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Medieval church laser scanned

One of Sweden’s oldest churches has been analyzed with the aid of lasers. Researchers have produced 3D images in order to study the medieval architecture, an important measure for maintaining and preserving our cultural heritage.

Gökhem Church in Västra Götaland was built in around 1100 and is one of Sweden’s oldest churches. The church’s timber roof structure is 850 years old and in principle completely intact, making it almost unique given that the majority of architecture from this period lies buried beneath ground. Laser scanning using millions of digital points has now revealed every nook and cranny in detailed three-dimensional images.

“Previously, these kinds of studies have been conducted manually. This has involved measuring the structure by hand using a tape measure and then creating two-dimensional drawings on paper. This often involves working in dark, dirty surroundings that only serve to make the study more difficult,” explains Kristina Linscott, architect and senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg. 

Last year, Kristina Linscott wrote a thesis on the architecture of twelfth-century churches in west Sweden. One of the churches included in the thesis was Gökhem, where researchers for RISE assisted in analyzing the church using lasers.

“We usually carry out laser measurements in completely different environments, such as vehicle manufacturing and process industries. It made an interesting change to work in a completely different area in which we were able to combine our technical expertise with the historical knowledge of conservationists,” explains Jörgen Spetz, head of the geometry group at the Department of Measurement Technology at RISE. 

Churches – a unique cultural heritage

Only a handful of medieval buildings remain standing above ground; the majority exist only as buried archaeological remains. Not only that, but we often lack written sources that can enlighten us about the period around the twelfth century. Church buildings provide an important source of archaeological material.

“These ancient churches with their timber roof structures are unique in that they remain above ground. They are among our most cherished cultural heritage sites and we naturally wish to care for them. It is therefore important that we analyze and understand these churches,” explains Kristina Linscott.

In addition to Gökhem Church, Kristina Linscott and RISE also scanned the medieval Skog Tapestry from Hälsingland, one of Sweden’s foremost textile treasures.

“The Skog Tapestry depicts a church and, in conjunction with studying that, we took the opportunity to scan the entire tapestry. The tapestry is usually stored in the dark; however, we were given permission to spend a day examining it under somewhat better light.

Application for new funding

Kristina Linscott and Anneli Palmsköld, her colleague at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Conservation, have, together with RISE, applied for a research grant to carry on the work of scanning other tapestries.

“There are a number of tapestries in Jämtland that predate even the Skog Tapestry. They are unique in Europe and we would like to know more about them. By scanning the tapestries, we can also make them available to the public and exhibit them in museums,” says Kristina Linscott. 

While Kristina appreciates the enormous contribution of laser scanning towards her work, she also sees advantages to measuring manually.

“Laser scanning provides a wealth of detail that is hard to obtain in any other way. At the same time, the manual method forces one to make certain analyses on site while examining the church. A combination of these methods offers the best of both worlds!”

Published: 2018-09-24