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Specialist Survey Techniques

Specialist survey techniques, such as photogrammetry and laser scanning, are a fundamental component of any heritage project.

Often referred to as metric or measured survey, they provide visual and metrically accurate base data for a variety of heritage applications including conservation planning, condition surveys, decay monitoring, recording, architectural analysis, archaeological investigation and site presentation.

Colour photograph of a man setting up a total station theodolite on a tripod in front of an old barn
Undertaking survey work at Harmondsworth Great Barn, Hillingdon, Greater London © Pat Payne © Historic England

Direct survey techniques

These are used where there is a need for specific survey information that requires data selection at the point of capture. They rely on the surveyor understanding the selection requirements of the project as well as the technical constraints on the technique.

They include hand survey as well theodolite/total station equipment that uses active, non-contact distance measurement technologies. Guidance on such surveys can be found in Measured and Drawn.

Colour photograph of a man using a total station theodolite with some ruined walls in the background
David Andrews using a Leica TS15i imaging total station theodolite to undertake survey work at Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire © Paul Bryan © Historic England

Indirect survey techniques

These are used where there is a need for mass data capture or when the size or extent of the subject is too large for direct techniques to be suitably deployed.

They are typically based on image capture, be it photographic or laser-based (to derive a point-cloud) and often require some post-processing in order to derive the required survey outputs.

They include rectified photography, photogrammetry, orthophotography and laser scanning. Further guidance on the use of such techniques can be found in 3D laser Scanning for Heritage

Colour photograph of a man setting up a laser scanner with target on a tripod in the foreground and church in the background
Paul Bryan using the Faro Focus 3D to laser scan the structure at Harmondsworth Barn © Pat Payne © Historic England

Structure-from-Motion (SfM)

Recent developments in multi-image photogrammetry and machine vision have led to increased use of Structure-from-Motion (SfM) across aerial, terrestrial and close-range applications. SfM allows three-dimensional structures to be derived from two-dimensional image sequences.

Colour image showing lots of blue rectangles around a pair of stone heads. Each rectangle denotes the position of the camera
Digital imagery captured with multiple overlap can be processed within Structure-from-Motion software, such as Agisoft Photoscan, to create a detailed three dimensional model © Paul Bryan © Historic England

Multi-light imaging

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is an innovative multi-light imaging technique that utilises a pre-fabricated dome to produce an interactive output for revealing subtle surface relief. Further information about this technique can be found in
Multi-light Imaging for Heritage Applications

Colour schematic showing a dome with a camera at the top and a series of angles running down the outside
The virtual lighting dome, centred around a virtual clock, as used to acquire imagery for Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) © Drawn by John Vallender © Historic England

Survey standards and specifications

Use of a defined survey standard allows:

  • An understanding of the project requirements by both client and end-user 
  • Accountability
  • Data consistency
  • Management of client expectation
  • A focus on what an end-user needs from a survey technology.

Colour photograph showing four people gathered around to look at a GPS receiver, with Kenilworth Castle in the background
Using a hand-held GNSS receiver to map the archaeological landcape around Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire © Lucy Millson-Watkins © Historic England

Metric Survey Specifications for Cultural Heritage

To ensure metric survey data is both appropriate and 'fit for purpose', Historic England has developed a standard specification for metric survey

Now in its third edition this document includes all metric survey techniques that are currently applied across a range of heritage applications. This includes laser scanning, multi-image photogrammetry/Structure-from-Motion (SfM), the capture of low level aerial imagery using Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA) and Building Information Modelling (BIM), that are all being increasingly applied across cultural heritage professions.

The title ‘Metric Survey Specifications for Cultural Heritage’ reflects a more generic approach to specification as now used by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

There are further client guides available from The Survey Association.

Metric Survey Specifications for Cultural Heritage

Metric Survey Specifications for Cultural Heritage

Published 15 September 2015

A revised and updated third edition of specifications widely used by heritage professionals throughout the historic environment sector.


Building Information Modelling (BIM)

BIM is a process of illustrating, in digital terms, all the elements that compose a building. It allows a project team to collaborate and create a single source of data that assists construction, estate & facilities management processes throughout the life-cycle of a building.

Within Historic England an internal BIM Special Interest Group (BIMSIG) exists that through the Heritage Science strategy is considering the impact of BIM across heritage.

Screenshot of 3D model of a small wooden building with the menus ad toolbars from the program visible around the edges
Revit model for the Swiss Cottage at Osborne House, Isle of Wight. The creation of a BIM model allows the illustration, in digital terms, of all the elements that compose a building. © Historic England
English Heritage Science Strategy

English Heritage Science Strategy

Published 29 October 2013

The English Heritage Science Strategy (EHSS) describes how the heritage science - based work of English Heritage contributes to the overall development of heritage science and supports the National Heritage Protection Plan.

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