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The History of Archaeoptics



Govan Sarcophagus

Image of Govan Sarcophagus reproduced courtesy of Govan Old Parish Church

In 2000, Archaeoptics Ltd. was incorporated. We acquired a Polhemus FastSCAN 3D scanner (triangulation scanner head with a magnetic tracking system) and started gathering data on sites, typically Pictish symbol stones and some of the collection at Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow.

We also started designing a software workflow that enabled us to turn scan data into commercial deliverables and supporting visualisation software for clients.

In December 2000, we undertook our first commercial project to scan a cast of Earl Grey's head from Grey's Monument, Newcastle.

Spreading the Word

Portmahomack fragment Int14, courtesy of University of York

Image of Portmahomack fragment "Int14" reproduced courtesy of University of York

In the first half of 2001, we undertook a number of demonstration scanning sessions with various agencies and potential customers, gathering a significant amount of 3D data. We were also figuring out what technology was needed for customers to interact and actually use the 3D data in a productive way.

We were frequently being told "it's impossible to do this" before demonstrating "well, here's one we prepared earlier!".

2001, first half

2001, second half


Seahenge Timber 031

Seahenge Timber 031 reproduced courtesy of English Heritage

In mid-2001, we were understanding the restrictions of the Polhemus FastSCAN system and were evaluating the Minolta VI-900 triangulation scanner.

In late September, we had the privilege of being invited to do some scanning on the Time Team Live programme at Breamore investigating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

At the same time, the Seahenge saga wrangled on and we offered English Heritage a demonstration of our services to record the Seahenge timbers at Flag Fen.

The demonstration with the Polhemus FastSCAN was "mostly successful" but the Minolta VI-900 managed the job effortlessly. We purchased the VI-900 and this became our workhorse scanner for the next 5 years.

The Seahenge job immediately created huge problems in terms of data volumes being acquired and "how the hell do we process this?!"

Hitting our stride

Orcheston Parish Church

Orcheston Parish Church

Late 2001, early 2002 was spent in a state of furious terror-fuelled software development to design and build new paradigms for data archival, processing and visualisation as a result of the Seahenge project.

Our system, called VAST, resulted in us successfully processing 4229 scans (nearly 1 billion points..) into 60 meshes and delivering those, plus tools, to the customer in 3 months.

VAST then unlocked the potential of the Minolta VI-900 and we undertook increasingly complex projects including Stonehenge, the Donaghmore Cross in Northern Ireland, the entire assemblage of Aberlemno Pictish stones and some incredibly complex Wedgewood figurines.



Full Ramming Speed!

Hermes of Praxiteles

Hermes of Praxiteles

In 2003, we had undertaken a lot of visualisation research around non-photorealistic rendering work to speed up archaeological illustration and 3D processing research to accelerate the generation of deliverables.

We were building custom UNIX servers with tens of hard drives comprising hundreds of gigabytes of disk space to store all the data in multiple formats.

We were taking on more and more prestigious projects including Maeshowe and Skara Brae, Hermes of Praxiteles, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Amesbury Archer skeleton, the entire assemblage of Ogham stones at University College Cork and the mammoth Greenwell's Pit at Grimes Graves!

Levelling out

Mousa Broch

Mousa Broch, reproduced courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland

The workload of 2003 continued in 2004 although there were now rumblings amongst customers that perhaps this laser scanning thing was easy (mostly because we made it look so!) and they should buy their own equipment....

We did, however, expand our operations and invested in a Mensi GS200 time-of-flight scanner to augment our close-range scanning operations. This required new software and processing methods.

We undertook a second epoch of scanning at Maeshowe and Skara Brae and developed tools and methodologies to help detect and quantify erosion or accretion patterns. We also scanned the entire collection of Whithorn Early Christian stones and the King's Fountain from Linlithgow Palace. In the middle of the year, we undertook scanning of all the caves and Pictish carvings at East Wemyss and were featured on Time Team. Towards the year end, we took the new time-of-flight scanner to Shetland and scanned the magnificent Mousa Broch.





Charnia Masoni, reproduced courtesy of University of Oxford

Through 2005, we took the time to demonstrate our large-scale scanning services and did smaller, targetted close-range projects typically around inscription recovery on Pictish stones and fossils.

However, later in the year, we were commissioned to do a laser scan of the Callanish 1 stone circle which was a thoroughly enjoyable experience!

Following quickly from that, we undertook a ground-breaking survey of the Mary Rose which was an intensive and complex job requiring a raft of new tools to complete.

Not content with that iconic vessel, we were also invited to scan the Cutty Sark prior to its renovation!


Brodick Castle

Brodick Castle reproduced courtesy of National Trust for Scotland

In 2006, we added a FARO phase scanner to our arsenal and undertook surveys at Brodick Castle, Hird Bridge in Dundee and a second epoch of scans of the Mary Rose.

Unfortunately, the large-scale scanning market was being eroded by cheaper services from existing survey companies and we disbursed ourselves of both the Mensi and FARO systems.

Existing customers were also acquiring their own systems, further eroding our contracts and, eventually, with a heavy heart, Archaeoptics closed its doors and went into hibernation.

Fittingly, one of our final contracts was for our very first customer, the artist Simon Watkinson.




Irvine Beach Dragon

Archaeoptics has always felt like unfinished business. In hindsight, it was probably too ahead of its time.

In today's 3D landscape, bulky 3D scanners are unfashionable at best and photogrammetry has become king as a result of vastly accelerated GPU pipelines and the ubiquity of high-resolution cameras in everyone's pockets!

Looking at this new landscape, the original ethos of Archaeoptics has never been more relevant. Our mission statement was "Recording the past for the future", after all...

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