Header Image, swan carving WEMYSS CAVES 4D


click to enlarge

The caves near East Wemyss are special because of the artwork carved on the cave walls over the last two thousand years. Around eighty of the carvings were made by people we call Picts. Dating to around 600-700 AD, the Pictish carvings consist of abstract symbols and animal representations. They are instantly recognisable as Pictish because they use the same ‘dictionary’ of symbols and animals that occur throughout ‘Pictland’, a territory that extended along the entire eastern coast of modern Scotland and up into Shetland.

Antiquarians first recorded the carvings in the 1860s, but since then, around 30 carvings have been lost to cave collapse, erosion, vandalism and natural deterioration. Unfortunately, the caves and their carvings are still threatened and are at high risk of further damage and loss.

In November 2013, the project team applied a range of up-to-date digital recording technologies to make the most comprehensive record of the caves ever. They created 3D models using Laser Scanning, Photography, Structured Light Scanning and Reflectance Transformation Imaging to Jonathan's Cave, which contains over 30 Pictish carvings, including a boat – possibly the earliest image of a boat in Scotland.

The result is Wemyss Caves 4D - your portal to visiting the caves. Starting with Jonathan’s Cave, you can Explore the cave, listen to information, shine a virtual torch across the carvings, examine 3D images and compare the carvings with antiquarian drawings and photographs to see how they’ve changed. Further caves will be added as they are recorded.

Start your discovery of Jonathan's Cave here.

Laser scanning

Laser scanning is used to rapidly capture the shape of objects, buildings and landscapes. A rotating scanner fires a laser which is reflected off ever surface that it hits, measuring the angle and distance of millions of points a minute. In East Wemyss, we set up in many different positions, both inside and outside, to create a very precise 3D model of Jonathan’s Cave and the coast edge.

See a film of the cave made from the laser scans here.


Photography can be used to create a 3D model from a series of 2D images. In this technique, called 'Structure from Motion', a series of overlapping photographs are taken from different angles. Special software identifies common points on the photographs which are used to ‘stitch’ the images into a 3D model. We combined this technique with laser scanning, to create the virtual Jonathan’s Cave model that you enter through the Explore page. We also recorded each of the carvings in this way.

To make the model of the area outside the caves, a camera was fixed to a hexakopter to take a series of low-level aerial photographs. These were used to create the realistic model of the coast around Jonathan’s Cave.

Structured light scanning

Structured light scanning is a clever technique that records minute detail, for example, carvings on a cave wall. A series of precise mathematical patterns of light are projected onto a surface, and these are distorted by any unevenness. The distortions are recorded by a camera and measured by computer software to create a super-accurate model of the surface texture - in our case the cave wall and carvings. View a short video of structured light scanning in action here.


Reflectance Transformation Imaging (or RTI) has a scary name but is a relatively straightforward recording method which anyone can do. It works best in places that are quite dark. A camera is mounted on a tripod and a series of photographs are taken with the light shining from a different direction in each photograph. Using open source (and free!) software developed by Cultural Heritage Imaging the photographs are combined into a single image. With a special viewer, you can examine the images by moving a virtual light source across the surface just like shining a real torch over a carving on the cave wall. This reveals subtle details that are difficult to see with the naked eye.

Click here to watch David explain RTI.

We have included an RTI viewer in the Explore model, but to speed things up on the website, we have used lower resolution images. if you want to view you own high quality files of every carving, and get free and much more powerful RTI viewer, download them from the Downloads section.

Wemyss Caves 4D is a collaborative project between the Save the Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS), and the SCAPE Trust. Specialists from Trent & Peak Archaeology, ArcHeritage and Northlight Heritage carried out the digital recording and created this website. Eddie Martin did the hexakopter survey.

The East Wemyss community shared their memories, stories and photographs of their village and their caves. This information has been used throughout the website and you can watch and listen to some of their stories on our Extras page.