DAACH Article

Our article investigating the use of digital techniques to analyse the choir aisles at Wells cathedral has now been published in ‘Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage’. This article is free to view until 7th May 2017 through the following link:



Architectural historians have identified Wells cathedral as a key monument in the transition between high and late Gothic, a move in part characterised by the rejection of simple quadripartite or tierceron rib vaults for more complex vaults. Here we will show how digital methods are used to reopen questions of design and construction first posed in 1841 by pioneer architectural historian Robert Willis. Digital laser scanning documents vaults accurately, thereby establishing their geometries to a high degree of certainty and, at Wells, highlighting differences between the choir aisle bays which have previously been treated as a single design. Significantly, we will show how digital techniques can be used to investigate these differences further, using point cloud data as a starting point for analysis rather than an end point. Thus we will demonstrate how modern technologies have the potential to reignite historic debates and transform scholarly enquiries.

Webb, N., & Buchanan, A. (2017). ‘Tracing the past: A digital analysis of Wells cathedral choir aisle vaults’, Digit. Appl. Archaeol. Cult. Herit., 4, March 2017, pp. 19–27.

Review of Modelling Medieval Vaults

We are delighted that our symposium ‘Modelling Medieval Vaults’ was reviewed in the first issue of The Construction Historian (the magazine of the Construction History Society). With the kind permission of the author and editor (David Yeomans), it is reproduced here.

‘The life of a Gothic vault begins with a design, which exists as plan. This has then to be projected into three dimensions, not just to determine the overall geometry but also to enable individual stones of the ribs to be cut to shape so that they fit together. Once assembled the structure of the vault has to be stable and so must transmit the thrusts safely to the supporting walls and buttresses. They will then move in resisting the thrusts and so cracks will develop in the vault ribs and in the vault surfaces that they support, cracks that might seem to be signs of failure but which will have been there for hundreds of years. Sometimes, of course, the building might be destroyed and the vaults will then only survive as rubble, but rubble that might contain clues to the original form of the vault. Each of these stages provides material for different kinds of scholarship and all were represented in this one-day symposium.

There were speakers to cover every stage of the process. Those dealing with design aspects showed clearly the difference between approaches to architectural history and construction history. The former sometimes seemed to involve a special language. I simply cannot imagine what ‘visual space perception in micro and macro cosmological dimensions” could possibly mean, but perhaps it lost something in translation. It was a phrase used by Thomas Bauer in reference to vaulting in Prague with curved non structural ribs, typical of late vaulting in other Northern European countries. I am not sure about their designers ‘contributing to a new space discourse’. The idea that masons devised the elaborate, non-structural pattern of ribs that we were shown to compete with flat decorative ceilings that were coming into fashion seems simple and convincing.

My doubts are how well we can see into the minds of medieval designers. What we do know is that the designers of the more elaborate rib patterns were playing with geometry and that given an accurate survey of the rib pattern it is possible to reconstruct the geometrical process that was used. While Bauer demonstrated the very complex geometry of the vaults in Prague our hosts demonstrated it for the much simpler geometry used in the aisles of the choir at Wells. There vaulting with slight differences in the plans also had differences in section, some being flatter than others. Thus we saw how accurate survey methods now possible might show subtleties that had previously been unrecognized.

Once the geometry had been decided it needed to be marked out on the tracing floor. There is some evidence in the form of putlog holes in the walls that there was a scaffold immediately below the vault, which might have been used as a tracing floor. The masons could then have used plumb lines to the drawing immediately below the vault itself to mark up the stones, much as carpenters use plumb lines to scribe timbers to fit.

Of course the vault has to stand once built although there is often movement over time. Santiago Huerta delighted everyone with a model arch, which demonstrated the formation of cracks within both the ribs and the surfaces of vaults that result from the inevitable movement of supporting walls and buttresses. But while he described the attempts from the eighteenth century onward to understand the behaviour of medieval vaults there was no discussion of how they might have been structurally designed at the time. One speaker’s assertion that the columns of Mallorca cathedral could be as slender as they as because of loading built above the vault ribs simply raises more questions than it answered.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for the outsider was the way in which archaeologists may be able to reconstruct the appearance of collapsed vaults based on material in the rubble. In vaulting with intricate patterns of ribs, stones forming the connections indicate the directions of the connecting ribs and may make it possible to determine the overall pattern.

Much of all this new work on vaulting depends upon modern surveying methods: the use of photogrammetry and laser scanning. One paper compared the use of these two techniques while others described the process of making use of the data from laser scans. Different software packages appear to offer different advantages, or are it disadvantages. RHINO is not it seems a huge horned herbivore but just one of the packages available. There was much discussion of these systems and it was clear that the specialists in these aids needed to be brought in to help the communities of archaeologists or historians.

The last talk addressed what we normally think of as a model because Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla had used digital printing to construct physical models of the vaults of the churches in Mexico that he had studied. Because the ribs of these are made of separate components they need to be held in pace while being assembled. The students helping with this process were able to gain an appreciation of the delicate balance of forces involved. It seems that what can be learnt about medieval vaults and what can be learnt from tem is far from exhausted. It also seems that from archaeologists to computer specialists there is something in medieval vaulting for everyone.

For anyone wishing to know more about the work being done by The Liverpool School of Architecture on vaulting see www.tracingthepast.org.uk. There is also to be a two-day event at Cambridge to look at the work of Robert Willis at www.robertwillis2016.org.’

We shall be presenting more about our work in a paper at the next conference of the Construction History Society in April 2017. Further details are available here: http://www.constructionhistory.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Fourth-annual-CHS-Conference-Draft-Programme-4.0.pdf.

Digital Past 2017

This week Nick presented at Digital Past 2017 in Newport, Wales. The paper focussed on the digital surveying and subsequent analysis of the fourteenth century medieval vaults  in the chancel and north transept of Nantwich St Mary’s Church, Cheshire. This produced two distinct discussions; the first investigating the chancel, which offered an opportunity to hypothesise the medieval design process of the in-situ vaults using reverse engineering. The second, the north transept, contains an incomplete (or possibly destroyed) vault and therefore a series of simulations were developed to postulate the design process, and how the vaults may have looked if completed. 3D digital models of the postulated designs for the north transept can be found on the Nantwich vaults page.

The conference presented numerous exciting and innovative digital heritage projects in Wales and beyond, such as Nick Hannon’s investigations into the Antonine Wall, as well as the Welsh Chapels project which is using games engines as a way of educating the public about heritage.

eCAADe 2016 – Tracing the Past presentation

At eCAADe 2016 (Education and research in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe) in Oulu, Finland, Nick presented a paper co-authored with Alex and JR discussing the advantages of different digital surveying methods for the project. The paper can be found via CUMINCAD here.

A contextualised digital heritage workshop led by Danilo Di Mascio was also organised, with help from Anetta Kepczynska-Walczak and myself, the details of which can be found here. We were very grateful for the support given by the University of Oulu, and were encouraged by the discussions held with participants, which provided an enjoyable couple of days leading up to the main conference. We hope to run the workshop again at eCAADe 2017 in Rome!



Tracing the Past was inspired by the work of Robert Willis (1800-1875), a famous Cambridge polymath. He was Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and taught engineering in the early years of that subject.

Willis’s research and teaching was spread over a wide range of
subjects. Our particular interest is in his pioneering study of medieval vaulting, presented as a lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1841 and published in the first volume of their Proceedings in 1842. Willis proposed a number of hypotheses about the design of medieval vaults which he hoped contemporary architects would be able to test. However the difficulties of gathering suitable data were huge and it’s only now, with the introduction of laser scanning that his ideas can be more fully explored, through projects such as ours.

On 16-17 September 2016, both Nick and Alex will be giving papers in the Robert Willis: Technology, Science and Architecture symposium taking place at Willis’s own college, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Alex will be speaking on Willis’s networks of knowledge and Nick will be presenting a digital update of Willis’s 1842 paper, for which the digital content can be found here. Other speakers will also be discussing Willis’s work on vaults, including Prof Santiago Huerta, Javier Giron, Martin Bressani (speaking on Willis and Viollet-le-Duc) and Antonio Becchi. The full programme is available here: willis-program-a4

The Symposium website includes a digital library of Willis’s publications, making it an incredibly useful resource for those sharing his interests. The Symposium proceedings will be published – further details available soon.




We’re off to Ely!

Ely Cathedral Presbytery
Ely Cathedral Presbytery

We already reported that the Society of Antiquaries of London have very generously funded a trip to Ely Cathedral, where we shall be scanning the vaults in the Presbytery, the Lady Chapel, the Octagon and Prior Crauden’s Chapel. We’ve now got permission from the Cathedral authorities to go ahead and we’ll be at the Cathedral on 13-14 September. As well as laser scanning, we’re going to be experimenting with total station.

The Lady Chapel was started in 1321 but attention moved when the crossing collapsed, in 1322, and the whole area had to be rebuilt. We know the vaults of the Presbytery were complete by 1337, when there were payments for painting them. Thus the work is exactly the same date as the vaults at Wells.

So far we’ve only scanned vaults in the west of England, so this will be our first opportunity to scan vaults in East Anglia, where design principles and construction methods might be very different. The Ely designs are associated with William Hurley, the King’s master carpenter, who designed the wooden vaults of the Octagon and William Ramsey, later the chief surveyor of the King’s works in the Tower of London and other castles south of the Trent, to whom the later parts of the design have been attributed on stylistic grounds.  The Ramsey family of masons were closely associated with the Royal Works and with East Anglian architecture, including the cloister of Norwich Cathedral, which also has lierne vaults showing a variety of rib curvatures, as in the aisles of Wells.

The vaults of Prior Crauden’s Chapel are of interest to us because they are not medieval but were reconstructed by Robert Willis in the 1840s. They were thus an opportunity for him to put into practice the ideas he had explored in his 1841 lecture ‘On the Vaults of the Middle Ages’.





The final programme for the modelling medieval vaults symposium at the University of Liverpool in London on Thursday 14th July is now available here.

A list of the presentation abstracts are available via the following link.

If you are yet to book your place for the symposium, please do this through Eventbrite.

We are very much looking forward to seeing you there!

Pazirik Informatics Ltd Website

We are delighted that Balázs Szakonyi will present research investigating the role of horizontal ribs in late Gothic vault construction in Hungary as part of the Modelling Medieval Vaults symposium alongside Gergely Buzás and Balázs Szőke.

At the Modelling Medieval Vaults symposium Buzás Gergely, Balázs Szakonyi and Balázs Szőke will present research investigating a typical vault type that is wide spread in Central Europe on behalf of Pazirik Informatics Ltd.

Besides the vaults still standing in our time, we possess carved stones from numerous perished vaults thanks to archaeological excavations. Several elements from former vaults came to surface which show typical characteristics of these vault types. One of the most important finds from this category came to light during Gergely Buzás’s excavations of 2010 in Pécs. We have created digital scan surveys of these carved stones in the framework of the SzimeAr3D project. The theoretical reconstruction and CAD model of the vault has been created by Balázs Szőke. The lecture will be presented with Balázs Szakonyi translator and 3D graphic artist. One of our goals is to conciliate the Hungarian technical terms with their German and English obverses. The publications and image collections can be inspected on our webpage with a short English commentary.

More information regarding Pazirik can be found on their website. We look forward to hearing more at the symposium.

Bauer Lauterbach Website

As part of the upcoming Modelling Medieval Vaults symposium at the University of Liverpool in London, Thomas Bauer and Jörg Lauterbach will be presenting their investigations of Benedikt Ried’s deconstructive vaults at Prague Castle with Norbert Nußbaum.

Thomas and Jörg have a website of their work, where they specialise in stone historical reconstructions. The site contains a link showing 360 ° panoramas of timber reconstructions of the winding rib vaulted ceiling of the chapel in the Royal Palace of Dresden. The panoramas can be explored online, where you can rotate and zoom to investigate them further.

We are very much looking forward to hearing more about Thomas, Jörg and Norbert’s research at the symposium in July.

Modelling Medieval Vaults Symposium – booking now open

Modelling Medieval Vaults symposium (UoL in London, 14 July 2016, 9:30am—5:00pm)

The University of Liverpool in London, Finsbury Square—Seminar Room 4

Organised by Dr Alex Buchanan and Dr Nick Webb

Tickets can be booked through Eventbrite

Keynote speakers

Professor Santiago Huerta – Technical University of Madrid

Professor Norbert Nußbaum – University of Cologne, with Thomas Bauer and Jörg Lauterbach – Architects and engineers for historic reconstructions, Dresden

Assistant Professor Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla – The University of Texas at Austin

Digital processes

Speakers include:

Dr Danilo Di Mascio – Northumbria University

Dr Nick Webb – University of Liverpool

Dr Rosana Guerra and Dr Paula Fuentes – Technical University of Madrid

Weiyi Pei and Lui Tam – KU Leuven

New questions in 14th-century vaulting

Speakers include:

Dr Alex Buchanan – University of Liverpool

Andrew Budge – Birkbeck College, University of London

The use of digital surveying and analysis techniques, such as laser scanning, photogrammetry, 3D reconstructions or reverse engineering offers the opportunity to re-examine historic works of architecture.

Digital analysis has enabled new research into design processes, construction methods, structural engineering, building archaeology and relationships between buildings. Recent research on Continental European and Central American architecture has established the significance of these techniques, however, as yet there has been little exploitation of digital technologies in the context of medieval architecture in the British Isles. This is despite international recognition of the importance of thirteenth and fourteenth-century English vault design to the history of Gothic architecture in an international context.

The aims of the present symposium are to present new research in this emerging field in order to establish appropriate methodologies using digital tools and identify significant questions for future research in the area.

The symposium will be relevant to anyone with an interest in:

  • Medieval architecture
  • Three-dimensional digital methodologies
  • Digital techniques used for the analysis of historic works of architecture

Symposium cost: £40 for attendees and £25 for students/speakers. Free for student attendees.

A collaborative research project using digital techniques to investigate medieval vault design in the British Isles.