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The Digital Ossuary: 3D visualisation of a unique and endangered archaeological site

posted on 2017-09-06, 09:42 authored by Elizabeth Craig-AtkinsElizabeth Craig-Atkins, Stephen MaddockStephen Maddock, Dawn Hadley, Robin ScottRobin Scott

This project was funded by the University of Sheffield Digital Humanities Exploration Fund in 2015.

The project integrated computer science and archaeological approaches in an investigation of the subterranean medieval charnel chapel of Holy Trinity church in Rothwell (Northamptonshire), which houses one of only two remaining in situ medieval ossuaries in England. The chapel, which was constructed during the 13th century, houses disinterred human skeletal remains radiocarbon dated to the 13th-15th and 18th-19th centuries. While medieval charnelling was a European-wide phenomenon, evidence has largely been lost in England following the early 16th-century Reformation, and Rothwell is the most complete surviving example of a charnel chapel with in situ medieval remains. Recent research within the Department of Archaeology has suggested that these charnel structures served a much more complex liturgical role than merely permitting the clearance of overly-full graveyards (which has long been presumed to be their prosaic role); they also provided places of pilgrimage and were the focus of intercessory devotion, where the faithful could pray for the souls of the departed whilst in the physical presence of their corporeal remains. Rothwell charnel chapel is, hence, a site of major international significance, but analysis of the site is hampered by issues of access and preservation. The proposed project has four principal aims:

1. to develop analysis of the hitherto largely unstudied medieval charnel chapel by collecting digital records of the charnel deposit and their environment;

2. to enhance interpretation of the manner in which the ossuary was utilized in the medieval period, through digital capturing of the spatial arrangements within the chapel, and the range of medieval vantage points into the chapel;

3. to present this fragile, and largely inaccessible (due to narrow stair access, now blocked medieval windows and cramped internal space), heritage resource to the public in a sustainable manner; and

4. to facilitate preservation of the ossuary, which is in a fragile state, in the form of digital preservation in situ.

A Leica ScanStation P20 3D scanner was used to capture a 3D point cloud of the charnel chapel. Seventeen scans were taken at different locations and registered (using Leica Cyclone) to produce a model containing 60 million points. This data set is supplied in the following formats:

E57 file format – Oss_E57.e57

.ptx file format – Ossuary_PTX.ptx

Initial work was done (see publications) to convert the point cloud into a 3D virtual reality model of the space. A simplified (decimated) mesh containing approx. 3.5 million faces is available in .obj format as (which contains mesh.obj, mesh.mtl, and eight supporting texture files: tex_0.jpg to tex_7.jpg).


Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, Jennifer Crangle and Dawn Hadley. Rothwell Charnel Chapel – The nameless dead. Current Archaeology magazine issue 321, November 2016.

Jenny Crangle, Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, Dawn Hadley, Peter Heywood, Tom Hodgson, Steve Maddock, Robin Scott, Adam Wiles. The Digital Ossuary: Rothwell (Northamptonshire, UK). Proc. CAA2016, the 44th Annual Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, Oslo, 29 March – 2 April, Session 06 Computer tools for depicting shape and detail in 3D archaeological models.

Wuyang Shui, Steve Maddock, Peter Heywood, Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, Jennifer Crangle, Dawn Hadley and Rab Scott. Using semi-automatic 3D scene reconstruction to create a digital medieval charnel chapel. Proc. CGVC2016, 15-16 September, 2016, Bournemouth University, United Kingdom.

Wuyang Shui, Jin Liu, Pu Ren, Steve Maddock and Mingquan Zhou. Automatic planar shape segmentation from indoor point clouds. Proc. VRCAI2016, 3-4 December 2016, Zhuhai, China.


The University of Sheffield Digital Humanities Exploration Fund



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