Revealing the Secrets of Stonehenge Through 3D Digital Modelling

A 1.121Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

In a major project for English Heritage, survey specialists Greenhatch Group used laser scanning, digital photogrammetry and Geomagic Studio 3D imaging and modelling software to create a 3D digital model of the 5000 years-old Stonehenge World Heritage Site in unprecedented detail.

Regarded as perhaps the most famous prehistoric monument in the world, Stonehenge, in the South of England, began as a simple earthwork enclosure and was built in several stages over many years, with the unique circle of massive stones, complete with lintels, being erected in the Neolithic period, around 2,500 BC. Now a World Heritage site, a trip to Stonehenge to see it, to walk among its stones and to wonder at it and how it was built nearly 5,000 years ago is an essential part of the itinerary of many thousands of visitors every year from all around the world.

As is only to be expected with such an important historical monument, Stonehenge has been the subject of a number of surveys over the years in order to record it and to enable archaeologists and others to study it.

However, no survey of the immediate site has ever come close to the level of detail delivered by the most recent. This was undertaken last year by surveying and 3D laser scanning specialists, Greenhatch Group, together with photogrammetry and imaging specialists, Atkins Ltd Geospatial Mapping, for English Heritage, the custodians of Stonehenge. Using the latest in laser scanning and digital photogrammetry 3D spatial data capture technologies, together with Geomagic Studio 3D digital imaging and modelling software, this latest survey project has digitally captured and modelled all the visible faces of the standing and fallen stones, as well as the tops and faces of the lintels, to an unprecedented resolution for the monument of 0.5 mm.

But that’s not all that has been delivered. The project also captured and then created 3D digital models of the earthwork bank and ditch that encircles the stones, as well as the entire landscape within the area known as The Triangle that forms part of the overall World Heritage Site, again to an unprecedented level of detail for Stonehenge.

Greater Understanding
The aim of the project was to capture the detail of the stones and their surrounding landscape to a consistent resolution never previously achieved in order to enable English Heritage experts and others to gain a greater understanding of what is actually there. It would enable the stones and what is on them, such as carvings, ancient graffiti and other marks, to be analysed in far greater detail than has been possible at a practical level before.

As Paul Bryan, Geospatial Imaging Manager, English Heritage, explains, "Having accurate 3D digital models of the stones, both individually and in their groups as they are on the ground, complete with lintels, and to the level of detail that has been attained with this latest survey is a great step forward for us. It means that our experts can analyse them as and when required without having to make arrangements to spend time physically on site on what is, first and foremost, a World Heritage Site historical monument that is open to the public all year round".

Although some measured surveys of the actual stones were undertaken in the 1970s, most existing plans and elevations of the monument derive from work carried out in the 1870s and in 1919. In the 1990s and early 2000s English Heritage also undertook a number of surveys using film-based digital photogrammetry technologies and some laser scanning in order to further develop the record and to incorporate 3D data for the stones themselves. However, while these later surveys did indeed result in 3D digital models of the stones being created, the technology available at the time only enabled them to be generated at a resolution of 2cm far too coarse to assist in any archaeological studies but a 3D digital record of them nonetheless.

The latest survey was designed to address this lack of detail.

Complex Data Collection Exercise
The actual surveying work was carried out in three main parts, comprising the complete site (the Triangle), the bank and ditch and finally the stones themselves. Each area required a different approach, with each having a different specification from the others.

The landscape within the 1.2km Triangle was captured to within a 100 mm point-spacing resolution using a Leica C10 pulse-based long-range laser scanner recording at a rate of 50,000 points per second. The scanning was carried out on a 50m intersecting grid pattern that Greenhatch Group had established for the scanning positions in its earlier desktop research work.

The bank and ditch area was captured using the same Leica C10 laser scanner but this time with the resolution settings increased from 100mm to 20 mm point-spacing to provide more detail and using `freestyle’ scanner positioning at suitable positions around the bank and ditch.

Next, the stone circle itself was captured to within a 1mm point-spacing resolution using a Z+F 5006h high-speed, short range laser scanner which typically records scan data at a rate of 500,000 points per second. This scanner was used in conjunction with an on-board Z+F M-Cam motorised camera system in order to provide calibrated, colourised point cloud data of the stones, fully automatically.

Finally, the surfaces of the individual stones and lintels themselves were scanned to a point-spacing resolution of 0.5mm using a Z+F Imager 5010 ultra high-speed laser scanner that can record data at a rate of up to 1 million points per second. Meanwhile, the top faces of the lintels were captured via digital photogrammetry using a high-resolution Nikon D3x 24.5 MP digital camera mounted on a `Jimmy Jib’ portable boom as commonly found in the film industry and with a reach of 12m. Monochrome digital imagery of the stone faces was also captured with a Canon 7D 18MP DSLR camera.

The whole scanning and surveying process was completed within the planned three-weeks time window, despite the team having to allow for changeable weather conditions and the fact that the public has access to the site throughout the daylight hours.

As Andrew Dodson, director, Greenhatch Group and the person with overall responsibility for delivering the project, explains, "Bearing in mind that we were using lasers in an open space, with a main road running alongside it and with the public around us at times, early desk planning was crucial in enabling us to complete the survey in the allotted time, both safely and to the demanding specifications set down by English Heritage."

From Points to Polygons
As the data capture exercise progressed, registration of the point-cloud data files resulting from the various scanning sessions was performed using Leica Cyclone software. This was also used to carry out initial cleaning of the scan data to remove noise, outliers and unwanted data caused, for example, by visitors moving around the site during scanning.

The resulting point cloud data sets, together with their geographic coordinates, were read into Geomagic Studio for further processing. With many of these files including colour data and with some of them being high resolution, these files could comprise anything up to 60 million 3D coordinate points per data set–or 2.5 GB of data.

The individual data sets from the photogrammetry sessions were also read into Geomagic Studio where they were merged with the appropriate laser scan data to create unified data sets ready for the next stage of processing.

The tools within Geomagic Studio were then used to `polish’ the data further in order to arrive at the best possible state for each data set, ready for their conversion into the required final polygon mesh surface models. For example, the software was used to remove unwanted data such as blades of grass at the base of the standing stones and to sharpen fine details at close range on the individual stones.

"Fine-tuning the scan data in Geomagic Studio, whether it included colour data or not, in order to arrive at what we wanted in terms of the best possible representation of the physical objects, was a fairly quick and straightforward process," says Stuart Chadwick, the project manager at Greenhatch Group. "The software is easy to use with its Wizards but when required, you can use the tools in `manual’ mode and switch colour on and off as required in order to arrive at precisely what you want, depending on the data being processed."

Once the fine-tuning and any decimation to reduce the size of the individual data sets had been completed in Geomagic Studio, the software was used to convert them, automatically, into 3D polygon mesh surface models.

For the models of the stones themselves, the English Heritage archaeologists determined beforehand what level of detail they required, depending on what was on the stones. Some of the models therefore use all of the collected 0.5mm resolution data while others, where there isn’t so much detail to see, use only the 1mm resolution data. This reduces the processing time.

Multiple uses
While the main aim of the project has been to create 3D models of the stones and their surrounding landscape that will enable archaeologists and others to study and analyse the monument and its history in more detail than has been possible before, the models will also have other uses too.

With the Triangle, the bank and ditch and the stones themselves available as a collection of 3D digital polygon models at varying degrees of resolution, depending on the nature of the subject matter, the team at Greenhatch set about bringing them together to create an overall digital model of the complete Stonehenge monument as it exists on the ground today.

The bank and ditch model and the model of the overall site, the Triangle, were first brought into Geomagic Studio and then, using the coordinate system developed for the data collection exercise, were merged to create a unified model of the landscape. The model of the full stone circle was then imported and using the same coordinate system to digitally position it, was merged with the landscape model to create a 3D digital `overview’ of the whole site, including the stone circle, but at a lower resolution than for individual stones.

This lower resolution 3D model of the immediate World Heritage site will prove extremely valuable during the planning stages of the proposed new visitor centre for Stonehenge, which is planned to open next year.

Meanwhile, the 3D models of the individual stones at 1mm and 0.5mm resolution can be made available in a number of formats, depending on who needs them and for what they are needed. For example, while the English Heritage archaeologists may not always need coloured models for their work, these are ideal for publication purposes. They can also be edited using the RGB values and brightness and contrast controls provided by Geomagic Studio and can be output directly in a number of industry-standard formats, including 3D PDF. This last format is particularly useful for disseminating information to the end-users of the data.

While polygon processing of some of the 0.5mm resolution data sets is still to be completed, the massive amount of data that has been processed so far and the resulting 3D models that have been made available are already enabling English Heritage to gain a better understanding of how Stonehenge was built and the ways in which, over nearly five millennia, people have used it and how it has changed.

And as Andrew Dodson comments, "Without the advanced facilities provided by Geomagic Studio we would not have been able to convert the mass of raw survey data into the accurate 3D digital polygon models that this project demanded. The 3D virtual models that have been produced with Geomagic Studio hold out the promise of enabling people to find out the secrets that lie within the eroded surfaces of these ancient stones. They therefore add greatly to the store of knowledge on Stonehenge and they help English Heritage in their important conservation work."

Neil McLeod writes about the ways in which today’s 3D spatial data processing technologies help professionals in industry, commerce, the arts and the public sector perform their day-to-day tasks.