Teaching in 3D:

digital objects and cultural heritage

Reading dimension in medieval texts and objects

Early medieval objects, whether carved in stone or woven from words, frequently demonstrate an assertive multidimensionality. I remember being taught (long ago now!) that the narrative strategies of the Exeter Book Riddles reproduce for the reader the experience of turning an object over and over in their hands. I use this idea of the multi-dimensional riddle-referent to talk with my students about certain formal aspects of verse: variation, apposition and other grammatical parallelism. We might take as an example Exeter Book Riddle 12 (click the link for a text and translation) which opens with a genre-typical contrast of the referent’s activities in life and in death: alive, the referent walks on feet and rends the ground; dead, it is used to bind the ‘dark Welsh/slaves’.[1]

The referent continues to catalogue its activity throughout the short poem, structured by anaphoric hwilumhwilumhwilum… (‘sometimes… sometimes… sometimes…'). We learn that this unknown creature can serve a man drink from its chest, is trodden upon by a bride, and is manhandled by a servant girl. It is raised up high and brought down low, seen from different angles. The solution is generally thought to be ‘Ox’, or more specifically, the hide of an ox, which while alive roams the field, and in death may be used to create fastenings, wineskins and shoes. Time is entirely flattened in this text: life and death are treated as essentially hypothetical states (þenden ic gæst bere, ‘while I bear a spirit’; Gif me feorh losað, ‘if life departs from me’), and the repetition of the adverb hwilum (‘sometimes’) creates less a programme of action than a sense of multiple things which may happen at any time. This temporal flattening allows us to glimpse different moments in the life of the referent almost simultaneously, as though we were flipping it over and holding it up to the light.

As well as considering objects embedded in texts, we can read texts embedded in objects: Catherine Karkov and James Paz have written about the ‘motion’ of readers’ eyes or hands required to read two particularly famous multi-sided objects, the Ruthwell Cross and the Franks Casket:






Such dimensional play is particularly palpable in runic texts, where characters may be flipped upside down or strung together backwards, making a riddle out of our conventional sense of direction.[4] Dimension, then, is a crucial aspect of our engagement with many of the objects that appear in medieval texts, and with the art which shares analogies of ambiguity and symmetry with Old English narrative style.[5] Nevertheless, we inevitably tend to interact with objects in only two dimensions: we give our students printed images of objects, or perhaps direct them to such images online. Sometimes we are able to give students a view of an object from all sides – the digital repository of the British Museum includes, for example, several images of the Franks Casket taken from different angles. But we can’t turn these objects, appreciate their depth. Even if we are fortunate enough to encounter these things in their adopted habitats – museum cases – we will find our perspectives limited by curatorial decisions. At the fantastic British Library exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (2018–2019), I was thrilled to see the great gold Sutton Hoo buckle in the flesh (as it were), its shine so much richer and its body so much thicker than any image had ever communicated.[6] But it was mounted on the wall, and one could not move behind it, as its wearer must once have done. As a student I attended a workshop at the Ashmolean Museum, where we were shown artefacts free of their cages; tilted this way and that in the light, their various markings and colourful oxidisations were exposed. But such encounters with wild objects are rare, and for most students access will remain partial, circumscribed, and dimensionally limited.

in reading we are forced to move our eyes both along and across the vinescroll so that text and ornament merge in our experience of these sides of the cross

Catherine Karkov on the Ruthwell Cross[2]

the more that I moved around the box, the more that its mysteries deepened; and yet the more I moved around it, the closer I felt to it

James Paz on the Franks Casket[3]

3D Modelling: opportunities in cultural heritage

Just as digitization has revolutionised scholarly work with manuscripts, so 3D modelling has the potential to democratise access to objects which are too fragile to be handled, or which the majority of scholars are unable to visit in person. In 2018 I attended the annual British Library Labs Symposium, ‘celebrating all things digital at the BL’.[7] Daniel Pett, Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, talked to us about his work creating 3D models for the Fitzwilliam and The British Museum. The two models that I’ve included in this blog post are from the British Museum’s digital collection – the first is the trunk of the ninth-century sandstone Sheffield Cross, and the second is a pilgrim badge featuring the likeness of Thomas Becket. Not long before his talk at the
BL, Pett had said that no museum (with the possible exception of the

Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.) was making effective use of 3D data, and that 3D work could act as ‘a research tool’ as well as ‘a revenue creator, a knowledge sharing device and a way of allowing serendipitous reuse of Museum content’.[8] Both intirguing and encouraging is that fact that Pett’s work was done with no particular budget, and with easily accessible equipment: the team used ‘mobile phones with decent sensors, low end digital SLRs and reasonable compact cameras allied with lazy susan turntables and tripods’.

The continuing development of 3D data has implications for the preservation of cultural heritage far more immediate than our concerns as teachers of the medieval. In 2019, I visited an exhibition titled Culture Under Attack at the Imperial War Museum in London, and saw a 3D-printed replica of a statue of King Uthal of Hatra created by artist Morehshin Allahyari.[9] The original statue had been destroyed by ISIS, and this recovered version contained a USB carrying the 3D data of Allahyari's print, as well as information about the original statue. In interview, Allahyari indicates that her work is motivated both by defiance towards ISIS and by a desire to maintain the memory of these lost objects.[10] She is clear that they are not ‘duplicates’, and where Pett expresses interest in the monetization of 3D data for the cultural sector, Allahyari raises concerns about ‘digital colonialism’ – the sale of cultural artefacts by those purporting to save them.

3D objects and medieval studies - what next?

Although emergent, this area of digital humanities is already classroom-ready. The pilgrim badge above was digitised as part of The Digital Pilgrim Project at the University of Cambridge, led by Amy Jeffs and Gabriel Byng, in collaboration with University College London and the British Museum.[11] This project, funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, is digitising 680 such badges in the British Museum, and will further use GIS software to create digital maps linking these finds to pilgrimage sites (you can follow #digitalpilgrim on Twitter to keep up with the project). Thirteen badges have been released in a preliminary roll out (see them here!), each accompanied by a short, informative piece of text. As well as depictions of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the badges include a diverse range of images, including: a representation of the martyrdom of St Alban; a 'propaganda' badge glorifying the Black Prince; a hood of cherries which may symbolise wealth; and an image of John the Baptist's face. These would make fantastic aids for a class introducing students to the material aspects of pilgrimage culture, and might easily be incorporated into teaching on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or The Book of Margery Kempe. In a seminar setting, students could choose a badge in pairs or small groups, and then present on the spiritual and historical significance of its imagery. Having studied the 3D objects, students could devise their own badges for the pilgrims in their texts, or (particularly for younger students, or schools outreach project) design a badge that represents their home town. When all 680 badges have been released, more advanced students will have the opportunity to collect and compare badges on similar themes.

Pett's account of the low costs of 3D digitisation also suggests that there may be an opportunity for academics to contribute to the digitisation of material artefacts. Where universities or local museums have medieval collections, it may be possible to gain permission to create 3D models, particularly where such collections have already been extensively photographed (I'm thinking of the Staffordshire Hoard!). With low technological requirements, graduate students could get involved, engaging in interdisciplinary learning between the fields of literature, history, digital humanities and conservation. Sketchfab, who host the British Museum's 3D collection, provide recommendations for 3D scanning software for mobile phones (apps) and desktop computers.[12]

Personally, I would like to see the development of ambitious tech initiatives incorporating this new wealth of 3D data into Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality offerings. For example, if the British Museum were to create 3D models of the Sutton Hoo treasures, the National Trust could create a geolocated app allowing visitors to Sutton Hoo to 'discover' and 'collect' treasures by pointing their mobile phones around the site (essentially, Pokemon Go! but with garnet shoulder-clasps instead of Pikachus). Such gamification has great potential for engaging the public through sheer fun, but I also believe that there is enormous value in digitally 'returning' these objects to their sites of origin or discovery, and I suspect that visitors will engage differently with objects that they meet in situ. A patterned shield boss and rust-eaten blade may accrue quite different connotations when stumbled across between the barrows of long, flat East Anglian fields, than when they are encountered in the high halls and the glass cases of the British Museum.


[1] Another example of the life/death trope follows in Exeter Riddle 13.

[2] Catherine Karkov, The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (2011) p. 142

[3] James Paz, Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture (2017) p. 102.

[4] Tom Birkett writes about ‘runic textuality’ and ‘the unique physicality and materiality of the engraved word’ in Reading the Runes in Old English and Old Norse Poetry (2017), quotations here from p. 94.

[5] On analogies between early medieval English art and Old English narrative structure, see, for example, John Leyerle, ‘The Interlace Structure of Beowulf’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 37 (1967) 1–17, and ‘Introduction’, in Anglo-Saxon Styles, eds. Catherine E. Karkov and George Hardin Brown (2003), 1–10.

[6] A retrospective on the exhibition can be read on the BL’s Medieval manuscripts blog: https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/05/remembering-anglo-saxon-kingdoms-art-word-war.html

[7] ‘The BL Labs Symposium, 2018’, Digital scholarship blog, British Library (15 January 2019) [https://blogs.bl.uk/digital-scholarship/2019/01/the-bl-labs-symposium-2018.html].

[8] Raphaël Marchou, 'Cultural Heritage Spotlight: Q&A with Daniel Pett from the British Museum (Part 1)', Sketchfab (16 January 2017) [https://sketchfab.com/blogs/community/cultural-heritage-spotlight-qa-daniel-pett-british-museum-part1/].

[9] Thomas Barrie, 'Is it ever right to value the preservation of art over people?', GQ (6 July 2019) [www.gq-magazine.co.uk/culture/article/culture-under-attack-review-imperial-war-museum]

[10] Hanna Watkin, 'Morehshin Allahyari Recreates Artefacts Destroyed by ISIS with 3D Printing', All3DP (20 March 2017) [https://all3dp.com/morehshin-allahyari/]

[11] The Digital Pilgrim Project, Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge [https://www.hoart.cam.ac.uk/research/past-projects/the-digital-pilgrim-project]. Students may find it useful to read the the following open-access paper written by the project convenors: Amy Jeffs, Babriel Byng, 'The Digital Pilgrim Project: 3D Modeling and GIS Mapping Medieval Badges at the British Museum Medieval Badges at the British Museum', Medieval Art and Architecture 6 (2017) 80-90 [core.ac.uk/reader/235473610].

[12] 3D Scanning Software, Sketchfab Help Centre [https://help.sketchfab.com/hc/en-us/articles/202591983-3D-Scanning-Software#Popular_and_recommended_apps:].