Laser scanning the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Dr Lyn Wilson, project leader, and Alastair Rawlinson of the Digital Design Studio at Glasgow School of Art scanning inside House Seven at Skara Brae. (Historic Scotland)

A project to create digital models of the monuments within Orkney’s World Heritage Site began this week.

A team of heritage conservators and digital design experts, from Historic Scotland and the Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art, are digitally recording the Orkney World Heritage Site using laser scanners.

Picture: Historic Scotland

A completed scan of one of the Standing Stones o' Stenness. (Historic Scotland)

The project, expected to last two weeks, is the second Scottish site the team will scan with 3D laser scanners as part of the Scottish Ten — a five-year project to use cutting edge technology to create exceptionally accurate digital models of Scotland’s five UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites and five international sites.

The scanner fires a laser beam at a solid surface, which bounces back to the scanner on forming a “point” on the surface. Because the speed of light is known, the surveyors are able to formulate an accurate distance from the survey point.

The advantage of the laser scanner is that it can quickly measure millions of survey points at hitherto unknown accuracy not feasible by hand or other measuring device. This collection of points is known as the “point cloud”.

The laser scanner provides an XYZ co-ordinate – the location of a specific point in space, colour values of the surface, and data on the reflective properties of the surface.

Dr Lyn Wilson, Scottish Ten Project Leader, said: “We are delighted to be working on such an internationally recognisable and emblematic site.

“Our team will be on site to fully digitally document the monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney WHS – down to the millimetre – over a two-week period. The 3D data will then be used to assess the physical condition of the monuments as well as provide the foundation for future conservation, site management and archeological understanding.

“Though we have already scanned New Lanark, the scale and nature of the monuments will be an entirely different challenge. This will be the first site in the Scottish Ten project where we have existing scan data: comparing data acquired at different dates will allow us to measure any changes in condition of the monuments.

“We will be able to share this information with our partners in the management of the World Heritage Site – Orkney Islands Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB. The data can also be used to develop photorealistic 3D animations to aid in public interpretation and education.”

Picture: Historic Scotland

Dr Lyn Wilson of Historic Scotland and Alastair Rawlinson of GSA Digital Design Studio scanning inside Maeshowe. (Historic Scotland)

The Scottish Ten project was announced in July 2009, and the results of the scanning will be shared with the California-based CyArk Foundation – with the mission of “preserving World Heritage Sites through collecting, archiving and providing open access to data created by laser scanning, digital modeling, and other state-of-the-art technologies”.

Earlier this year, the Scottish team scanned the first international site – the Presidential Heads at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, USA.

For more information on digital documentation, see

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