The University of Nottingham has used a drone to survey a 200-million-year-old red sandstone pillar in Nottinghamshire to determine if it was made by prehistoric humans or is a natural feature.
The origins of the Hemlock Stone, which stands on the east side of Stapleford Hill in Bramcote, have been a conundrum for historians and geologists for hundreds of years.
Some experts have argued it was the result of ancient quarrying, others the result of natural erosion and another claim is the Stone was shaped to produce a sacred Neolithic or Bronze Age monument.
In 2012, The Nottingham Geospatial Institute (NGI) at the University carried out the first scan of the Hemlock Stone for local archaeology society, The Hidden History Team, which is leading the project to learn more about its geology and history.
The NGI carried out the survey free of charge, using the latest 3D laser scan techniques - normally reserved for the geospatial industry - to help understand ancient sites and monuments in the region.
“To scan the eight metre-high Stone without disturbing or touching it three years ago, we had to erect scaffolding,” explains Dr Lukasz Bonenberg, Senior Experimental Officer with the NGI.
“However due to the site’s awkward location on the side of a slope, scaffolding could only be erected at the back. This technical issue meant scan data was incomplete at the front of the Stone and a revisit was needed.”
On 27 October 2015, Dr Bonenberg carried out the second survey at the site, this time supported by commercial drone-operating company, Ocuair. Their drone was easily able to reach the challenging parts of the site that would otherwise have remained inaccessible.
“When we carried out the first scan, the drone technology was not readily available; it’s interesting for us to now test the accuracy and benefits of using them in 3D model production,” said Dr Bonenberg.
From the 400 high-resolution still images captured from the air, together with the latest modelling software, and the first laser scan and GPS data, a more detailed virtual model will now be produced.
Researchers also hope to use the survey information gathered to generate a 3D-printed scaled model of the Hemlock Stone.
Archaeologists and geologists will then analyse all the results for clues that the stone was worked by ancient human hands and, if so, what techniques and tools our ancestors possibly used. They will also undertake a full archaeological and geological appraisal of the site, landscape survey and the largest data gathering exercise ever conducted on the stone's history and folklore.
Local historian Frank Earp believes the Hemlock Stone, which sits on a prehistoric track, is linked to two other ancient stones in the county - the Druid Stone at Blidworth and Bob's Rock at Stapleford.
Earp is leading an investigation into potential connections between the three rock formations as part of the Three Stones Project for The Hidden History Team. He considers it possible that the three rocks were calendar markers or a communication system dating back to the Bronze Age.
According to Earp, the quarrying is likely to date back to the Neolithic or Bronze Age and was deliberately engineered to produce the monument rather than it being an accidental or unwanted bi-product.
“If this origin proves to be the case then it would make the Hemlock Stone unique among the pre-historic monuments of Northern Europe,” Earp adds.
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