Neolithic Breton-Style Rock Art at Boscawen-ûn Stone Circle

Plate 77 from Péquart & Le Rouzic 1927, showing the twin feet motif on stone 8 at Dolmen du Petit-Mont.

Today members of the Cornwall Archaeological Society will have received copies of the latest newsletter. I didn’t expect to be featured on the front page!

Below is the text from the newsletter which I wrote after an intensive couple of days research in the Society of Antiquaries library. I have many more thoughts and notes on the matter and will write a follow-up post.

A Reinterpretation of the Rock Art at Boscawen-ûn Stone Circle

In 1986 Ian Cooke first recorded, on the north-east side of the central stone at Boscawen-ûn stone circle, the presence of a pair of carvings interpreted as representations of neolithic stone axes. This remarkable discovery is relatively obscure and beyond the initial plans to record their location, and beyond Peter Herring’s excellent report in 2000, little research has been undertaken.

In early July 2015 the author was kindly taken to Boscawen-ûn by Adrian Rodda and shown the carvings. During this visit the central stone was recorded using photogrammetry, a technique which uses photographs to create a highly detailed 3D surface model.

Close analysis of the resulting 3D model of the central stone revealed the carvings clearly. The model was straightened so that they could be inspected more closely. Surface colour was removed and digital techniques were employed to accentuate any surface features. The results were surprising.

Depth image of the NE (inner leaning face) of the central stone.
Depth image of the NE (inner leaning face) of the central stone.

The carvings appear to represent not two stone axes but a pair of feet, soles outwards, carved in low relief. A row of ‘toes’ can be discerned, especially on the right-hand foot.

Accessibility shaded image of the carvings.
Accessibility shaded image of the carvings.

They bear a striking resemblance, albiet weathered and on coarse Lands End granite, to those recorded at Dolmen du Petit-Mont at Arzon in Brittany. Barbara Bender noted in 1986 that the stone bearing the feet motif had disappeared. Presumably it was removed or destroyed in WWII. However the author has discovered a photograph in Péquart & Le Rouzic’s 1927 Corpus des Signes Gravés des Monuments Mégalithiques du Morbihan, which is reproduced here. The feet are quite similar in appearance, albeit slightly smaller at 230mm (ours are about 450mm long).

Plate 77 from Péquart & Le Rouzic 1927, showing the twin feet motif on stone 8 at Dolmen du Petit-Mont.
Plate 77 from Péquart & Le Rouzic 1927, showing the twin feet motif on stone 8 at Dolmen du Petit-Mont.

This is not the only surprise at Boscawen-ûn. The data has revealed about 500mm above the feet a pair of circular features, also in low relief, which appear very similar to carvings interpreted as breasts on some allée-couvertes in Brittany (Tressé, Prajou-Menhir, etc).

Along with the presence of the possible cromlêh noted by Dr Borlase, perhaps we could consider that the stone circle was, for reasons unknown, constructed with reused stone from a much larger chambered tomb which incorporated decorated stones in the Breton style. Those symbols may have had potent significance, enough to position them in the centre of a new monument. Reuse of decorated and standing stones is known in Brittany (see Scarre 2011, p147). Many of the inner faces of the stones at Boscawen-ûn are flat – perhaps once lining a small passage or chamber.

More research is in progress and a more detailed article is in preparation.


Barbara Bender with Robert Caillaud. The Archaeology of Brittany, Normandy and the Channel Islands: An introduction and Guide. London: Faber and Faber, 1986.

Peter Herring. Boscawen, St Buryan, Cornwall: archaeological assessment. Truro: Cornwall County Council, 2000.

Martha et Saint-Just Péquart & Zacharie Le Rouzic. Corpus des Signes Gravés des Monuments Mégalithiques du Morbihan. Paris A. Picard & Berger-Levrault, 1927.

Chris Scarre. Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany. OUP. 2011.

A busy summer

Mermaid of Zennor medieval bench end

I haven’t blogged since March, and since I have some data processing in the background and can do little else while I wait, I thought I’d post a little update.

I have been working for most of the week with Azook, rebuilding, the web front-end to their Re:collect digital archive of historic photographs, films and audio from across Cornwall. The updated site will launch in a few weeks with much larger images, better search, an API, and lots of great features. I have also been continuing to work on the MemoryFish project digitising historic photographs if Cornwall’s fishing industry. If that isn’t enough, I have helped Azook to tweak some of their workflows and effect some useful changes internally. I’m really enjoying being in at the deep end of digitisation and hope to continue to work with them on future projects.

When not working with Azook, I’m continuing to work with the Morrab Library. Having designed their digitisation facilities, which I believe are among the best in Cornwall, implemented their database and workflows, I’m also using the system myself to digitise some wonderful 19th century lantern slides. The Morrab Library have applied for some funding to allow us to digitise a unique collection of over a thousand glass plate negatives of archaeological subjects and Cornish cultural events such as the first Gorsedd in 1928. If it works out, these will all be made available online.

Heading back to more ‘direct’ archaeology, I have been busy here too. In the middle of July I visited Professor Charles Thomas FSA with Jacky Nowakowski FSA where we had a chance to visit the church of St Clement near Truro. We recorded the medieval cross in the churchyard using photogrammetry to further investigate the inscriptions. Interpretation is ongoing.

I have also been up to London to use the Society of Antiquaries library to research in interesting find I have made at a stone circle here in west Cornwall. More on that when I have finished the research, but it’s quite an exciting find.

As I type, I am processing both photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imagine (RTI) data for a privately commissioned analysis of a stone thought to contain fine carvings. I am not convinced, but it important to assess the stone carefully. At 50mm x 40mm I have 13 million measurement points and a very nice mesh.

I have also undertaken a commission for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (our largest and busiest museum) to 3D capture the famous medieval mermaid bench-end at the church of St Senara in Zennor. This was a tricky task because of low light levels, high specularity from the church windows on its highly polished wood surface, and many eager visitors. Despite the challenges, the results are fantastic. I provided the model in a format ready for 3D printing, which will be reproduced half size full colour out of solid resin for a forthcoming exhibition.

I’m also preparing an article for publication with Professor Michelle Brown FSA on the Gulval Evangelists to explore the significance of the find more fully.

And then there’s the Tywardreath Priory project, where we hope to launch a public archaeology project to locate and fully investigate a Benedictine priory in the village. I helped out with the open day during the Festival of Archaeology 2015, explaining 3D technologies, LiDAR, and the wider landscape archaeology.

Busy times!

Interactive 3D Models on Sketchfab

Publishing 3D models online used to be a pain. It always relied upon plugins, and the results could never be very detailed. Sketchfab has changed all of that, and made publishing beautifully detailed 3D models a breeze. You could use the analogy that Sketchfab is a kind of YouTube for 3D models. It is also a social network in that favourites, comments and forum discussions are all part of the system.

Whenever I can I will be publishing my models on Sketchfab, and when it’s not work in progress or for a client, I intend to enable downloads under a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license.

Here’s a taster of Penzance Market Cross with a detail enhancement filter applied to it (think inverted chalk rubbing). You may need a fast broadband connection and fairly recent computer to have a smooth viewing experience of this model.

[sketchfab id=”6760debf8f17424c8f20579b910f4c2e” start=”0″ spin=”” controls=”1″]


Recording St Piran’s Oratory – 3D model and animation

I have now completed my recent work on St Piran’s Oratory on behalf of St Piran Trust and Cornwall Archaeological Unit. It was a challenging task requiring a huge amount of computer resources and time, with colleagues at Archaeovision helping when my computer broke down, but I am pleased with the results.

Here is a short animation of St Piran’s Oratory, digitally freed from its concrete walls:

Here is an interactive model which you can zoom, turn, and inspect:

[sketchfab id=”f2f60441723f433cb230153768cf5f77″ start=”0″ spin=”” controls=”1″]

And here is an interactive 3D model of the complete Oratory structure with the concrete walls we see today:

[sketchfab id=”b360da3fe0ca4deda9d6d8b03e2cb4cf” start=”0″ spin=”” controls=”1″]

We must now wait for the final report by CAU (to which this data contributes) to better understand the building and its phasing. Watch this space.

Medieval Chapel Killed My Laptop

St Piran's Oratory rendering

Since November I have been working on 3D capture data from St Piran’s Oratory. It has taken a long time to process the 3D photogrammetry data as it is a hugely complex task to record every stone. This process caused the untimely demise of my 5 year old MacBook Pro, which was struggling anyway. It’s 8GB RAM just couldn’t cope, with the sheer quantities of data, and then the screen began to flash purple, before randomly restarting. Or just turning off. Recording the remains of this old building finished it off. Hence the tabloid-esque title of this blog post…

Happily, colleagues at Archaeovision stepped in to help (thanks James), and I have been able to deliver the (300 million points) raw data to the client, along with a textured mesh of the Oratory and surrounding Scheduled concrete, and a series of orthographic renders of each elevation.

I have since been able to purchase a new computer – an iMac Retina 5K with i7 4Ghz, 32GB RAM, SSD, and upgraded graphics. The screen is gorgeous – so crisp – it makes going back to using a ‘normal’ screen quite difficult. It’s the perfect balance for me in terms of display quality and performance.

The header image of this post shows the last stage of this project. I am rendering a short animation of the chapel  structure to help people visualise it without its concrete shelter.

Since the concrete walls surrounding St Piran’s Oratory do not allow enough clearance for conventional photography, this has proven to be a very useful exercise to record and understand the structure that we see today – a confection of medieval to 20th century rebuilding and repair.

When the animation is available publicly, I will post a link here. I also hope to upload a model of the unencumbered  Oratory to Sketchfab so that it can be inspected at will. I will post that on this site in a new blog post when it is ready.


It’s All About The Photos

It’s been a busy time for me recently, with much of my recent work focussing upon historic photographs and photogrammetry.

I have been working with the Morrab Library in Penzance to build a digitisation facility so that they may begin, with a volunteer workforce, to scan their wonderful collection of historic photographs. There are about 12,000 photos in the collection, ranging from 19th century glass plate negatives, to recent prints covering the whole of Cornwall. I have collated their Microsoft Works databases (one for each collection) into a single database, undertaken a data cleaning exercise, and mapped fields into Dublin Core metadata element set. The entire database was then imported into Omeka which is running on a local web server. I have tweaked Omeka and the environment in which it runs so that large TIFF files (up to 1GB) can be uploaded, with JPEG derivatives being created, the original TIFF being stored on a different server (separate from Omeka, with dual redundant disks and external backup) with the original filename (the photo’s accession number) being preserved. You can’t be too careful.

Whilst it isn’t designed out of the box to be a cataloguing tool, Omeka is doing exactly what we need. The user interface is well-designed and sufficiently easy for some elderly people to grasp quickly. The customisation to store unaltered original scans on an abstraction layer works well. Automatic database backups are also placed on the same server.

I have also begun working for an organisation called Azook, where I am the Project Officer for a project called MemoryFish. It will collect unpublished historic photos, films and recordings from private collections, documenting the history of the fishing industry in Cornwall. The initial areas are Falmouth, Newlyn and Newquay, and photos will be published on

Then there’s the digital archaeology. I have been working for Cornwall Archaeological Unit and St Piran Trust on the recording of the now fully excavated St Piran’s Oratory. With the help of colleagues at Archaeovision we have processed a point cloud consisting of nearly 300 million points. This project is ongoing, but here is a taster of the work in progress.

[iframe width=100% src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen=”true” webkitallowfullscreen=”true” onmousewheel=””]

And in other news, in December 2014 I walked into a hairdressers and came out with short hair. It’s the shortest I’ve worn it since I was 17. Here’s the evidence.

Tom with short hair
Tom with short hair

And I’ve retired my famous trademark brown velvet jacket, replacing it with…. an almost identical copy. Some things should never change!

Penzance’s Midwinter Customs – Montol 2014

Plans for the 2014 Montol celebrations here in Penzance are well underway. This year it is being run by the Cornish Culture Association who have organised a fantastic and packed programme of events on Sunday 21st December.

Dancing at the beacon, Montol 2012

The concept of an organised community celebration on one day called Montol is a modern one. However, many of the individual elements held on the day are much more ancient ones, practised in Penzance and across West Penwith during the height of winter. Guise Dancing, the Chalking of the Mock, fire and beacons, and the revels of the Corn-Market are all well documented midwinter traditions.

Today’s Montol has become a tradition in its own right – an event that many in Penzance look forward to and expect to happen. In the times when our part of the world is at its darkest comes a time when fire, costume, music, colour, dancing, stories, and a little revelry lift the dark blanket of winter a little.

Of course, traditions don’t always have to stand still. Last year’s experimental revival of the Corn-Market is a form of guise dancing formed as a series of games and parade between the town’s pubs recorded by William Sandys in the early 19th century. It is now known as the Corn Market Revels and has proven to be so successful that this year it has inspired a series of ‘guilds’ who are attaching themselves to other iconic buildings in Penzance. Look out for the Egyptians emerging from the Egyptian House on Chapel Street, and the Turks from the Turk’s Head pub (Penzance’s oldest pub) during the course of the evening.

Something that I have learned this past year is that guise dancing is a fascinating tradition. Archaically referred to as “goosey dancing”, it is not, in the strictest sense, necessarily always a dance, but a form of performance that can take many forms. Traditional costume can be rather sinister in its appearance. If you are interested, do have a look at Simon Reed’s Guise Guide to find out more.

New minimal theme and writing with Markdown

My website now has a more minimal theme. I have become weary of the sliders, sidebars, and unneeded visual distractions that I have experimented with in the past.

The theme I have recently switched to is called “Decode”. Visually minimal, but responsive, built in HTML5 from the ground-up and ‘Retina-ready’ for those high resolution displays that will one day become the norm.

Images will be full-width where possible in the future, so that they can be better appreciated without the need for a lightbox effect.

I am also experimenting with Markdown to write posts without the distraction and code-mangling of a WYSIWYG editor. This post is being written in the excellent Byword app on my Mac, which can also post to WordPress.

If you’re reading this, it worked.

The resurgence of archaeology podcasting?

Years ago I used to record an archaeology podcast, imaginatively named “Archaeocast” for Wessex Archaeology. Not many episodes were recorded (17ish) but it was very popular, garnering over 800,000 downloads as of early 2012. It’s probably more than a million now. It was the world’s first archaeology podcast, and even made the iTunes charts at its height in 2006/7. Mainstream media took over podcasting shortly afterwards, consigning most independent podcasts into obscurity. A lot of people stopped recording them, and even my own interest wained.

In the past month I’ve come across two new archaeology podcasts, and they’re both great. Andrew R’s Drunk Archaeology and Tristan’s Anarchaeologist.


Drunk Archaeology is a relaxed podcast featuring archaeologists sharing a drink and talking shop. People talk straight, tell it how it is, and have a laugh. It’s a bit sweary, and is essential listening if archaeologists speaking their minds appeals.


Anarchaeologist (“anarchae” / “anarchy” – geddit?) shares many of my original ideals – to be a ground-up show presenting archaeological themes and topics to the interested public from the minds and mouths of archaeologists themselves.

Tristan interviewed me via Skype yesterday and we had a great chat about podcasting and archaeology. He’s got a great radio voice and a quick mind, and is also a veteran podcaster, so expect the show to grow and grow.

Make sure you subscribe to both – load up a podcasting app on your device, subscribe, and get the episodes automatically delivered when they’re released.

Good luck to both podcasts – it’s great to see a resurgence in archaeology podcasting, and more archaeologists being their own media.