How laser technology is solving the secrets of Pictish stones

Cutting-edge laser technology is being used to reveal the secrets of some of the country's most mysterious ancient monuments.

Sueno's Stone is the largest surviving Pictish stone of its type in Scotland and stands over 6.5 metres high. Picture: Wikicommons

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is undertaking an ambitious project to digitally scan all the properties in its care, including the famous Pictish standing stones which have long intrigued scholars over their meaning.

Researchers have now completed a detailed scan of one of the most famous Pictish monumental steles - the 21ft high Sueno’s Stone, which stands near Forres in Moray.

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The stunning images produced shed new light on its intricate carvings and will now be examined by academics.

A laser scan of the Sueno's Stone, revealing its detail. Image: Historic Environment Scotland

“We can digitally enhance the data and change light sources, which helps bring out detail on carved stones that is particularly worn,” said Dr Lyn Wilson, digital documentation manager for HES.

“It helps us to interpret these stones better.”

Sueno’s Stone is described by experts as the tallest and most complex piece of early medieval sculpture in Scotland.

Dating from either the ninth or 10th centuries, the monument depicts a rare and complex narrative depiction of a battle as well as a wholly unique scene interpreted as a royal inauguration.

A laser scan of the Sueno's Stone, revealing its detail. Image: Historic Environment Scotland

The stone would have once overlooked the floodplains of the rivers Mosse and Findhorn. While it is still associated with the place it was first erected, little is known of its wider context.

Local legend says it stands at the crossroads where Macbeth originally met the three witches, as depicted in Shakespeare.

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“Its sheer size and level of preservation makes it very important,” added Dr Wilson. “Steps have already been taken to preserve it, such as placing it inside a glass box with controlled temperature.”

The monument was scanned over three days by surveyor James Hepher and digital documentation intern Marta Pilarska.

“The stone’s height makes it particularly challenging,” said Dr Wilson. “And also the fact it is enclosed in a box, so we had to develop a novel telescopic camera system to be able to capture the highest details.”

The work is being undertaken as part of HES’s Rae project, named after the celebrated Victorian explorer John Rae, which will create 3D digital records of its sites for public and academic use.

Launched by Alex Salmond in 2011, the programme is on-going and could take a further decade to complete.

“We use the data primarily for conservation, but also to help us manage the sites better,” added Dr Wilson.

“They also enable virtual access. We can use the data to build virtual reality experiences and other immersive technologies.

“We can use 3D printing to create a scale model of the stones for school use. It allows pupils to handle a replica without travelling having to travel.

“One of things we plan to do with the scans is use them to develop interactive lectures so we can work with experts.”

Around a third of the surviving Pictish stones have so far been digitally documented, with priority given to those most at risk of decay.

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived primarily in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the late Iron Age and early Medieval periods.

Their lanaguage is generally assumed to have died out during the 10th century as Gaelic took hold.