Fountains Abbey – 3D digital models of a protected World Heritage Site to ground truth the Curious Travellers project

The Curious Travellers project uses public-donated photographs and videos combined with extensive web-mining of photographic and related information drawn from travel blogs, the wider web and social media to create 3D digital models of archaeological and historical sites and buildings at risk. We are often asked how we can be certain that we have the models right – if they are buildings that have been damaged since the photographs were taken then how can we be certain that our models are accurate and true representations?

Image 1: Temple of Bel at Palmyra World Heritage Site

Quite simply, we test our methodology with protected and well-preserved heritage. The process of designing the workflow and then creating the 3D models is a time consuming, iterative process. We have to go through multiple versions of 3D models, trialling different software packages and approaches, various subsets of images (such as those donated by the public, those recovered by web-scrapping, and those taken by team members and students) and then assessing each model for accuracy, which is why it seems such a slow process. A key aspect of assessing the quality of our models is to test them against laser-scanned data (which is highly accurate) and/or site visits of extant historic buildings to check the quality of the models. This allows us to understand the potential and limitations of 3D models based on donated or web-scraped photographs.

One of our major test sites is the World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey near Ripon in the UK. Working in collaboration with colleagues from the National Trust, staff from the Curious Travellers project and other research groups from School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences (SAFS), University of Bradford have been undertaking ground-breaking research at the abbey using cutting-edge technologies. Some aspects of this research have already been publicised (Technology reveals archaeological discovery at Fountains Abbey), while other aspects are still being actively researched. We have even been fortunate to have some of the fabulous students from SAFS, University of Bradford working with us on the project, who have even produced edible 3D models. We particularly enjoyed this type of 3D model!

Image 2: Bek’s gingerbread rendering of Fountains Abbey

The accuracy and precision of the 3D models our team has created of Fountains Abbey and Fountains Abbey with GPR allows us to be certain about the models we create from your donated images.

Image 3: A pointcloud model of the main building complex at Fountains Abbey World Heritage Site

Sometimes the models will be of entire sites, while othertimes the team will concentrate on only one building, such as the model of the Guest House at Fountains Abbey created by our student Bek.

Image 4: A 3D model of the Guest House at Fountains Abbey World Heritage Site

We are very grateful for any images you choose to share with us, and hope the contribution we are making to preserving heritage is worthy of them: get involved

Curious Travellers on Holiday!

Bek Hart

Hello, I am Bek. I volunteer at Bradford Visualisation and have helped a bit in this project.

Cast your mind back to this blog post by Eddy (, when he made a model of the war memorial. The technique he used is called photogrammetry. As you may already know a large part of this project is asking for your photos. We need them to use so that we can do photogrammetry on heritage at risk.

Fig. 1: 3D-model of Bradford War memorial

I enjoy doing photogrammetry and so while on holiday I couldn’t resist doing some. While on Smiths Beach, Phillip Island (Australia) I did the archaeologists’ version of sandcastle building and built a sand-hillfort! I then took multiple photographs with the intention to run them through the photogrammetry software to see if it would be possible to create a 3D sandcastle! So on my return I did just that and here is the result! (

Fig. 2: Bek’s sandcastle hillfort

You see, photogrammetry can be used for many different things on many different objects. It can be used on buildings such as the Temple of Bel ( to a small object such as tie (

Fig. 3: Point cloud temple of bel with map underlay

Fig. 4: Sir John Harvey-Jones’ Tie

My sandcastle/hillfort was just a bit of fun but it can show just what can be done with photogrammetry. It also shows the range of materials it can be used on. In this instance it was sand and I was not sure if it would work. There are various things that can interfere with how well a model turns out when using photogrammetry. Is it too symmetrical, shiny or lacking in features that the software can match? Often the more photos of an object used the better the model, as the software has more chance of finding matches (or overlaps) in the images. This is why we are asking for people’s holiday photos to be donated – the more photos the better. Maybe the photo of that camel has a bit of the building in the background – it might be that bit of building that we need more pictures of (That and I’d love us to make a 3D camel!) so that we can get enough data to reconstruct that corner.


The Curious Travellers project is very grateful for any images you choose to share with us, and hope the contribution we are making to preserving heritage is worthy of them: get involved

A note from the Curious Travellers project:

Bek is a final year student who has been volunteering in Bradford Visualisation during a work placement in her third-year, and over the this summer and autumn. Amongst other work, she has been scanning photos, using structured-light scanning to digitise and model artefacts, and producing 3D models via photogrammetry. Bek has been a fantastic and invaluable addition to the project. We have really enjoyed having her work with us and are very grateful for all the hard work she has done.


Swifter than Eagles: a photographic documentation of Lt. Col. Sprot’s wartime journeys

Richard Bates

The Curious Travellers project relies on donations of images from members of the public who have travelled to interesting places, and immortalised them in their photographs. In mid-May Dr Richard Bates visited Lt. Col. Sprot, retired commander of the Royal Scots Greys, to look through his photographic record acquired both during and after WWII in campaigns throughout N. Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe. The Royal Scots Greys was one of the oldest cavalry regiments of the British Army until they merged with the 3rd Carabiniers in 1971.

Fig 1: Lt. Col. Sprot on campaign and today.

During WWII, they were first sent to the Middle East, which is where our story begins. In 1939, Adian Sprot enlisted and after the usual training period joined the regiment on the long boat journey round the Cape of Good Hope to arrive in Palestine in time to take part in the transition from horse to mechanised vehicles. As one of the few who could drive, his initial duties included the instruction on the new wheeled vehicles. The introduction of Grant and Stuart tanks followed rapidly in 1941. Fighting the German Panzer divisions along the North African coast from the second Battle of El Alamein to the subsequent chase of Rommel east to Syria took Lt. Con. Sprot through locations and sites that are the current focus of the Curious Travellers project.

Fig 2: One of Lt. Col. Sprot’s images of the ruins at Palmyra

Following the North Africa campaign, the regiment was refitted with Sherman tanks in time to participate in the Salerno landings (Operation Avalanche) and to advance on Naples. Their stay in Italy was short-lived, however, as the call came to return to Britain in preparation for D-Day. As part of the second wave on 7th June, the first three tanks of the regiment landed on Juno Beach. By September, they were part of Operation Market-Garden with fighting around Eindhoven that continued in the Low Countries through the winter. Their final big push came with a dash to the north, arriving in Wismar on the Baltic coast on May 1st just hours before meeting up with the Red Army. The regiment remained in Germany post war but returned to the Middle East during the Aden Emergency in 1962.

Lt. Col. Sprot had retired by this point but with a keen interest in history he continued his travels through many of the countries in which he had previously campaigned. Today, he lives quietly in the Scottish Borders and at 98 years old still has not only a keen interest but a very clear memory for events that are now over 50 years in the past. His best memories are centred on the sights such as the countryside of Palestine in early spring bloom, the monuments to cultures now long gone and the places with links to Biblical history. His less pleasant memories include having to “make-do” with Canadian Club rather than a good Scottish Malt – “not that we were going to turn our nose up at anything!”

Fig 3: One of Lt. Col. Sprot’s images of the West Bank

Lt. Con. Sprot’s photographic collection taken whilst on campaign and immediately following his retirement include pictures of Palymera and Cyrene. The Curious Travellers project is making rapid progress on the digital 3D reconstruction of these monuments and the photographs provided by Lt. Con. Sprot will add vital detail to them. The response to the Curious Travellers project has been tremendous with the number of images received in the thousands. However, to fill gaps in the models and get a more complete picture of the monuments, still more are needed. An interesting aspect that has surfaced from the project so far is a validation that we are largely people of similar habits. From the photos gathered, it is clear that most people take pictures from the same places pointing cameras at the same scenes. Rarely do we look around the corner or take a picture from the other side – perhaps this work will encourage us to do so and find out more about the places we visit.

Fig 4: One of Lt. Col. Sprot’s images of Cyrene.

Finally, you can find out more about the project at Curious Travellers:

To learn more about the life of Lt. Con. Sprot from his memoir of the war, read Swifter than Eagles: War Memoirs of a Young Officer 1939-1945, Pentland Press, Durham, 1998.

“Time’s Arrow” and the mundane nature of cultural destruction.

Vince Gaffney


Not surprisingly, we hear most about monument destruction when it is dramatic or when famous monuments are affected. The recent destruction at Palmyra, the Bamiyan Buddhas, the earthquake damage at Assisi or the fire that damaged part of Windsor Castle are obvious examples. However, the reality of monument damage is that, actually, it is pervasive and to some extent inevitable. Ultimately all things pass, and the effect of “Time’s Arrow” is ultimately the destruction of everything! However, such bleak statements don’t excuse the current generation, or any other, from taking action. Indeed, the fact that we understand the extent of potential damage to monuments suggests that we have to act now on the presumption of destruction; to try to understand the nature and scale of destruction or decay and to give every monument the opportunity of preservation either physically or digitally.


Eroded land with prehistoric tumuli in Croatia (Photo Darja Grosmann)


Accurate information on the extent and level of destruction across large areas is relatively rare and only some areas have been investigated with the specific goal of gathering such information. One example of this is the Adriatic Islands Project whose survey of a group of islands in Croatia included the goal of providing quantitative information on the state of preservation of the cultural monuments within their study area. This was no small achievement and over a decade the project teams systematically surveyed, mapped or recorded more than 2000 archaeological sites, providing one of the most comprehensive sets of data relating to monument survival and destruction within the region.


Islands in the central Adriatic


Data from the islands indicate that a significant portion of all known sites, in excess of 30%, may be classified as badly damaged or destroyed and fewer than 10% were actually considered to be well preserved or undamaged. Not surprisingly, little or nothing could ever be presumed to be in pristine condition. Across the Central Adriatic much of this damage reflected changes associated with the development of mass tourism across the region within the last forty years. This has involved the construction of large hotel and holiday bungalow complexes, new roads, water pipe lines and electricity pylons. With increased demand for building materials and few people caring for the land, archaeological sites become merely convenient quarries for hard-core and the associated demand for construction materials has been partly met through the quarrying of stone antiquities for building material and their reduction to limestone rubble for use in construction. In an area that has suffered the ravages of war very recently it is also clear that historic and recent military activities have damaged sites.


 Site Condition on Šolta, Vis, Brač and Hvar (Gaffney and Kirigin 2006).


Old meets new (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


Agricultural decline and decay (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


WWII bunker on Šćedro (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


Outside the areas of urban and tourist development the destruction of cultural sites on the central Adriatic islands was, as a whole, a relatively slow process: a reflection of the nature of traditional building and agricultural techniques on the islands. Earlier stone structures, rather than being robbed and recycled as they frequently are in other areas, have often been used as the focus of later clearance and simply preserved within the agricultural landscape. However, some aspects of traditional agricultural practices can be equally destructive. The digging of wells for valuable water may destroy sites whilst vineyards require the periodic excavation of deep bedding trenches. Olives thrive if protected within a pit dug into prehistoric tumuli. The extensive use of terraces in karst agriculture must also result in dramatic differential destruction to sites.


However, the agricultural population in the region has been in decline since the beginning of the 20th century, and this process, especially in those areas or smaller islands where demographic change has resulted in total depopulation, is sometimes associated with an increase in monument damage. The slower processes of erosion and degradation have actually increased as abandoned terraces collapse and the soils are easily eroded along with their historic contents.


Clearance cairns (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


Destroying historic cairns and tumuli for hard-core (Photo Dr B. Kirigin)


Bulldozed road around a stone field hut or Trim (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


What then does this mean for Curious Travellers? The conclusion must be that the methodologies and technologies developed as part of the project have to be made available universally. Whether or not any monument is threatened by deliberate destruction or catastrophic accident is irrelevant as all monuments are threatened and we have to proceed on the presumption that we have to prepare for loss. When historic environment registers or sites and monument records have the capacity to accept 3D data and the opportunity to use imagery provided by the general public it is likely that we will have the capacity to respond to the full extent of mundane, and pervasive, damage to the historic environment.


The Adriatic islands Project (


Gaffney V, Kirigin B, Petrić M and Vujnović N (1997) The Adriatic Islands Project. Contact, Commerce and Colonisation. 6,000BC – AD 600. Volume 1. The Archaeological Heritage of Hvar; Croatia. British Archaeological Reports Supplementary series 660.

Stančič Z, Kirigin B and Vujnović N (1999) The Adriatic Islands Project. Contact, Commerce and Colonisation. 6,000BC – AD 600. Volume 2. The Archaeological Heritage of Brač; Croatia. British Archaeological Reports Supplementary series 803.

Gaffney V and Kirigin B (eds) (2006) The Adriatic Islands Project Volume 3. The Archaeological Heritage of Vis, Bisevo, Svetac, Palagruža and Solta. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1492.

A Curiously Travelled Past

You may have seen that the origin of the Curious Travellers project name, as shown on the website’s front page, is a quote from Horace Walpole Earl of Orford, in a letter to Sir Horace Mann (1774)…

“At last some curious traveller from Lima will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra”.

At times from looking at the website it may seem as though the project team is separated from you, the curious travellers community, wherever you are in the world with you travelling to amazing places and us staying in the office collating your images, stories and information. This really is not the case. Each member of the project team has their own biography within the world of archaeological heritage, our own curiously travelled past as it were (perhaps some more strange and curious than others), which has led each of us to our place in the project. We work both in archaeology or the heritage sector while also undertaking our own personal travels. You may have seen that several of the pictures on the ‘name that archaeological site’ game (on Twitter and Facebook @curioustravell2) are from the Curious Travellers team members’ own holiday snaps rather than just being images recorded during fieldwork. We are just as curious and interested in travelling and experiencing the past as you are.

Many of the Curious Travellers team have been lucky enough to have worked on some amazing, world famous sites in the past. One especially interesting project that several of the team worked on was the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project.  There is an interesting article written about this by Dr Chris Gaffney, published in the Conversation ‘How technology, not spades, revealed what lies beneath Stonehenge’

This Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project has recently been nominated for the Current Archaeology Awards 2017 in the category for ‘Archaeological Innovation of the Last 50 Years’. We would be grateful to receive your vote and to help promote the work of the Curious Travellers team members. You can vote via this link

As always we appreciate the images you keep sending us, and we will be reporting on our preliminary results soon: get involved

What are we trying to achieve with the Curious Travellers project?

When I started working as part of the CT team, my friends and family asked me what was the purpose of the Curious Travellers project? What was it aiming to achieve? This is not such a simple question to answer. As with many heritage projects it works on different levels, and we hope that different people will benefit and interact with the CT project in different ways. A very clear (and accessible) explanation about the project was written by Dr Andy Wilson, one of the leaders of the project team (, in an article published in the online journal The Conversation during September. You can read the article here:


The CT team are aware that we are making a very personal request to the Curious Travellers community by asking you to upload your images. They are not just pictures. Instead, they are your memories – of a holiday you took, the places you visited, the people with whom you travelled, the new friends you made in the countries you visited, a snapshot of your personal past. This is not an exhaustive list of the meanings behind and associations with the images you share with us. This is an aspect of heritage and preserving the past which many people overlook. Preserving heritage is not just about the physical aspects of buildings – the bricks and mortar – although they are very important. It is also about preserving peoples’ memories associated with the buildings, how they interacted with the buildings in their daily life, how peoples’ sense of identity and their place in the world was shaped by the buildings around them. The destruction of their heritage (through whatever agency, whether natural disaster, human conflict, etc.) affects people’s sense of who they are. By preserving the lost heritage in a digital form, the Curious Travellers project is attempting to preserve part of this personal aspect of peoples’ lives.

We are very grateful for any images you choose to share with us, and hope the contribution we are making to preserving heritage is worthy of them: get involved

Trials and tribulations of a novice 3D modeller

Having had my first personal foray into digital 3D modelling from photographs last week when I worked on the model of Bradford War Memorial (fortunately I work with many clever people who are experts in 3D modelling), I thought I would give it another try. Oh Dear, did I come down to earth with a bump! It is much more tricky to do than I found last week.

I decided to have a go at making a 3D model of a Minoan pottery kiln (with another job hat on I study Minoan pottery). Partly this was out of interest to see a model of the kiln, but mostly it was to learn more about the software and how the whole process works. My main summer holiday this year was on Crete as my partner had never been there (you may have seen the picture we took of Knossos in the Curious Travellers ‘name that archaeological site’ game we run each week on Twitter and Facebook @curioustravell2). On our trip to the Mesera plain in the south of the island to see the Palace of Phaistos we also stopped at the site of Hagia Triada, a Late Minoan Villa nearby. On that site are the remains of a well-known Late Minoan Pottery kiln and I took quite a few photos to show the key features. I didn’t plan to make a 3D model with them.

My partner suggested I try making a 3D model as I had many photos of the kiln and so I thought I would give it a try. However, when I went back to look at them I realised I had only taken photos from three main directions. This was partly as these showed the key features of the kiln and partly due to the slope of the land and to the protective roof over the kiln blocking some views.

hagia-triada-kiln-a hagia-triada-kiln-b hagia-triada-kiln-c

I thought I would try to get other pictures from Internet searches, but it turns out that everyone takes their photos from roughly the same three viewpoints. Undeterred, I tried to give it a go.

My first attempt did show the kiln, albeit very truncated, but mainly showed a fabulous image of the wall around the fire pit rather than the wonderful structure of channels running under the firing chamber in the main kiln structure. Clearly the wall was the most distinct feature in the photographs, and so it is what the software picked out. Although an important part of the kiln it is not the most exciting bit. For some reason the channels appear very short. Perhaps the perspective of the images made it appear short or perhaps the software ignored this part of the image.


Take 2. This time I decided to digitally cut out the wall in the hope the software would focus on the channels. Cue epic software fail – there must not have been enough identifying points between the photos to distinguish the key features from each angle. In effect the software could not identify the same feature(s) from the different angles. I’m too embarrassed to show an image of this stage – it was so bad.

Take 3. I finally decided to ask for some advice from a friendly colleague (I realise now that perhaps I should have started here – Thanks to TS). If the software cannot distinguish the key points to link the images, try making separate chunks of the model from each of the three viewpoints and then join the three chunks together. Sounds sensible. This is the resulting image.


This attempt was more successful, although there were still problems. The software has identified the channels 🙂 but they are not aligned correctly 🙁 At this point, I’d run out of time as I had an appointment for which I needed to leave.

I will have another go at realigning or reprocessing these images when I have more free time and, hopefully, have found more images. None of the images above are anywhere near a finished model – I just thought I would share my experience.

This has taught me some valuable lessons about processing the images

a) ask for advice from the experts (obvious I know).

b) you need images from a variety of angles to make a decent 3D image, not just the angles that give the most pleasing photo composition.

The most important lesson was how important it will be to have the many and varied images of sites and buildings that are being sent in by the Curious Travellers community. We cannot do this project without your help and we greatly appreciate any images you are able to send us. Don’t worry if you think we may already have photos of the site or if it is an unusual angle of the building. It may just be that your image is the exact one we need to join the images together and make the model work: get involved

Your Heritage Needs You!

Probably the most common statement we receive from members of the Curious Travellers community is along the lines of ‘I have some photographs from the archaeological site of ###, but I’m sure you already have (enough) pictures of it’.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

We want as many different pictures of the sites, buildings and monuments as you wish to send us. Since we are trying to reconstruct digital 3D models of the buildings, we need many more images than you might think. All too often people only take one photograph of a building or monument to record their memory, and this would only give us a single viewpoint of the structure. The beauty of receiving images from the Curious Travellers community is that they are all taken from slightly different viewpoints and directions, which means we can get to see all (or at least most) of the sides of the building. Even more important, which perhaps feels slightly strange, is that we also want to see images of the back or unadorned sides of the monument, which people often do not think worthy of recording. In many instances you will see images of the rear of buildings in the background of photographs looking at other items of interest. Images like this can be really useful.

To try to illustrate this problem in a better (and non-technical) manner, I’m going to use as an example a monument down the road from where I am sat now – the Bradford war memorial. Partly this comes to mind as today is Remembrance Day, but also due to my interest in the archaeology of the First World War. This memorial is also a classic example for illustrating that preserving heritage does not just mean physical objects and buildings, since the building also acts as a conceptual link and reminder to the memories and people with whom it is associated.

In many cases people would photograph the front of the monument, or perhaps take close up snaps of details, such as the figures, or of the writing. You might end up with some photos similar to these:

p1000488 p1000469 p1000492 p1000502

Using images like these, we can start to create a 3D image on the computer using photogrammetry  (=the use of photography to ascertain measurements on and between objects) software. However, the model resulting from these images contains gaps in the data and there are whole aspects of the monument that we cannot see, such as the rear face. Also, with limited viewpoints onto the monument, the computer software struggles to create a 3D model from 2D pictures. We end up with a messy looking model such as this:

Even at this stage we are recovering important data, but you can clearly see where we need a broader photographic coverage to make a better 3D model. We can try using a larger number of images to create another 3D image. This one has used 96 photographs, combining wide angle shots and close-up pictures of the details of the figures.

As you can see from looking at the model it is still not complete, and there are areas that have not been covered in the photographs, in particular the very top of the memorial. However, it is a reasonable, workable 3D model that allows us to see the main details of the memorial.

This has illustrated clearly several problems the Curious Travellers project has with reconstructing 3D models of the archaeological sites, and the buildings and monuments that comprise them:

  • We need photographs from multiple angles and viewpoints
  • We need photographs of the back of buildings and monuments
  • There are problems with getting photographs looking down on the tops of buildings and monuments, unless they are overlooked by hills or other buildings

The Curious Travellers project is currently working through the images that have kindly been sent to us, but we need more support from you. Amongst all the other sites we are working on at the moment, we are particularly interested in images of Cyrene in Libya and would be very grateful to have images of Cyrene uploaded via our website: get involved