Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae

Part of the One World Archaeology book series (WORLDARCH, volume 11)


This project explores mixed-media as an archaeological field method through the act of making an experimental film at the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. A mixed-media approach has the potential to capture and communicate very different qualities of the archaeological record to systematic and objective techniques of data collection alone. The process of gathering and converging diverse media, from laser scans to watercolour painting, enables experiential and creative responses to the past.


Art Archaeology Camera Video Documentation Creative practice 

This project explores mixed-media as an archaeological field method through the act of making an experimental film at the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. A mixed-media approach has the potential to capture and communicate very different qualities of the archaeological record to systematic and objective techniques of data collection alone. The process of gathering and converging diverse media, from laser scans to watercolour painting, enables experiential and creative responses to the past.

While field archaeologists negotiate archaeology through their senses, these experiences are often mediated through technologies such as cameras, survey machines or scanners. This influences and even constrains the kinds of information that are observed and recorded, effectively distancing the field worker from their material. Photography fixes an image and frames the world through viewfinders and lenses, giving the impression of time being frozen. Three-dimensional meshing techniques, including laser scanning, capture surfaces in enormous detail but at the expense of embodied human engagement. There are no defined archaeological methods or machines for capturing or reproducing ephemeral sensory qualities such as sound, or the impact of time and movement upon how places and landscapes are understood. An alternative might be to integrate established methodologies within rather more creative and subjective approaches which have the potential to foreground embodied sensory experience (e.g. Watson 2005; Bender et al. 2007).

The Neolithic site of Skara Brae, located in Mainland Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland, was surveyed in 2010 by the Scottish Ten project using laser scanners and photogrammetry rigs (Wilson et al. 2010). This made Skara Brae an ideal focus for a collaborative project between the authors; three visualisation specialists working across diverse media. Alice Watterson has a background in archaeology and works with laser scan data, both to produce photorealistic digital reconstructions and research their impact upon understandings of the past. Kieran Baxter is skilled in kite aerial photography, and is researching the role of film and animation within heritage presentation. Aaron Watson is an artist and archaeologist who explores how the creative application of multimedia, from painting to computer modelling, can inform archaeological interpretation.

This chapter reflects upon fieldwork conducted in Orkney in May 2012, and the subsequent creation of a short film. As a work in progress, Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae moves from the present day to the imagined past, from a remote aerial perspective to an embodied encounter deep within the walls of the village and from objective interpretation to creative storytelling.


The film opens with panoramic views—coastal cliffs framing a turbulent ocean. The light is luminescent and sea birds soar through the sky.

Skara Brae is a late Neolithic stone-built settlement consisting of several discrete buildings connected by low passageways. The site was excavated and partially restored in the 1930s, and is now set within an extensive World Heritage landscape. This comprises a remarkable group of monuments including Barnhouse, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness (Downes et al. 2005).

While collecting material for the film, we visited many locations across the wider landscape. We felt it was important to engage with a diverse range of sites, many of which were contemporary with Skara Brae. Our original intent was to integrate some of these wider visual and architectural references within the film, but this ultimately proved too disruptive to the overall flow of the narrative. The sea cliffs above Skaill Bay remain as one of the few elements of the wider landscape to feature in this edit. Views like these may have been familiar to the inhabitants of Skara Brae.


The aerial perspective from the cliffs fades into a gentle flight down towards the remains of Skara Brae as they are seen today. The camera approaches the exposed interior of House 1 and, passing through the eye-level of the visitor on the modern-day path, spirals down to the level of the village.

This shot combines kite aerial photography, laser scan data and live action footage. Low-level aerial photography was used to capture detail and lighting which was later draped over a digital mesh generated from the laser scan data. To maintain an unbroken sequence as the camera encounters the confined interior space, the computer-generated elements were blended into live action footage using match-moving software. While the shot was achieved by combining imagery from somewhat contrasting methods—a kite and a hand-held video camera—both were captured simultaneously to ensure that the sunlight and shadows across the site remained consistent as the camera moved from the sky to the ground.

Kite aerial photography offers a dynamic perspective operating in the zone between the photographic boom or tower, and the low flying aircraft. From the oblique angle chosen for this shot, the features within Skara Brae are separated out whilst remaining recognisable, helping the viewer to orientate themselves and establishing the site within its immediate landscape. There is also a dichotomy accompanying this aerial imagery, which is at once familiar and estranged. In contrast to the elevated view from the sea cliffs, this suspended view departs from the experience available to fieldworkers, visitors or people in the past. In this respect it represents a disembodied perspective.


Having descended to the ground, the camera now moves through the doorway of House 1 into the darkened interior of Passage A. Daylight reveals where the roof of the passage is missing, but the scene briefly appears to distort, revealing ghostly faces and shadows. The camera then turns to focus upon a stone incised with abstract lines which are lit by flickering red firelight dancing across the surface.

In this sequence, live action footage is mixed with computer-generated shots of Neolithic art. These were generated on location using structure from motion photogrammetry, and lighting was added digitally in post-production.

The camera’s trail through the passageway begins a journey within Skara Brae which has been explored by Richards (1991). The inhabitant, or visitor, moves through a sequence of spatial divisions, punctuated at significant boundaries with incised decoration. Scratch art within the passageways has also been described by Shepherd (2000) as ‘muted’ and ‘secretive’ (see also Thomas this volume). This implies that it was not solely decorative, but a focus for rather more subtle and symbolic meanings. The film references these possibilities by lingering upon the stone surface, while abstracted shapes evoke memories or visions. The significance and potency of crossing this point of transition is further acknowledged by the sudden shift from subdued daylight to flickering firelight.


The camera turns sharply and enters a low and foreboding passageway. Erratic movement reinforces the sense that we are now looking through the eyes of a protagonist. Hands reach out to guide through the darkness and then the image distorts, suggesting visions or memories evoked within this confined place. A dim red light is seen ahead and a hearth is revealed, illuminating a junction of passageways and a narrow doorway.

This sequence was filmed in Passage B using hand-held video, with visual effects added in post-production. The final few meters have collapsed and are now open to the sky, so live action footage merges into an entirely computer-generated reconstruction of the passage network and hearth outside the entrance into House 7.

Passage B is an uncomfortable and claustrophobic place, requiring the visitor to crawl around a tight corner and down a slope. We included shots of our hands to directly capture the difficulties of negotiating this space, reinforcing the impression that the protagonist/audience are now situated firmly within the scene; that this is now an embodied experience. Rather than the camera emerging back into daylight where the roof is missing, we decided to retain this sense of place by digitally recreating the passage. Excavation has revealed that there was a hearth outside the doorway to House 7, and similar features have been found at other Neolithic settlements in Orkney (Richards 2005). It is possible that fire possessed a cleansing symbolism, and it reinforces a significant point of transition as the protagonist turns to enter House 7.


The camera moves through a narrow entrance, revealing a room that is dimly visible through the smoky atmosphere. There is a central hearth beyond which a figure is seated in front of a stone-built ‘dresser’. The camera moves cautiously forwards, glancing at other features nearby; stone furniture, pottery, drying fish, stone tools and a cow skull. One surface is covered with art, the deep scratches seeming to move and shimmer in the flickering light. As the camera draws near, these incised lines are unexpectedly revealed in bright colour.

In this scene, the interior of House 7 is a computer model, created from laser scan mesh and texture data. Reconstructed elements were then digitally modelled, including the speculative architecture of the roof, artefacts, a costumed character, lighting and atmospheres. We prepared the camera moves while filming within House 7, drawing upon the fieldwork to inform how the sequence would later be developed within the virtual model. The shot of the incised art combines sequences of animated photogrammetry captured in the field and draped with a painted image.

In this sequence, we sought to retain the sense of first-hand experience following the journey down Passage B. We also wished to convey a sense that this was an inhabited place—a dwelling. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that House 7 was treated rather differently to other dwellings in the village. It is spatially separated by the uncomfortable crawl down Passage B and two female burials were placed under the right hand bed when the foundations of the house were laid. It is also the only structure which has a door that can be locked from the outside (Richards 1991). These unusual qualities inspired us to convey this space as converging the familiar with the strange. The sequence was filmed to give the impression of the camera being hesitant, suggesting caution on the part of the protagonist. The unexpected appearance of shifting imagery and colour conveys further ambiguity.


Following an encounter with brightly coloured art, the camera becomes increasingly unsteady and the interior of House 7 begins to blur and distort. Emerging from a collage of shifting light, we see that the seated figure’s skin is intensely decorated with geometric designs. A carved stone ball turns slowly in her hands; facets upon its intricately carved surface catch the light. In slow motion, as if in a dream or altered state of consciousness, this potent stone object is given to the protagonist.

This sequence is entirely composed of live action footage recorded within House 7, later effected in post-production and combined with off-site footage featuring a replica of one of the carved stone balls discovered at the site. Inspiration for the body painting was derived from rock art motifs including the Pierowall stone in Orkney, and decoration on Grooved Ware pottery.

As the protagonist approaches the mysterious seated figure, disorienting visuals suggest an altered state of consciousness. Yet, this was also informed by our own experiences of working for long periods within the dark and confined spaces of Skara Brae. The narrative arc of the film is driven by a convergence of evidence from the archaeology and our own sensory engagement as field workers; from the virtual to the actual and from the sky to the underground. The journey begins with the disembodied perspective of flight, and ends with a direct encounter with an imagined person; from the wider landscape to a single artefact.

It is rare for research schedules and conventional methodologies to encourage archaeologists and surveyors to step away from their scanners, cameras and other recording devices, and simply dwell. As a creative method, the collection of mixed-media converges empirical techniques directly alongside subjective and sensory experiences. Crucially, it offers a means by which we might inhabit and interpret the otherwise dormant data gathered by cameras and scanners, and reanimate this alongside our embodied encounters with sites and landscapes.

Finally, the film is not a reconstruction. This would suggest that it is possible to see through the eyes of Neolithic people. Instead, it is a story about our own engagement with the archaeological record at Skara Brae. It portrays the past only as it is experienced in the present; unfamiliar, emotive, dynamic and transforming.



Many thanks to Historic Scotland for funding this project and to the Scottish Ten team and CDDV (Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation) for provision of data. Thanks to the Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art and to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, the University of Dundee. We are especially grateful to Alice Lyall and Stephen Watt for arranging site access, and also to Ann Marwick, Alan Jones and staff at Skara Brae and Maeshowe. Special thanks to Nick Card, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Antonia Thomas, Peter Needham, Neil Firth and all those who took part in a focus group hosted by Orkney College. Kit Reid and Richard Strachan for their support and feedback. Alastair Rawlinson for his wisdom and assistance back in the lab. Finally, thanks to Jeremy Huggett and Paul Chapman for their advice and guidance.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Digital Design StudioGlasgow School of Art, The HubGlasgowUK
  2. 2.Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and DesignUniversity of DundeeDundeeUK

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