3d printing carved stone panels from St Clement’s in Rodel, Harris

St Clement’s church in Rodel is a remarkable early 16th century church, recognised as ‘the grandest medieval building in the Western Isles’ (John Gifford, The Buildings of Scotland: Highlands and Islands, 1992). Built as a mausoleum for Alasdair Crotach MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th Chief of MacLeod, in the early 1500, the interior holds his tomb: an intricately carved arched recess over the effigy of the MacLeod.

RCAHMS holds a number of historic photographs from St Clement’s, https://canmore.org.uk/. 

The exterior of the church is dominated by an imposing five-staged tower at the West end. Each face of the tower is decorated by a carved stone panel: a bull’s head, a boat with two fishermen, a bishop, and sheilanagig (or sheela na gig), a female nude nursing a child. These carved features have been captured in detail using both photogrammetry and an Artec MHT scanner.

The data were processed in Agisoft and Artec Studio respectively, cleaned and edited in Polyworks and turned into watertight mesh models with the addition of an extruded base. Then, they were ready for 3d printing.

The panel from the East face of the tower was processed and printed first. Looking at the 3D model on screen, it was actually difficult to discern the subject of the carving. At least the right half of it looked more like an outstretched hand. However, examination of the physical 3D printed object (printed at a much reduced size from the original stone) revealed that the big “lump” to the right (looking somewhat like the thumb of the hand) has a face: the brow, eyes, nose. The figure to the left appears to have been eroded more, so facial features are not discernible. There is no doubt that it is a human figure, possibly holding an oar. The shape of the boat is also distinctive.  After all, the carving is supposed to represent two fishermen in a boat (perhaps St Peter and St Andrew).

3d digital model and 3d printed model of carved stone panel from St Clement’s church in Rodel, Harris. The panel is embedded in the external face of the tower to the East and is thought to depict two fishermen in a boat.

This proves that examining a physical model of an object, especially a delicate and much eroded sculpted stone, can help a great deal in the understanding and interpretation of a historic artefact. Especially in the case of these carved panels, which are embedded in the masonry of the tower in a remote church in Harris (only accessible by scaffolding), the 3d models and especially these prints can be great aids for the study and conservation of these historic objects.

On the other hand, deploying powerful software such as ZBrush, which allow you to “colour” and display a 3d object using a variety of materials and lighting conditions can be instrumental in revealing hidden aspects of an artefact.

Rendering of the 3d model exported from ZBrush. The digital application of different materials and lighting conditions can be helpful in enhancing surface relief, making certain features more pronounced – even to what is discernible by examination of the physical object.

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