Vanishing Heritage: Digital Documentation at Kilmartin Glen

This is the last blog post from Historic Environment Scotland in our current British Science Week 2020 series. 

Written by Bonnie (Nicole Burton) 

Since starting my Trainee position in August with Historic Environment Scotland, I have worked with the Digital Documentation team on various sites, ranging from Neolithic chambered cairns at Kilmartin Glen to Iron Age Brochs at the Isles of Lewis.

These projects were undertaken as part of the Rae Project, involving both the Digital Documentation and Digital Innovation team at the Engine Shed. The focus of the Rae Project is to digitally record all historic sites in Historic Environment Scotland’s care across Scotland, as well as their large array of collection items. The aim of this project is to have a full database for sites that are vulnerable or at-risk, using the datasets for management and monitoring.

The largest project I have been involved with was at Kilmartin Glen in August. The teams spent two weeks digitally documenting 15 sites and 30 collections items. Kilmartin Glen is located in Argyll and Bute, western Scotland and is enriched with prehistoric monuments and historical sites.

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Laser scanning at Kilmartin Glen. © Historic Environment Scotland.

The documented sites range from chambered cairns, historic buildings, rock art, stone circles and stone artefacts. After the initial documentation had taken place the processing of the data had to be carried out using a wide range of software packages to create accurate 3D models that can be shared with the public [].

Terrestrial laser scanning

Laser scanning is a straight forward process: the instrument has a rotating laser beam that reflects off a given surface, creating billions of points in 3D space representing the shape of a surface. Whilst scanning, multiple factors are needed to be taken into consideration, including the need for overlapping scans is to ensure a complete 3D model can be created, the terrain and environmental conditions. Our team uses a variety of laser scanners– some used for overview scans and others for the finer detail.

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Using a laser scanning to digital document cup and ring marks at Achnabreck. © Historic Environment Scotland.


Photogrammetry is a technique of using a camera to take overlapping photographs ensuring all areas of the subject has been captured to create a 3D model. While simple in theory, the better the pictures, the better the model, so we make sure to use a colour checker and a good lens.

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Digital Innovation trainee Kieran Young using Photogrammetry at Achnabreck. © Historic Environment Scotland.

Heritage in Scotland is becoming more and more at risk due to increased flooding and the changing climate. The work our team is doing not only at Kilmartin Glen but on other sites like Skara Brae is aiding in the management and monitoring of significant cultural heritage.

If you use twitter and would like to keep up to date with our projects, then follow the #Raeproject and @Burton1495

Five minutes with…Gill Campbell, Head of Environmental Studies, Historic England

What’s your background in heritage science?

At school I liked both arts and sciences and wanted to study something that combined the two. Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London was the answer where I could learn about ancient Mesoamerica one day and soil science and conservation the next. Gordon Hillman introduced me to archaeobotany, people’s relationship with plants throughout history, and I was hooked. To strengthen by botanical knowledge I moved to Birmingham University to take a master’s degree in the conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources. I then got a series of jobs on sites around the country digging, taking and processing samples in all weathers and working on the plant remains recovered under the watchful eye of some great heritage scientists. I spent 10 years at Oxford University on contract to English Heritage working on a range of sites including the Raunds Area project and the Danebury Environs Project. In 1999 (gosh is it that long ago!) I started work at the English Heritage, now Historic England, laboratories in Southsea.

What’s your role at Historic England?

Historic England is the public body that looks after England’s historic environment. We champion historic places, helping people understand, value and care for them.I convene our science network and I am our Trustee for the National Heritage Science Forum. I head up a team of 6 heritage scientists -experts in geoarchaeology, human remains, palaeoecology, zooarchaeology and archaeobotany. We provide advice and services in environmental archaeology to Historic England and the wider profession.

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Purple moor grass in early winter. Studland Heath, Dorset Photograph by Gill Campbell © Historic England


One day I can be visiting a site, the next meeting about current projects, advising on project proposals, signing paperwork and editing reports. Then I might squeeze in some time at the microscope identifying some plant remains and trying to answer the question – “just what is this? ”

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Basal part of the stem of purple moor grass. (centre). Bronze age remains on the left, modern reference material on the right. Photograph by Gill Campbell © Historic England


What’s been the most exciting/challenging thing you’ve worked on recently?

It has to be the Whitehorse hill burial discovered eroding out of the peat on the top of Dartmoor ( It is such a poignant site and has given us a unique insight into Early Bronze Age life and technical know-how. I helped identify the vegetative material which was packed round burial and placed a layer in the bottom of the stone cist as purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). By observing the structure of the grass stems and the way the plant behaves at different times of year we were able to suggest that the burial took place in late summer or early autumn. I also helped determine that the turned wooden studs were made of spindle (Euonymus).

Transverse section through a detached fragment from one of the Whitehorse Hill wooden studs (x 200 magnification) Photograph by Gill Campbell © Historic England


Who inspires you?

At the moment, Emily Carr, a Canadian writer and artist. I discovered her work whilst on holiday in British Columbia. Her book ‘Klee Wick’ and the short chapter in it called ‘the blouse’ really helped me think about what people take to the grave and why.

What do you love most about your job?

Each day is different. I get to go to amazing places, see wonderful things and explore the age old relationship between the environment and people. My job is about understanding our heritage and helping protect it now and in the future.

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science.

Heritage Science bridges the gap between the arts and sciences and helps us understand ourselves, bringing the past to life.