Visualising Skara Brae: A collaborative project in archaeological visualisation

I’m sat at my desk in the DDS today looking longingly out at the rain, anticipating the week of fieldwork ahead of me and the pure joy that can only come with the knowledge that as of tomorrow it is socially acceptable for me to wear waterproof trousers all day, every day for a whole week. I truly believe that one of the main reasons I became an archaeologist was down to my love of waterproof trousers. 

House one at Skara Brae

Tomorrow my collaborators and I will be on our way up north to Orkney where we will spend a week immersed in the neolithic archaeology of Skara Brae. This adventure marks the beginning of my second big PhD case study and moves on from self-reflection on my own visualisation process alone. To save me waffling on about the project for pages and pages, below is a summarised abstract of what we aim to do and why,

“This research project forms an innovative collaboration between three archaeological reconstruction specialists Alice Watterson (Glasgow School of Art), Dr Aaron Watson (Monumental) and Kieran Baxter (University of Dundee), each operating in very different areas of the field in terms of both the style and technique of their approach to the visualisation of the past. Following a week of engaging fieldwork and discussion in Orkney each practitioner will produce their own unique visualisation of a house at Skara Brae working within a pre-defined framework and a designated time scale. Analysis of each approach will allow for a greater understanding of the ways in which each visualisation technique influences the integrity of the captured record, the control of experience and the ways we model uncertainty.

What is lacking in the field at present is a really strong analysis of the processes of visualisation from data capture to creation of images and animations, to consumption of the result, considering issues surrounding engagement, experience and integrity. Innovative and collaborative fieldwork like this is what is needed to push the field of archaeological visualisation forward in a positive direction. The technology is advancing, but our theoretical understanding of the value and application of visualisation for archaeology is not. We need to move past seeing these tools as simply a sophisticated means of illustration, to viewing them as a cognitive means of representation and engaging analysis. We believe that completion of this project will mark a positive step towards dealing with these current issues.”

We’ll be kicking off the week with a focus group at the archaeology department at Orkney College in Kirkwall (Monday 21st at 11 am – 1 pm in room G3.06 if anyone else would like to attend!) where we plan to discuss a range of issues around the interpretation and visualisation of Skara Brae. We’ll be spending a lot of time at Skara Brae itself, Kieran conducting some aerial kite photography and Aaron and I sketching and taking photos as well as visiting a number of contemporary sites and monuments in order to consider the village in its wider context.

Aaron adopts a somewhat conceptual and experiential approach to the representation of people and places in the past, often using abstract techniques of cubism and stop frame animation to convey his own interpretations of a site or activity. (Above image Cist burial, Kilmartin Glen in mixed media)

Kieran uses more technical and systematic means to depict archaeological sites from a more architectural or structural perspective using a compination of aerial kite photography and mixed media. (Clickimin Broch, Kite Aerial Photograph)

My own approach is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I work within established concepts and theories to build creative visual narratives which represent and challenge the evidence we have for a site. My work is still largely traditional in terms of the final images produces, although the technology I use as a basis for my work is advanced. (Some of the St Kilda scan data processed and modelled.)

 Following the fieldwork we will separate for a few weeks to produce our individual visualisations, keeping detailed reconstruction diaries of our process which I will be able to analyse for the purposes of my thesis. We then hope to exhibit the work in both Orkney and Glasgow, once again bringing together discussion groups to assess the merits and weaknesses of each approach.

Once we’re up in Orkney I will post a link to the project blog “Visualising Neolithic Orkney” where you will be able to follow our progress and get involved with some of the discussions!

Exciting stuff!


  1. Kit Reid · · Reply

    Looking forward to seeing how it goes!

    1. Thanks Kit! Kieran and I will pop through to Longmore House at some point when we get back and fill you in 🙂

  2. Have fun and keep us updated via Facebook! PS – Heather and Liz from South Gyle (sure you met them when you were here) will be in Orkney on holiday Sunday – Tues so you might bump into them on site!

  3. Joe Rigby · · Reply

    Hi Alice,
    Do you think Monumental might be interested in working with us on online interactive MUVE’s? We could sign some agreements to make you the sole licensee of the AVAYALIVE ENGAGE platform for archaeology
    We have a virtual museum available to view presently at http;//

    1. Hi Joe, I’m not sure we have any projects on at the moment which would be appropriate for this kind of output, but if you had something particular in mind that you wanted us to develop we could certainly discuss. You might be interested in the work of the Open Virtual Worlds Lab in St Andrews – I’ve done some work with them in the past and they seem very relevant to your interests?

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