Jan 31, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers from the University of Nottingham have used 3D scanning technology to uncover a secret room hidden inside a building used by conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The hiding hole was used by Catholic priests escaping persecution in the 17th century.

Coughton Court, 3D scanned and photographed

Following the English Reformation of the 16th century, in which the Church of England broke away from Catholicism, many Catholics who wanted to continue practicing their faith had to do so in extreme secrecy—or else face execution as traitors. Consequently, many owners of large country houses devised clever methods of hiding Catholic clergymen, often by creating so-called “priest holes” in the various nooks and crannies of their properties.

One such house containing a priest hole is Coughton Court in Warwickshire, a place so rich with secrecy that it was also used by Sir Everard Digby, one of the main conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of men sought to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. The priest hole, however, was designed to enable practicers of the Catholic faith to hide within a turret, between two floor levels.

Following its initial use, the priest hole went undiscovered until the 1850s, when it was found with a rope ladder, portable alter, and some bedding still in place. But while the Coughton Court priest hole has been public knowledge for over 150 years, few have had a chance to see it, or properly visualize how it is laid out. As such, researchers from the University of Nottingham began 3D scanning the priest hole in 2015 in order to create a digital 3D model of the unusual cavity.

The priest hole was found within the near right turret of the tallest section of the house

A few weeks ago, courtesy of a grant from the National Trust, the same group of researchers returned to Coughton Court to perform a more comprehensive 3D scan, taking into account the entire building, which provides better context for the priest hole. And with the data collected from the 3D scanning process, the researchers have been able to assemble a digital 3D model of the building that people will be able to access online.

“At Coughton, the priest hole is hidden away out of sight and the 3D model will really help visitors to understand where it fits inside the building,” explained Dr Chris King, an archaeologist at the University of Nottingham. “Many visitors can’t access the tower room where the secret space is located, so this digital model allows them to experience the building and its story in a whole new way.”

To gather the visual data about the house and its priest hole, the Nottingham researchers used a technology called terrestrial laser scanning, a process which involves rapidly obtaining 3D point clouds using laser rangefinding. The process is frequently used in the surveying of architecture and landscapes.

The 3D scanned priest hole from various angles (shown in white)

“Terrestrial laser scanning is an important new technology for recording ancient monuments as [it can capture] a huge amount of data very quickly,” said Dr Lukasz Bonenberg of the Nottingham Geospatial Institute. “This is the first time that TLS has been used for the purpose of visualizing hidden spaces inside Tudor houses.”

The researchers are now looking to secure funding to continue their research elsewhere, as they attempt to discover priest holes in other historic locations across England.

“Digital visualizations of historic buildings are vital tools for helping the public to picture the past,” Bonenberg added.

 

 

Posted in 3D Scanning

 

 

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