to generate high resolution three-dimensional meshes of the site at different stages. Orthophotos are one of the outcomes of this process - high resolution plan views such as this Gigapan where you can zoom in and navigate around details in a way similar to google earth.

It has also been great to be able to photograph ongoing archaeological activity on the site and we have been combining low altitude aerial photography with time-lapse photography in an attempt to give an impression of a dynamic environment that is constantly in flux.

This large area of excavation is Area Five, a cluster of Neolithic dwellings where some of the most exciting finds have emerged. For a sense of scale the black circles are car tyres used to secure covers for parts of the trench not currently under excavation - a fact of life in such a wind-swept environment. The four of are are currently working towards an animated introduction to the site that incorporates some of the elements mentioned here so watch this space!