Laser scanning the Hell-Fire Caves... by Aisling Tierney

Lee sets up the equipment in front of the Hell-Fire Cave entrance
Aisling Tierney, an archaeologist from the University of Bristol, takes us deep underground into the West Wycombe Hell-Fire caves to explain a very unique project of twists, turns and BGS laser beams!

The Hell-Fire Caves of West Wycombe are perhaps the strangest and most mysterious structures associated with the shadowy Hell-Fire Clubs of the 18th century. These man-made caves are one of the key sites that I am investigating as part of my PhD on the Hell-Fire Clubs of Britain and Ireland. The strange twists and turns, narrow chambers and open passageways are laden with symbolism and mythological significance.

Dave and Lee stand by one of the many creepy faces
carved throughout the caves

As an archaeologist, I need accurate plans to fully grasp the detail of each space and its relation to the whole complex, but the schematic plan of the caves was a limited resource for my work. I started surveying the caves with tapes and offsets, with the help of some other students at the University of Bristol. The results were ok, but not quite good enough. I sought to find a better way to capture the caves and 3D laser scanning seemed like the perfect solution for pin point accuracy. The hefty price tag lead to me to look into crowd funding. As part of this effort, Andrew Hughes at the British Geological Survey saw my project and generously offered to get involved. He arranged for two of his colleagues, Lee Jones and Dave Morgan, to drive down to Buckinghamshire and spend two days scanning the entire cave system with me. We took over 1.5 billion data points and are still in the process of figuring out how to handle and extract the data.

These silver spheres serve as reference points for
the laser scanner

The trip was useful to the BGS team as they were able to test out a new piece of FARO surveying kit. Over two days the caves were completely surveyed from the entrance to the Inner Temple, a quarter of a mile underground, using twelve movable silver reference points and 39 station points. The caves provided some challenges to the surveying due to the multiple routes through complicated chambers, limited lines of sight and low lighting. While I initially envisioned photographing every surface as part of the scanning, this would have been too time consuming and the results would have been severely hampered by the near complete darkness in some areas. In the end, only three strategic areas were photographed alongside the scanning – the front entrance, the Banqueting Hall, and the Inner Temple.

Lee and Dave meet with the Ashley and Alessana before
filming for Underground Britain

The project was also captured by a TV crew filming this Autumn’s next Underground Britain series on Channel 5.

The first plan image has been processed and demonstrates how the schematic plan on site differs from the actual design of the caves. I am looking forward to working with the British Geological Survey in the coming months to sort through the data and then integrate it into my PhD research. Watch this space,

by Aisling
PhD Bristol University


Anonymous said…
An excellent use of 3D Laser Scanning. I look forward to seeing this on TV!