Seeing the past in 3D: recording workhouse buildings at Oriel
We’ve finished excavating the foundations of part of St Pancras Workhouse, but there’s still lots of work to do! We’re now carefully analysing what we’ve found, which includes building 3D models. We excavated this site as part of planning consent obligations for Oriel – a new state-of-the-art eye care, research and education centre currently being built on part of the St Pancras Hospital site in Camden. Oriel is a joint initiative between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology (IoO) and Moorfields Eye Charity. Construction of the centre has started, with the building opening in 2027.
3D models are a great way to record features and structures; we often use them to give people a chance to see the archaeology up close. They allow you to put yourself in the shoes of archaeologists like us and see things from all angles.
The remains of the St Pancras Workhouse include several rooms and corridors with walls up to a metre high. Through our 3D models, you can travel around these areas and inspect the brightly painted plasterwork or soot-stained brick floors. But how do we put these models together?
Making 3D archaeology models
3D models need a combination of accurate location points and detailed photography.
Our team photographed various structures, making sure there was a 70-80% overlap in the photos. This overlap is needed so the 3D software can find enough of the same points to put all the pictures together.
As well as intensively photographing structures, co-ordinates for regularly spaced control points are measured using a GPS kit accurate to the centimetre. These co-ordinates make the model accurate enough for researchers to take measurements.
We excavated parts of the workhouse on the two-acre site on which Oriel is being built, and we took thousands of photos. Our archaeologists didn’t just take photos using handheld cameras, we also used a drone across a lot of the site. The drone contains an inbuilt GPS, which adds a location tag to each image. Meanwhile, our team on the ground photographed areas that were difficult for the drone to reach.
Rooms with bright paint and fireplaces
These rooms are very well preserved, with walls standing up to a metre high. We found blue painted plaster still covering much of the walls. The rooms also had fireplaces, presumably fuelled by coal stored in seven rooms at the front of the building.
So, who lived in these rooms? Well, in 1871 this area of the workhouse was used as the female wards. We don’t know for sure if this is how the rooms were originally used. However, with expensive flooring elsewhere, it seems likely it was used for inmates or residents rather than those in charge of the workhouse.
One part of these rooms that we are still investigating, using tools including this 3D model, is the channels in the floor. In both rooms we found stone lined channels that would have laid under the floor in a Y shape. These channels don’t connect to any drains, so it’s unclear what they were used for.
This 3D model makes it very easy for us to share what we found with other researchers to work together to understand how these channels may have been used.
Rooms with recycled brick floors
Our excavations uncovered a series of seven simpler lower ground floor rooms running along the front of the building. The brick floors are clearly intact and we’ve discovered that they were made from recycled bricks.
We realised these bricks were covered in soot, so we took samples of the soot from each room. Analysis of the soot showed it came from coal. The presence of so much coal soot throughout the rooms indicates they may have been used to store coal.
We will make 3D models of other areas of the remains of St Pancras Workhouse, as part of the record of what we found. These will continue to help researchers who may study the workhouse in the future.
The two-acre Oriel site is part of a wider five-acre area known as the St Pancras Hospital site. The remaining three acres still contains former workhouse buildings which today form part of Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust (C&I). You can learn more on Oriel’s website.