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Corrimony Chambered Cairn

Scanning Scottish Cairns and Castles: Elias Logan and the BLK360, Round 2

By Elias Logan


This is the second post in a series featuring architect Elias Logan and his laser scanning tour of Europe. You can read the first post here.

With your introduction to the project behind us, it’s about time I share an update from abroad! Though I am now a bit farther down (and once again on the right side of) the road in France, I’ll be reflecting here upon my first four weeks of roving research in the islands, highlands, and lowlands of Scotland. The lessons learned in these “early days” have been foundational to the comprehension and execution of the research.  

BLK360 Collaborates with Trowels and Drones at Ness of Brodgar 

Ness of BrodgarBeing on the site of the Neolithic village at the Ness of Brodgar afforded me the opportunity to learn from the excavation’s resident 3D model-master, Jim Bright, and aerial imagery/digital guru Scott Pike. Their knowledge in methods of reality capture—photogrammetry and drone photography respectively—while different from the BLK360 laser scan workflow was nonetheless foundational in establishing best practices for thorough scans and their manipulation once in the computer. Along with site director, Nick Card, I could say that they were a bit envious of a novice like me running about with the portable and powerful BLK360!  

Nevertheless, I felt I had earned my keep during those two weeks by spending as many grueling hours with the trowel and pick-axe digging through layers of soil as I did working with the BLK360. Both my partner, Emily Kruse, and I were tasked with excavating a corner of “Trench T” in hopes of revealing a presumed orthostat (standing stone) in parallel with another already exposed that might indicate an entryway to the monumental structure in the trench. Alas, the expected upright eluded us, but the process did yield some insightful gems in discussing the relationship between architect and archaeologist.  

Laser Scanning Helps to Clear the Foggy Middle Ground Between Archaeologist and Architect 

Trench T head excavator Cristina Santisteban’s comment that “architecture is about construction, but archaeology is about destruction” sticks out as a relatively clear distinction—made all the more convincing when observing the authority with which she troweled down the surface of midden pits we had only dared gingerly scrape ourselves. Her observation gained nuance and breadth in continued conversation; the archaeologist’s destruction is of course as systematic and intentional as is the architect’s process of design and construction.  

In fact, both exercise such rigor with the aim of imagining the unknown, yet in opposing directions of time; archaeology infers scenarios of a past structure’s inhabitation while architecture determines the ideal configuration of a structure to be built in the future.  

So, while there are many disciplinary distinctions to made between architecture and archaeology, the two fields meet in the foggy middle-ground of interpretation. I would argue that the tools for clearing this metaphorical fog (I learned there are many literal types of fog from a Scottish host), is through representation; writing, drawing, and—as our friend the BLK attests—3D scanning!     

On this front, the staff at the Ness were generous in allowing me to create detailed scans of two fully excavated structures (~ 12 setups each) as well as a rough overall trench scan (25 setups). On off-hours from the dig, I also managed to capture scans of several other Neolithic and Bronze Age structures amongst the smattering of sites on Orkney. In order for me to decide which of the many possible structures on the islands to scan, I formed a set of criteria: 

Elias Logan’s “4-C” Scanning Criteria

  1. The Composition: the site should be built primarily of stones.  

  1. The Crumble: the site should be in a state of ruins or incompleteness.               

  1. The Construction Set: the site should lack evidence of any representations that precede construction (i.e. construction drawings). 

  1. The Consciousness: Following from the Construction Set, the site should predate a revolution in the method and value of architectural representation that occurred during the Renaissance (roughly pre-14/15th century depending upon where you are in Europe). 

Cuween Hill Chambered CairnOnce on the Scottish mainland, I applied these criteria (and my travel/time constraints) to the endless list of eligible structures, resulting in an additional five partial and complete structure scans. A highlight among these was a rare, relatively intact, Clava-type chambered cairn dating to the cusp of the Bronze Age (~2000 B.C.). While it shares part of its typological designation with earth-covered structures from Neolithic sites like Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn (an earlier scan site on Orkney), the later Corrimony Chambered Cairn differs in plan and composition; a single central, corbelled chamber is surrounded by a sizable mound of rocks—water worn and roughly the size of softballs. While there are several other examples in the area around Loch Ness, Corrimony is the best preserved of the bunch, perhaps only missing its capstone lid. 

Scanning the structure presented several challenges. Firstly, the 360 degree capture taken by the BLK360 means that capturing the exterior of round objects is somewhat complicated. While it took just one 360 degree scan to get the interior, the circular form needed scans from many more angles and positions to capture the entire structure.  

Here, I used a ring of 11 standing stones placed about the structure as a guide by executing a setup between every stone. The resultant compiled scan means that the cairn sits within a healthy coverage of the surrounding fields and forest; as detailed as are the thousands of rocks cladding the cairn (a testament to the BLK’s highly advanced resolution). 

If Corrimony’s relatively contained form allowed for a satisfyingly complete scan, my first castle scanning experience highlights what proves to be an interesting outcome of the research: filling in where the BLK360 leaves off.  

Kilchurn CastleDue to its impressive scale, fortified loch-front location, and my own time limitations, Kilchurn Castle was captured only partially. Importantly documented in its entirety though, is the structure’s toppled turret. Overturned and in pieces within the main courtyard of the castle, the bottoms-up placement allows one to easily understand its own corbelled structure. In an inverse iteration of the earlier Cuween Hill and Corrimony Chambered Cairns, where corbelling was used to create a stepped-inward ceiling structure of smaller stones rather than a single tabular rock, here the method does the inverse; stepping outwards to create a cantilevered room from which to survey the landscape.   

There are sure to be more moments of disciplinary fog-clearing and formal foreshadowing as I reflect upon the subsequent six weeks in England in the next post. Stay tuned (and stay alert for tumbling turrets)! 

Disclaimer: This article features the Leica BLK360 G1. Explore the expanded capabilities of the latest BLK360 model here.