Modelling the Loveden Runic Cremation Vessel

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Extending the after-life: A note on the viewing figures for the Loveden 3D model

Following the transfer of the online 3D model of the Loveden Runic Cremation urn to the British Museum Sketchfab site it was publicised via the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. As a consequence of that publicity and further alerts on ‘social media’ platforms this extraordinary vessel was been viewed ‘virtually’ by more than 1400 individuals in the first week on the British Museum site. This must be by many more than saw it during it’s ‘living lifetime’. (16/02/2016)

Modelling the Loveden Runic cremation urn

To secure interactive access to a unique Anglo-Saxon cremation urn in the British Museum collections a digital 3D model has been compiled using digital photogrammetry. This very detailed model can be rotated and studied from any angle and from anywhere in the world using an internet browser. The pot, excavated at the Loveden Hill cemetery in Lincolnshire during the early 1960s, is a 5th- or 6th-century Anglo-Saxon cremation urn, the only example found to date bearing a Runic inscription and one of the earliest examples of written Old English (or its Germanic precursor)- (Catalogue Number- British Museum 1963,1001.75; height 155mm, diameter 180mm). The the 3D model enables more accurate analysis of the inscription in its object context than would be possible from conventional drawings and photographs or by looking into a museum display case. This model has been created as part of a collaborative project between The Landscape Research Centre, the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory of the British Museum, and The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain research programme (University of Leicester, University of Nottingham, and the Leverhulme Trust).

The Loveden Cremation Urn

Although the most common burial rite in Early Anglo-Saxon England was inhumation with individuals burials fully clothed individuals complete with objects often referred to as ‘grave goods’, these frequently included jewellery and other objects such as weapons, some individuals were cremated and the ashes buried in pots termed ‘cremation urns’. Small numbers of cremations occur in very many of the excavated inhumation cemeteries such as at West Heslerton, where of 16 cremations considered to Anglo-Saxon in date 11 were associated with pottery vessels. A small number of very large cremation cemeteries are known, such as at Spong Hill in Norfolk where more than 2200 cremations have been excavated, or at Sancton in East Yorkshire where several hundred cremations have been examined through a number of different excavations, and at Loveden Hill in Lincolnshire where the estimate of the number of cremations exceeds 1000.

One of the most significant feature of these cremation cemeteries is the dominance of heavily decorated pots. About 75% of all the excavated cremation vessels were decorated, in contrast with the situation on domestic sites where decorated vessels are an exception. At West Heslerton, for instance, where the total excavation of an Early to Middle Saxon settlement covering more than fifteen hectares, recovered only a few more than 6000 sherds of Anglo-Saxon pottery, fewer than 300 fragments were decorated.

The first Anglo-Saxon burials recorded from Loveden Hill were discovered in excavations undertaken in 1925/6 when a burial mound or barrow on the hill was examined. In 1955, deeper than usual ploughing brought large quantities of Anglo-Saxon pottery and cremated bone to the surface over an area covering more than 4,500 square yards (3,700sq.m.) near the excavated barrow. Excavations carried out over several years showed that the scale of the cemetery was very large; excavation of considerably less than half of the estimated area of the cemetery revealed just under 500 cremations and a dozen inhumations. Amongst the many heavily decorated cremation vessels one had been decorated with stamped decoration and a runic inscription contained by spiralling grooves around the shoulder of the pot.

The runic inscription

The runes on this urn make it a useful piece of evidence for linguists as well as for archaeologists. The earliest surviving evidence for runes dates from the later 2nd century AD; the oldest inscriptions are on metal objects recovered from bog deposits, presumed to have a ritual function, in northern Germany and Denmark. A 1st-century fibula found at Meldorf (Schleswig-Holstein, Germany) may represent the oldest known example of runic writing, but specialists remain uncertain about whether the inscription is in runes or Roman letters. The older inscriptions use a 24-letter alphabet (usually referred to as the Older Futhark; the name Futhark comes from the sounds of the first six characters), which is attested in some 300-400 inscriptions and remained in use up to c.700 AD. From the 8th century onwards, it was replaced in Scandinavia by a 16-letter rune-row (with variation between “long-branch” and more radically simplified “short-twig” letter forms). By the end of the 11th century, the Viking-Period futharks were being expanded by the use of diacritic dots, and these expanded futharks were eventually replaced by runic alphabets with designated equivalents to all the letters of the Roman alphabet. Some of these more elaborate runic alphabets remained in use into the Early Modern period (and possibly later) in certain regions.

In England, the evidence from the early Anglo-Saxon period is very scant: perhaps 15-20 objects with runic inscriptions dating from before c.650 AD are known. All are short (3 words or less), most are difficult to read and/or interpret, and all are on portable objects, some of which may have been made and/or inscribed elsewhere. They represent a valuable, if sparse and problematic, source of evidence for the language of early Anglo-Saxon communities. In England and Frisia, several new characters were added to the runic alphabet at some point during this period. It is not clear whether or not the creator of the Loveden Hill inscription used a form of runic writing which included these extra characters (which is why the rune A is sometimes transliterated a and sometimes æ). Most of the runic writing in Anglo-Saxon England dates from the 8th to 10th centuries and uses an alphabet with further additions and more standardised forms.

Notes on the individual characters (to see the runes correctly displayed follow the link here and the text with the correct font will show in a new window.)
To the extent that they can be identified, the characters are as follows (reading left to right). Transliterations follow the Oslo standard:
1. á s
2. § ï. There has been much debate among runologists about the origin of this character and which sound or sounds it represented in the earliest stages of runic writing, but here it is assumed to represent a long vowel [i:], possibly with nasalisation [ĩ:] (see Waxenberger 2010:156, 455-466).
3. ê þ
4. A æ (transliterated a in some of the literature).
5. b b
6. Either A æ or l l with two parallel strokes (note that the vertical is doubled).
7. D d. The two vertical strokes following this character are normally assumed to be a word divider.
8. From this point on, the reading becomes much less certain (especially from no. 12 to the end). This character could be either W w, or a somewhat asymmetric form of ê þ. These two characters are easily confusible. On purely formal grounds, w might seem the more likely: if it is þ, the top of the vertical is truncated (compare no. 3), but given the rather erratic execution of the carving, especially towards the end of the sequence, it would be unwise to rule out either reading on this basis.
9. I i.
10. This character is read as K k in some of the literature (see Parsons 1999:56-57). Because of the eccentric angle, Bammesberger (1991:127) suggests that it might be ï u. Against this reading, Parsons notes its small size relative to the rest of the text. Waxenberger supports Bammesberger’s position, again pointing out the odd orientation of the character (2010:157). To add to the confusion, we should also note the existence of a variant form (the so-called Dachform “roof-form”) of k, ^. This form is attested on the Continent among the “South Germanic” inscriptions, and also on another inscribed object found in England (the Watchfield case fitting), which may be of Continental provenance (Scull 1992; Parsons 1999:68-70).
11. Like no. 8, this could be W w or ê þ. See comments above. Following this character are two vertical strokes interpreted throughout the literature as a word divider, like the verticals after no. 7.
12. This character resembles a reversed Roman N, and may be a variant of H h.
13. Probably l l.
14. This character is similar to no. 6 and might be A æ or l l (see above).
15. Most problematic of all, the final character looks somewhat like a Roman K and does not clearly resemble any known rune. Page (1999:180-181) suggested that it might be F f (on the basis of which Odenstedt (1980) read nos. 12-15 as hlaf = OE hlāf “bread”), but this must be regarded as a very speculative reading, which has been rejected by more recent commentators. Another proposed reading is W w (Elliott 1989:52; Eichner 1990:325; Bammesberger 1991:127-128), but this is also very uncertain.
Interpretations of the text
The inscription contains a personal name Sīþæbæd or Sīþæb[æ]ld. The remainder of the text is much more difficult to read and interpret. Following the name is a sequence of characters which has been read as þikþ, þikw þiuw, þiuþ, wikw (see above). Bammesberger suggests interpreting it as þiuw “female servant” (cf. OE þeowu) (Bammesberger 1991:125-128; also Waxenberger 2010:157), but both the reading and the interpretation are criticised by Parsons (1999:57; see Waxenberger, loc. cit., for a response to Parsons’ comments).

The final sequence of characters presents even greater difficulties: it has been interpreted as hlāf “bread” and as hlǣw “tomb” (Waxenberger 2010:157, with references), but neither of these proposals is entirely satisfactory. The final character in particular does not clearly resemble any known runic graph-type.

Aside from the difficulties of reading the inscription, the very uniqueness of this inscribed urn offers an interesting problem for linguists. Loveden Hill is one of the largest early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries known to archaeologists, second in size only to the cemetery at Spong Hill, Norfolk. Of the many hundreds of cremation urns recovered from these and other sites, this is the only one that has been incised with writing. Three urns at Spong Hill have been stamped with a single word alu (possibly meaning “ale”, “magic” and/or “protection”) in so-called “mirror-runes”; all three were made with the same stamp. Otherwise, runes are not found on any cremation urns either in Britain or on the Continent. It is customary for runologists to assume that the number of surviving runic inscriptions must be only a small proportion of those that were made and that the apparent small size of the corpus results from the paucity of the archaeological record; yet in the case of cremation urns we have abundant data, but only these few examples of the use of writing. Whatever the function of the inscription on this object was, writing on urns was certainly not a normal part of funerary practice in the communities which used the Loveden Hill burial site, nor of their contemporaries elsewhere in the Germanic-speaking world.

The 3D model is of enormous benefit to runologists and to historical linguists as it enables us to examine the individual characters easily and carefully at high resolution, and in a format which encourages the scholar to consider the materiality of the object along with the linguistic analysis of the text. The characters become progressively harder to read as we move from left to right, which may suggest that the writer moved his or her hand around the object at a rather awkward angle, rather than rotating it as he or she worked. This would be consistent with the uneven line of the text. Working with the model enables the viewer to see more easily the flow of the lines running around the urn, which appear to have followed the line of the text rather than the contours of the object.

Creating the model

Equipment Required and Technical Notes
Using the combination of powerful desktop computers, modern digital cameras and 3D image processing software, digital photogrammetry allows us to create precise 3D models of everything from small objects to large chunks of landscape without the costs and time constraints that are associated with the use of laser scanners or the technical skills and specialist equipment required for conventional analogue photogrammetry.

At this point it is worth stating that to get high quality models one needs first of all to use high quality lenses, a camera recording images at high resolution on an appropriate sensor, with a minimum amount of digital noise, on a firm tripod. A high powered computer with a lot of memory and a powerful graphics card, ideally a games computer with 32-64 Gb of RAM is not strictly essential but is really necessary if processing times are to be measured in days rather than weeks. For this model more than 600 104Mb photographs were taken and saved in RAW and JPEG formats. RAW files store exactly what the camera sensor records in contrast with JPEG images, which employ averaging to discard data and make much smaller files, which should be perceptibly ‘identical’ although technically they are not. These were taken using an Olympus OM-D EM5-ii camera body, an Olympus 7-14mm PRO lens. The Olympus EM5-2 has a facility for recording 40Gb images by combining 8 16Gb images gathered sequentially whilst shifting the sensor in half pixel units but it is essential that the camera remains absolutely still. The model Loveden Main was generated using the 40Gb images, but from JPEG files. The recording of a relatively small but broad vessel like this with a narrow neck is particularly challenging, as each point on the vessel, inside and out must be clearly visible in multiple images taken from many positions, this is particularly critical where sharp edges such as the rim of a vessel are to be modelled. Because the vessel was quite deep a particular challenge was to ensure that the depth of field was as large as possible without compromising the image quality; by using a very small aperture all images were recorded with an aperture of F8 which gives the deepest depth of field without any loss of sharpness.


Figure 1: Camera setup recording the Loveden Runic Vessel (photograph Jo Story)

The data was processed using two computers a highly specified PC with 48Gb of RAM, a 3.6Ghz I7 processor and Nvidia GTX 670 graphics card with 4Gb graphics RAM and an iMac Retina 5K with 4Ghz I7 processor, 32Gb of RAM, and an AMD Radeon R9 295x with 4Gb graphics RAM. The images were very slightly adjusted using Adobe Lightroom, primarily to adjust the light temperature, and eliminate the blue cast resulting from the use of LED lights.

Agisoft Photoscan Pro was used for all modelling work; experience with many different packages led to this choice of software which remains the most appropriate tool for this type of work. The software uses algorithms based around what is termed Structure From Motion or SFM to build the model from multiple photographs. It is an established rule of SFM that the no two images should be taken from the same position and convention is that to record an object such as a pot you need to move round the vessel taking pictures all the way round. For the Loveden Hill runic cremation pot and for many small objects this is not practical without the facility of a dedicated studio, so an alternative approach has been used in which the background is draped with a plain sheet which is easily masked in the photographs and the object is placed on a rotating cake stand and the camera locked tightly on a tripod. To minimise camera shake the images are recorded using a silent digital shutter, a feature of the camera, and the camera is fired using a smart-phone using a wireless connection. To secure sufficient images to create the model the camera was set in seven different positions and a full circuit of overlapping images taken from each position as shown in the two images below. To record the base and lower body the pot was inverted on the rotating platform. In order to be able to create an accurately scaled model, part of the body was recorded twice once including a scale bar which was used to set the scale of the object. In addition to the model displayed using Sketchfab on the Internet, a 3D Adobe PDF file was generated which incorporates the scaled model and can be examined using Adobe Reader which includes 3D measurement functions and a facility to display cross sections oriented in any direction.

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 13.25.21Figure 2: Recording the Loveden Runic vessel camera positions seen from above in Agisoft Photoscan Pro

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 13.24.51Figure 3: Recording the Loveden Runic vessel camera positions seen from the side in Agisoft Photoscan Pro

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Figure 4: Cross section of the Loveden Runic Cremation Urn showing the profile and interior face using Adobe PDF Reader DC
The singular advantage of creating a 3D model of the type presented here is that anyone, almost anywhere in the world can examine this object closely viewed from any angle at any scale using a web browser, shading can be turned on and off and, whilst the model does not represent a physical copy or ‘preserved version of the object’, it does provide an interactive and visually precise version of the object. Whilst a user could download the files that make up the model and look at them on their own computer, the use of Sketchfab and a web browser makes this unnecessary. Sketchfab – a software utility designed to deliver 3D content on the internet – does exactly that and also effectively provides an archive store. The models will be downloadable from the Sketchfab site once the project is concluded for use in other software. It is arguable that the creation of the models offers researchers now and in the future greatly enhanced access to a unique object in one of the world’s most significant museums but without Sketchfab the full power of the 3D resource would be of limited value.

We are indebted to the Trustees of the British Museum not only for letting us undertake this research but also for providing space for us to work in, and to the others using the research room who might have preferred not to put up with the interruption provided by the constant movement, bright LED lights and quiet but continuous instructions between members of the team as the photographs were taken. We are also indebted to Agisoft and to Sketchfab for their support and encouragement.

It took most of a day to take the images. Once the photography was complete several days work was required to check the pictures, eliminate any poor quality images and then mask the background in each image. The process of masking areas (which tricks the software into believing it is the camera that was moving rather than the object) Involved masking areas of background and also any areas that were out of focus. It was for instance impossible to get sufficient depth of field, particularly when trying to photograph the pot from above to include the rim and the base of the interior; the only way to have solved this would have been to photograph the pot from further away but this would have limited the resolution of the final model.

Once all the masking was complete both computers spent several days generating models at a variety of different precisions before the models were finalised.


Bammesberger, Alfred. 1991. “Three Old English runic inscriptions.” In Old English Runes and their Continental Background, ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Winter. pp. 125-136.
Barnes, Michael P. 2012. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: Boydell.
Eichner, Heiner. 1990. “Die Ausprägung der linguistischen Physiognomie des Englischen anno 400 bis anno 600 n. Chr.” In Britain 400-600: Language and History, ed. Alfred Bammesberger and Alfred Wollmann. Heidelberg: Winter. pp. 307-333.
Elliott, Ralph W.V. 1989. Runes: An Introduction (2nd edition). Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. [1st edition 1959]
Findell, Martin. 2014. Runes. London: British Museum.
Odenstedt, Bengt. 1980. “The Loveden Hill runic inscription.” Ortnamnssällskapets i Uppsala årsskrift 1980:24-37.
Page, R.I. 1999. An Introduction to English Runes (2nd edition). Woodbridge: Boydell. [1st edition 1973].
Parsons, David. 1999. Recasting the Runes. The reform of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. Uppsala: Institutionen för nordiska språk.
Scull, Christopher. 1992. “Excavation and survey at Watchfield, Oxfordshire, 1983-92.” Archaeological Journal 149:124-281.
Waxenberger, Gaby. 2010. Towards a Phonology of Old English Runic Inscriptions and an Analysis of the Graphemes. Habilitation thesis, Ludwig Maximilians-Universität München.
Waxenberger, Gaby, and Kerstin Kazzazi. In preparation. Edition of Old English Runic Inscriptions: Vol. 1 (Pre-OE inscriptions); vol. 2 (OE English inscriptions).

The Finished Model (Low Resolution Annotated)

To download scaled versions of the model for examination using Adobe PDF Reader select either of the links below and download the file.



Martin Findell
Dominic Powlesland
Jo Story

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