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Digitally preserving the past on possible site of Saint Brendanís monastery

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Digitally preserving the past on possible site of Saint Brendanís monastery thumbnailStudents from Ithaca College, New York State, United States, conducting 3D laser scans of the possible site of St Brendan's monastery in Birr.

LAST week students from Ithaca College led by Professor Michael "Bodhi" Rogers, in partnership with the Irish Archaeology Field School/Irish Heritage School (IHS), conducted 3D laser scans of the possible site of Saint Brendan's monastery in Birr.

This site continues to occupy an important place in the mindset of the Birr community, as it has been integral to the history of the town, acting as the location of several key historical events. The surviving church, as it stands today, was probably built in the 13th/14th centuries (with significant modifications in the following centuries). However, the standing structure is thought to be built on the monastic site founded by St Brendan in the sixth century.

This monastery has a rich and varied history, and may have been the site of a Synod in 697 when the CŠin AdomnŠin, a piece of 'human rights' legislation protecting women, children and clergymen, was enacted. An illuminated manuscript known as the Gospels of Mac Regol or book of Birr is also thought to have been written at the site at the height of the monastery's power in the eighth to ninth centuries (a facsimile copy of the book is available to view in Birr Library).

The Ithaca College team is using lasers to scan the medieval church, the surrounding graveyard, and the 17th century bell-tower to create a cutting-edge digital version of the standing architecture. It was in the 17th century that the church changed denominations from Catholic to Protestant, remaining the Church of Ireland place of worship until the current church was built on Oxmantown Mall in the early 19th century.

Despite the importance of the site very little archaeological work has been conducted there to date. Excavations undertaken in 2008 at Number 28, Main Street, Birr revealed a medieval ditch and two burials, which were interpreted as being connected with the earlier extended burial ground of Saint Brendan's. The ditch was thought to be a possible boundary of this graveyard. An extensive graveyard survey was also conducted by Stephen Callaghan in the last few years (published with Caimin O' Brien as a book called 'Heart and Soul'). In June of this year the IHS also partnered with Ashely Green, a geophysicist from Bournemouth University, to conduct ground scans of the graveyard and its surrounds in an attempt to non-invasively assess the site and see if archaeological features survived.

This phase of works aimed to take location readings every 5mm of the standing architecture and the surrounding context. The Ithaca team used two Leica 3D laser scanners, which take readings 360 degrees in the horizontal and 270 degrees in the vertical out to 200+ metres; they can record everything but the space below the tripods they sit upon. The resulting data is called a point cloud, which can be thought of as a 3D photograph. These detailed laser scans provide a digital record that can be used for research, monitoring, or reconstruction in the case of human or natural disasters. The partial collapse of the Bell Tower is a real example of why this type of digital preservation is important. The Ithaca team is also hoping to convert the research-grade data to something one can view on their web browser and take a virtual tour. The laser scans also provide the base data to create digital reconstructions of the site so everyone can see the site as it formerly looked.

Ithaca College were invited to scan in the town by the IHS - who themselves could only conduct work at the site due to the tremendous support shown by Birr 20/20 group (special mention should go to Frances Kawala) and Amanda Pedlow, the Heritage Officer of Offaly County Council. They are the first group to come to Birr in partnership with the IHS, who next year hope to bring a number of international university programmes, involved in heritage and the arts, to the town to live and study for short periods.

As stated by Dr Denis Shine of IHS 'I have lived in Birr since 2007 and it is perfectly suited for study abroad programmes, due to its rich history (natural and cultural), community spirit and central geographic location, which acts as a convenient location to other locations throughout Ireland. Hopefully we can welcome many more groups in future. Although we like to house our students in homestay, this specific group has been in self-catering. However, I still think they got a got a great indication of what the midlands can offer, and could offer other groups in the future'.

Professor Rogers and his wife visited Birr on holidays a decade ago and the town left an immediate impression on them. When Dr Shine suggested Birr as a location to digitally preserve monastic sites such as St Brendan's and Seir Kieran the decision to come to Birr was an easy one. Professor Rogers stated 'I've conducted below ground imaging research at a wide range of sites around the world to include Clonmacnoise in collaboration with NUI Galway, and my recent research has focused on digitally preserving historic structures. My undergraduate students and I have conducted laser scans of President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington DC, several American Revolutionary War era houses, and Trim Castle.'

One of Professor Rogers's students stated that 'Birr is a vibrant town that is easy to walk around. Arriving during the start of Vintage Week was exciting because we got to meet lots of folks from the community celebrating Birr. We immediately felt welcomed and part of the festivities.'

Professor Rogers is excited by the possibility to return to Birr during the next few summers. He stated 'there are so many important and interesting sites in and around Birr. The early monastic sites would be fantastic to digitally preserve along with all of the Georgian architecture, and Birr Castle would be amazing to scan due to all of the architectural details.'

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