Case Study: Wemyss Caves

Case Study 36

Wemyss Caves

Marcus Abbott

The Wemyss Caves heritage site in Fife is a stretch of coastline of approximately 800 metres running NE from the village of East Wemyss to the village of Buckhaven. Among the many sea caves along this part of the coastline, the caves at Wemyss are unique because they contain the highest concentration of Pictish cave carvings in Scotland. These caves and the rock art within them are very vulnerable to erosion from the encroaching sea, but also from human damage, which over the years has ranged from air-gun target practice, general graffito modification and even fire damage caused by two burnt-out cars.

In 1986 the Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) was formed to raise the profile of this heritage site on a national and international stage and to provide information and educational experiences for visitors and local people in the area. SWACS teamed up with Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) project, and together they commissioned York Archaeological Trust (YAT) to work with them to realise their vision of utilising new and emerging technologies to record the carvings within the context of the caves and shoreline.

In 2013 a pilot project recorded the carvings within Jonathan's Cave. YAT laser scanned its external and internal structure and undertook more detailed surveys of the carvings using a structured light scanner, which recorded surface details at a sub-millimetre level. Convergence photogrammetry was also employed to record the carvings at a sub-millimetre level and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) was utilised to help visualise and analyse the carvings in detail. The use of multiple techniques and technologies on the same subject provided a sound data set for comparing the relative effectiveness of each technology.

Equally as important as the survey was the concept of taking these rich 3D data and creating a new online database and interactive virtual reality (VR) website. The interface for this was developed specifically to allow an online visitor to explore the cave and interact with the 3D data directly. An online RTI viewer embedded within the web pages allows users to 'shine a virtual torch' on the rock surface and use the raking light to help reveal the carvings in unprecedented detail. Users of the website can also access videos of local stories about the caves as told by local people as well as videos detailing the techniques and technology utilised in the project.

As a result of the successful pilot, YAT was commissioned to fulfil the grand vision of recording all of the Wemyss caves. As part of this vision, local volunteers were taught how to collect RTI data and they proceeded to collect all of the data for the remaining carvings. An enhanced website will host the complete dataset and a VR portal will be available free online to anyone who wishes to discover the caves of East Wemyss: www.4dwemysscaves.org.

This project was funded from multiple sources which include Historic Scotland, Fife Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.


Figure 1: 3D Digital mesh model of Court Cave. © York Archaeological Trust


Figure 2: The online explore interface for Jonathan's Cave. © York Archaeological Trust