From the Field to the Computer: or, How Alice went from Indiana Jones to Gollum

First of all I should apologise for the blog being so quiet recently! After hanging up my muddy fieldwork boots I completely lost myself in “the zone” for about a week modelling and dressing the interior of House 7 at Skara Brae. “The zone” – for the benefit of those of you not lucky enough to observe me and my decent into madness on a daily basis – basically involves me drinking copious amounts of tea, burying myself in excavation reports, books and articles, gesturing wildly at the computer and muttering to myself…just think Gollum but with better hair and a firm grasp of 3D technologies (See Fig. 1 below).

The artist at work, Alice (left) pictured young, fresh-faced and healthy on fieldwork at Skara Brae just weeks ago, and (right) hunched over her computer, after days of staring at a message box which reads “This program is not responding, close the program?”

Throughout this process I am making a conscious effort to keep thinking back to the time we spent in House 7 during our fieldwork. When I think about the way I made sense of the space when we first arrived and the way I think about it now I can definitely see an evolution in my interpretation. During the first day or so on site I did what everybody naturally does when making their first observations, I used my own modern understanding of the way a ‘house’ works to understand the structure. I looked at the cellular structures at each side of the room and saw box beds, I looked to the central hearth and saw the cooker and the central heating system, and I looked at the ‘dresser’ and saw Ikea flat-pack shelves. I imposed a colonial perspective on the Neolithic as I tried to make sense of the site through modern eyes.

The team at work in House 7, photo taken by Kieran who seems to always avoid being in any photos himself!

This issue of modern perspectives being projected onto the past is nothing new to the field of archaeological interpretation and is a topic which has been considered at length by the likes of Ingold and Hodder. The longer I spent in House 7 the more time I had to associate myself with the space and with the context of the whole village in the even wider context of the late Neolithic in Orkney. I began to feel that I no longer needed to rely so heavily on drawing parallels with a modern world view in order to make sense of it. Aaron and Kieran both agreed when we discussed our impressions of the space over the course of our work in Orkney that the act of seeing takes time, and you need that time to allow yourself to begin to be self-reflective enough to be aware of your previously subconscious thought process.

So, back at the computer I’ve been allowing my engagement with the site during the fieldwork to guide the way I am visualising the scene as it develops. An aspect of the site which got me thinking along different lines to begin with was the idea that there is a choreography of movement which the architecture of the village imposes on the visitor. Colin Richards discusses this in his 1991 paper “Skara Brae: Revisiting a Neolithic Village in Orkney” where he observes the journey through the village in an easterly direction towards House 7 as it increases in complexity and difficulty the closer the inhabitant gets to this structure as they are squeezed down tight passageways past clusters of significant scratch art and brought to this house on the peripheries of the settlement. As I mentioned in a previous post it is Richards descriptive journey which we have utilised as a basis for the narrative of our collaborative film because we believe it facilitates a deeper level of engagement and encourages consideration of the settlement as being more than simply domestic. It helps you to look past the immediate function of the space and more towards the experience and consciousness of each element.

Take the ‘dresser’ for example, in most reconstructions it is essentially represented as a shelf or mantlepiece with pots, food and carved stone balls stored away in its cubby-holes. However, as I considered the dresser as part of the choreography of the architecture I started to feel differently. The dresser is perfectly framed in the doorway as the visitor crouches down to clamber into House 7, and really looms out if the room is lit by a light in the hearth, if somebody is seated on the rock at the hearth the dresser frames them perfectly and provides a very dramatic backdrop – which quite frankly looked significantly less impressive and imposing when cluttered with objects. For example the carved stone ball we borrowed from the teaching collection at the visitor centre looked dwarfed when we popped it down on the “shelf”.

Aaron being our archaeoacoustics expert encouraged Kieran and I to listen in for the subtle changes to our voices when we sat or stood in front of the dresser then moved away to the side. I say ‘subtle’, but the effect is really quite amazing, a voice in front of the dresser takes on a richness and depth which seems to reach out across the room, while voices from the peripheries of the space are flat and cold. Aaron’s written about this before regarding the acoustics of  House 1, and after further excavations at the Ness of Brodgar which revealed similar structures Nick Card has also stopped referring to the ‘dressers’ as ‘dressers’, preferring the term ‘shrines’. Certainly, something more is going on here, so for the time being we’ve decided to keep the dresser/shrine free of any household clutter.

A rough test render of the interior of House 7 at Skara Brae – the walls still need to be textured with the photogrammetry, I’m working on it!

As you can see from the draft render above the scene in House 7 is starting to come together! Through our narrative we are trying to explore elements of life at Skara Brae which go deeper than the domestic and functional alone. That is not to say there were not elements of domestic life intertwined with parts Neolithic life which seem more ritual and perhaps harder to make sense of from our modern viewpoint. For example, the bed on the right hand side of the house had a cist burial underneath it which was made before the house was built, and there is significant scratch art along its edge, but that does not necessarily mean that because it had this spiritual association with death that it did not also serve a domestic and practical function as a bed. Working out how to convey this multiple functionality and depth of meaning in our visualisation is challenging, but I think Kieran and Aaron have a few ideas…

With regards to the model I have to say first of all that in this case the laser scan data from the Scottish Ten survey is really invaluable. Skara Brae is such a complex and organic site that no amount of 3ds max modelling could do the structures justice. Once the photogrammetry textures are on the walls it is going to look great!

So far in the smokey scene we have the central fire which is burning a combination of animal dung and seaweed (no peat at that time and wood for fire would be more useful for other tasks – I’d just like to point that out now before people start commenting, dung was really my only option here, I didn’t just favour it out of a range of multiple options ok guys?!). The roof is constructed out of an eclectic combination of driftwood, twigs and whalebone, lashed together with something like twisted heather and for the moment I have animal skins over this construction, but that may change.

The beds are cushioned with bracken, animal furs and hides, in the left hand bed Childe recorded excavating a cow skull so this is sat next to the fire on an animal hide where some beadwork/leather work is being done with various tools scattered about. I’m thinking about painting some ochre pigment on the skull and once characters are added to the scene it may be the case that we have someone sat on the skin painting pigment on the skull with their fingers. There is of course also the usual grooved ware pot behind the skull, and a few scattered stone and bone pots, and some charred  limpet shells in the refuse of the fire, above which fish and meat are hung in the ceiling to smoke.

As well as the academic archaeological texts I’ve been reading “The Gathering Night” by Margaret Elphinstone on the recommendation of Caroline Wickham-Jones who I believe assisted the author with a lot of the archaeological detail for the novel.  Although the book is set in the Mesolithic with a hunter-gatherer society, I’ve found the richness of detail in this creative approach to be really inspiring for dressing my late-Neolithic scene and it is certainly helping with the considerations which need to be made to make a space feel lived in.

Kieran is currently working away on the aerial kite to House 1 transition and Aaron is beginning work on painting some of the live action footage of the scratch art with pigment, the next task for me working backwards through our narrative will be the modelling of the passageways from the scan mesh, so I’ll probably meet Kieran and Aaron ‘virtually’ around the entrance to passage B sometime next week!



  1. Grace · · Reply

    I love it! How fascinating about the dresser/shrine. Though come to think of it, later dressers for displaying prized possessions (not just for storage out of site) are SORT of like shrines for knick-knacks.

    It’s all so beautiful and wonderful.

    1. Yes, I always think the most fascinating thing about the Neolithic is that it seems like people didn’t separate between the domestic and the ritual like we do, everything was intertwined with meaning – so something that may at first appear to us to have a practical purpose could have a much deeper meaning.

  2. It would seem our thesis ideas and research are very similar. It is nice to see someone else is combining their love of messing with game engines with their fondness for past cultures. I am currently working on a 3-D VR reconstruction of a early hominin site in Israel, called U’beidiya, that will hopefully turn out to be impressively-intensive and informative within the field of archaeology and biological anthropology. I have yet to post on my blog ( about the project, since I have no life outside my thesis… ha. If you would like to rack each other’s brains, feel free to contact me on WordPress. I would be interested in getting advice on what imaging software you think I should try out. (I can be more descriptive later, if you happen to be interested of course).


    Ashley (AmiraZara)

    1. Hi Ashley, sorry for the slow reply – currently on route to Orkney for fieldwork so my internet access is limited at the moment! Always happy to discuss this kind of thing and your research sounds right up my street. This is actually quite an old post, I’ve since finished my PhD (right with you on the thesis taking over my life too…but in a good way, I think I had far too much fun researching my topic, haha!) happy to email you a PDF if you think it might be interesting for your area? But don’t feel obliged to read it! 🙂

  3. Yeah, that would be great.

    My e-mail is:

    Thanks! Will you be presenting at the digital archaeology conference at Duke in October? I will be there, I am presenting on the 3DDig (VR) program that I am making and various other archaeology-centric ideas. If you aren’t already going, you totally should. The workshops and talks look very interesting. I think abstracts are already passed due, but you can still register.

    Looking forward to reading your dissertation.


    1. Emailed you the thesis! I won’t be going to the conference at Duke I’m afraid, I’m based in Scotland so it’s a bit far for me, sounds great though. A

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