CityEngine and the potentials for visualising heritage

Visualising archaeological material is advancing at an alarming rate. The staggering profusion and increasingly affordability of 3D printers means that many people can own one or build their own, and potentially create their own museum. Like many people, I have a fringe interest in video games. Unlike many people, I am eager to become a developer (albeit at the hobbyist level) of interactive applications. 3D printing shows that the technology exists to accurately represent portable artefacts in 3D and accurate to 20 microns.

But what about something larger?

3D scanners have been employed to recreate the famous paleolithic caves at Lascaux to millimeter detail. The result is astonishing. But what about something even larger?

Anything bigger moves from the realms of laser scanning and 3D printing and into the realms of geographic information systems. Specifically, ESRI’s CityEngine software. While much of the tutorial content for the software relates to its use in modern applications such as the planning policy and the impact of construction in the urban environment, there are archaeological applications for large-scale representation. One such pioneering project is RomeLab. The description of the project in their own words:

RomeLab is a multi-disciplinary research group whose work uses the physical and virtual city of Rome as a point of departure to study the interrelationship between historical phenomena and the spaces and places of the ancient city. Using gaming technology, we created virtual worlds which are used in the classroom and in research experiments.

The increasing accessibility of powerful tools from both the geographic information side and the 3D games universe are converging to make this a really exciting time to work in archaeological landscapes. Software such as Unity3D, the Unreal Development Kit, and Cryengine are but a few of the potential engines to drive immersive archaeological landscapes forward. Perhaps with the assistance of consumer-grade virtual reality (VR) headsets such as the Oculus Rift, the HTC Re Vive and others will allow archaeological and heritage professionals to really assess the impact of the built environment both visually and in moving through the space. An example of the relevance to my own work is being able to visualise the Roman town of Noviomagus Regnensium (now Chichester) based on the 50+ years of reasonably well documented excavations conducted within the walled area of the town. By using this ‘certain’ data as a point of the departure, a model can then be built based upon qualifiable levels of certainty and thereby be able to withstand the scrutiny all academic work must endure.

Finally, there has been a huge push in making archaeological data open to the public. The potential impact of open spatial data such as OpenStreetMap and archaeologists making their data open to heritage organisations such as museums is huge. By embracing novel approaches archaeologist and museum professionals can demonstrate the relevance of their work by engaging the public imagination in a past that they are better able to feel. If we make individuals and communities feel more strongly that the past was a real place, there is a better chance that they will care about and for it.


Place-names, archaeology, and boundaries of early medieval polities

The Mardens are so-called to refer, in the collective, to North Marden, East Marden, West Marden, and Upmarden, in West Sussex. The place-name is interpreted as containing the Old English an element from gemǣru, meaning `a boundary’ (Mawer & Stenton, 1969). This element is not unique to Sussex, nor to early medieval Britain as a whole; it appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in reference to a battle fought at mearcredesburna, the ‘boundary stream agreed to by treaty’ as well as referring to the Myrcna, the Mercians (the ‘Border People’), one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms in Britain until being subsumed by King Edward of Wessex after the death of his sister Æthelflæd in A.D. 918. Usage has survived into modern times to describe border areas or territories, such as the Welsh Marches, or an area inhabited by a specific people, such as Denmark.

Sketch map showing the location of the sites discussed in the text. The South Downs Way is the modern track as plotted on the modern Ordnance Survey map and may not reflect the precise route in antiquity. Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

Map showing the location of the sites discussed in the text. The South Downs Way is the modern track as plotted on the modern Ordnance Survey map and may not reflect the precise route in antiquity. Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

The importance of the ‘boundary’ interpretation of the Mardens lies in the exploration of the local topography and determining how the landscape was divided and between what political units. The boundaries of early medieval polities, whether they be estates or kingdoms, are typically vague and often rely on landmarks or extant features, such as Roman roads or burial mounds. ‘Marden’ can be either gemǣru-dūn, a ‘boundary-hill’, or gemǣru-denu, a ‘boundary-valley’. The topography is somewhat unhelpful in drawing out the meaning, as the undulating downland heights are broken by lower dry and intermittent/ephemeral stream valleys; the hill known as Apple Down is located above a dry valley which runs all the way from the coastal plain to the ridge of the northern scarp-slope.

A fifth- to seventh-century mixed-rite cemetery was discovered on Apple Down in 1981 and extensively excavated between 1982 and 1987 (Down , 1990, 9). Cemeteries as ‘places’ in the earliest medieval period served as foci where ideas of the past and present could be articulated such as claims over territory and resources and as statements of group identity (Williams, 2011, 255). It could be that the cemetery at Apple Down demarcated the western boundary of Sussex from its neighbour Wessex, where another topographic feature or settlement, served as a marker on the coastal plain. The South Downs Way is an ancient track which traces the scarp-slope on the top of the chalk downs and is marked along its extent with Bronze Age and early medieval tumuli and other monuments. The cemetery at Apple Down is only 4 km south of the South downs way; it may have been placed to reinforce a claim to land or resources and named to inform east-west travellers on that track that they were entering another territory.

Another possibility, if the ‘hill’ interpretation of Marden is accepted, is to consider that gemǣru-dūn refers to a much wider area than the modern parish that bears the name and demarcates a boundary between a polity on the coastal plain and one north of the downs in the Vale of the Western Rother, rather than eastern and western neighbours. A Roman road (Margary 155) from Chichester, perhaps to Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), passes approximately 4.5 kilometres from Apple Down and was still in use in the earliest medieval centuries. In the passage over the downs, gemǣru-dūn may refer to the chalk downs themselves and represent a ‘boundary’ between discrete polities within a socially fragmented South Saxon kingdom, with power bases existing on the coastal plain, known to be at least the primary territory in the late seventh century of King Æthelwealh and a possible polity suggested here, in the Vale of the Western Rother, north of the scarp-slope of the chalk downs. The intersection of place-names and archaeology may represent folk-territories in southern England, and particularly Sussex. Place-names with patronymic elements occur in the possible folk-names Stæningas (Steyning) on the River Adur, the Piperinges (Peppering) on the River Arun (Semple, 2008). Such a model would accommodate a polity in the Vale of the Western Rother, between the South Downs and the Low Weald. This also perhaps sheds light on the riddle of why there are often concurrent kings of Sussex, of apparently parallel dynasties, witnessing charters when they begin to be issued after A.D. 700 (Kelly, 1998).


Down, A., & Welch, M. (1990). Chichester Excavations 7. Chichester: Chichester District Council.

Kelly, S. E. (1998). Charters of Selsey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Semple, S. (2008). Polities and princes AD 400-800: new perspectives on the funerary landscape of the South Saxon kingdom. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 27(4), pp. 407-429.

Williams, H., 2011. Mortuary Practices in Early Anglo-Saxon England. In H. Hamerow, D. Hinton, & S. Crawford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 238–265.

Case Study #1: Church Norton, Selsey.

Church Norton is the name given to an isolated cluster of buildings outside of the hamlet of Norton in the northwest corner of Selsey parish, at the mouth of Pagham Harbour  Selsey parish occupies the entirety of Selsey island, which was a true island until the early 20th century (Ballard, 1910). The village of Selsey represents the majority of settlement in the parish, though the parish is dotted by farms and a caravan park occupies a spot of high ground on the western shore of the Selsey Bill. Although the majority of the parish is arable farmland, the land around Church Norton is simply unimproved grassland. The implication of this is that archaeological features surrounding the impressive earthwork atop which the Chapel of St. Wilfrid sits, may lie undisturbed. The Chapel itself is in fact the 13th century nave of the Norman church. The building was moved completely to serve as the Parish church of Selsey in 1865. Four fragments of Anglo-Saxon carved stone may also have been reincorporated from the Saxon church into the parish church of Selsey when it was moved from the site and may attest to the antiquity of the structure at Church Norton (Aldsworth, 1979, 104-105).

The exact location of Wilfrid’s monastery of Selsey at Church Norton is equivocal. The land on which Saint Wilfrid is though to have built his monastery/cathedral is thought to be at Church Norton at the mouth of Pagham Harbour. Excavations were undertaken at “the Mound” in 1911 by Claude Bishop and Edward Heron-Allen (Salzmann, 1912, 57)[Fig. 5]. The excavations found little pottery that was suggested to be pre-Roman Iron Age. Other pieces of antiquarian interest have been found in the vicinity of the mound, including a piece each of “scroll” and “basket” style stone carving, possibly from the seventh century cross of the cathedral (Heron-Allen, 1911, 102). Two Romanesque friezes depicting the miracle of Lazarus are also said to have been moved from Selsey to Chichester when it was translated in 1075 (ibid.).

The 1911 excavations found substantial foundations, including those of what is thought to be a free-standing tower of unknown age or function. Salzmann interprets it as an armada beacon built in 1587 (ibid., 67), though Roman tile, the Saxon pottery and belt tab, potential architectural pieces of dressed Caen stone, and proximity to the Norman church and priory make such a dismissive interpretation unlikely. Indeed, Aldsworth (1979) suggests other interpretations such as the foundation not being a beacon but a gatehouse of late Saxon or early Norman date (104). Pieces of dressed stone architectural fittings uncovered from the 1911 trenches are probably residual material not from the Saxon cathedral but from the Norman church that was translated to the village of Selsey from Church Norton (Heron-Allen, 1911, 106). Locating and elucidating the site of Wilfrid’s monastery and the cathedral of the South Saxon bishops would both be of immense local importance but also situate Pagham harbour and the surrounding area into a wider context as well as allow for exploration of a focus where varying levels of social identities would have been negotiated.

Wilfrid was a man with earthly concerns and would not have located himself too far from either peoples of influence, or a means of communication (Sawyer, 1883). He was a Northumbrian noble and and exile of the See of that kingdom. He also had several contacts on the continent, not least in Rome- it is doubtful that Wilfrid would have resolved to a hermits life (ibid.). To that end it would make sense to locate the fountainhead of his Sussex mission near a port of some capacity. It would not make sense, however, to establish a monastery that would be immediately under threat from erosion. The 1911 excavations had established that “The Mound” at Church Norton was natural shingle. With such a site, above the tide but in view of harbour traffic, would have been ideal. That the 1911 excavations did not locate any [i]in situ[/i] early medieval remains is unsurprising, considering the advancement of scientific excavation methods even within the last 50 years. Either the excavation was located incorrectly to discover the structure, or the evidence was of such a type that eluded the previous investigators.

Evidence of a Roman station guarding the mouth to Pagham harbour, was argued as the source for building material of Wilfrid’s monastery. Indeed, It has not been suggested anywhere in the literature the possibility of the structure to be a Roman lighthouse – the proximity of church to such a feature being not unprecedented, as at Dover. Further work is necessary to determine the nature and relationship of this structure to the church, and subsurface survey of the churchyard itself would be well situated to determining early medieval antecedents to the Norman structure. The lack of any definitive structure on the mound has led archaeologists of the early 20th century to assume that the sea had claimed the original site of the monastery. Modern survey and excavation methods may well change that verdict.

Aldsworth, F. (1979). “The Mound” at Church Norton, Selsey, and the site of St. Wilfrid’s Church.
Sussex Archaeological Collections, 117, 103–107.

Aldsworth, F., & Freke, D. (1976). Historic Towns in Sussex: An Archaeological Survey . Portslade: Sussex Archaeological Unit.

Ballard, A. (1910). The Sussex Coastline. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 53, 7–25.

Colgrave, B. (1927). The Life of St. Wilfrid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heron-Allen, E. (1911). Selsey Bill: Historic and Prehistoric. London: Duckworth.

Salzmann, L. F. (1912). Excavations at Selsey, 1911. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 57, 56–62.

Sawyer, F. E. (1883). St. Wilfrith’s Life in Sussex. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 33, 101–128.

GoogleEarth image showing hamlet of Norton in Selsey parish. Church Norton is the name given to the 'mound', or curvilinear earthwork adjacent to Pagham Harbour.

GoogleEarth image showing hamlet of Norton in Selsey parish. Church Norton is the name given to the ‘mound’, or curvilinear earthwork adjacent to Pagham Harbour.