Digitally Preserving the Past

Digitally Preserving the Past – 3D Scanning at Saint Brendan’s Church, Birr. 

In August students from Ithaca College led by Professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers, in partnership with the Irish Archaeology Field School/ Irish Heritage School (IHS), conducted 3D laser scans of the site of Saint Brendan’s monastery in Birr. This site continues to occupy an important place in the mindset of the local community as it has been integral to the history of the town, and the location of several key historical events. The surviving church, as it stands today, was probably built in the 13th/14th centuries (with significant modifications in the following centuries). The standing structure is thought to be built on the monastic site founded by St. Brendan in the sixth century.

This monastery has a rich and varied history, and may have been the site of a Synod in 697 AD/CE when the Cáin Adomnáin, human rights legislation protecting women, children and clergymen, was enacted. An illuminated manuscript known as the Gospels of Mac Regol or book of Birr is also thought to have been written at the site at the height of the monastery’s power in the eight to ninth centuries (a facsimile copy of the book is still available to view in Birr Library for all visiting students!).

The Ithaca College team used lasers to scan the medieval church, the surrounding graveyard, and the 17th century bell-tower to create a cutting-edge digital version of the standing architecture. It was in the 17th century that the church changed denominations from Catholic to Protestant – remaining the Church of Ireland place of worship until the current church was built on Oxmantown Mall in the early 19th century.

Despite the importance of the site very little archaeological work has been conducted there to date. Excavations undertaken in 2008 at Number 28, Main Street, Birr revealed a medieval ditch and two burials, which were interpreted as deriving from the earlier extended burial ground of Saint Brendan’s; the ditch was thought to be a possible boundary of this graveyard. An extensive graveyard survey was also conducted by Stephen Callaghan in the last few years (published with Caimin O’ Brien as a book named ‘Heart and Soul’). In June of this year the IHS also partnered with Ashely Green, a geophysicist from Bournemouth University, to conduct ground scans of the graveyard (blog to follow next week).

As part of this survey location readings were taken every 5 mm of the standing architecture and the surrounding context. The Ithaca team used two Leica 3D laser scanners, which take readings 360 degrees in the horizontal and 270 degrees in the vertical out to 200+ meters; they can record everything but the space below the tripods they sit upon. The resulting data are called a point cloud, and might be best thought of as a 3D photograph. These detailed laser scans provide a digital record that can be used for research, monitoring, or reconstruction in the case of human or natural disasters. The partial collapse of the Bell Tower at Saint Brendans is a real example of why this type of digital preservation is important. The Ithaca team is also hoping to convert the research-grade data to something one can view on their web browser and take a virtual tour. The laser scans also provide the base data to create digital reconstructions of the site so everyone can see the site as it formerly looked.

 

Ithaca College, through IHS/IAFS, were able to work in the town due to the tremendous support shown by Birr 20/20 group (special mention should go to Frances Kawala) and Amanda Pedlow, the Heritage Officer of Offaly County Council. Professor Rogers and his wife first visited Birr on holidays a decade ago and the town left an immediate impression on them. When Dr. Shine suggested Birr as a location to digitally preserve monastic sites such as St. Brendan’s and Seir Kieran the decision to come to Birr was an easy one. Professor Rogers is excited by the possibility to return to the midlands for the next few summers as ‘there are so many important and interesting sites in and around Birr. The early monastic sites would be fantastic to digitally preserve along with all of the Georgian architecture, and Birr Castle would be amazing to scan due to all of the architectural details.’

Note: As part of this stay in the midlands Prof. Rodgers and his team also completed scans of the monastic site of Seir Kieran. This work will form a future blog – so watch this space

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