Skara Brae 3D model

Neolithic settlement opens virtually to public via digital model

Image credit: Historic Environment Scotland

Skara Brae has been digitised by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) such that virtual tours of the site in Orkney can be taken from anywhere in the world. The model provides a virtual viewing of the best-preserved house, which is not normally accessible to the public.

The digital model of Skara Brae was created through a process of laser scanning, using ultra-fast, high-resolution laser scanners which capture 3D spatial data in the form of a point cloud. To capture a photorealistic model, hundreds of overlapping images of the site were combined with the spatial data (photogrammetry).

The model - which is available now for anyone to view on Sketchfab - allows visitors to explore the Neolithic site, including the opportunity to gain virtual access to 'House Seven', the best-preserved house at Skara Brae and one not normally accessible to the public.

Skara Brae is over 5,000 years old. It was first uncovered by a storm in 1850. It is the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, with preserved details including furniture inside the houses. 

According to HES, the technology used to create the model also has an important role to play in protecting the site for the future. Since 2010, Skara Brae has been laser scanned every two years by HES to monitor coastal change. The scanning data is used to inform management and maintenance of the site and is shared with Dynamic Coast, Scotland’s national coastal mapping project.

Dr Alistair Rennie, Dynamic Coast project manager, said: “Whilst the challenge posed by climate change is stark, new technologies like those deployed by HES increase our ability to monitor, learn, collaborate and find new approaches to become sea-level wise and adapt to our future climate.”

HES said that as well as offering a unique perspective on the site, the 3D model allows users to explore how climate change and its impacts have shaped Skara Brae from its discovery in the midst of a severe winter storm to today’s threat of coastal erosion from rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and violent storms. Virtual visitors can see how HES and its predecessors have responded to these challenges by exploring the sea wall constructed in the 1920s to protect the site from wave and storm damage, which has since been extended and repaired many times.

Al Rawlinson, head of digital innovation and learning at HES, said: “We’re really pleased to make this 3D model of Skara Brae available, which not only offers an innovative way to access this unique site, but one which also showcases how we are using cutting-edge technology to monitor and maintain our historic environment.

“As we reflect on COP26 and the challenges ahead, we want to demonstrate that in order to protect our past from the impacts of climate change, we must look to the future. Digital technology such as this will be a vital tool to help us better understand and manage the climate risks to our historic places and to share their climate stories.”

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, more museums and galleries have sought to provide remote digital experiences, including the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley and the British Museum in London.

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