Erfgoed Utrecht: Capturing History in 3D

Back to overview


I’m Daan Claessen, 3D visualization artist for the Heritage Department of Utrecht.

Archaeological excavations are under high time pressure, especially in the city of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Utrecht faces a big challenge to transform the city into a sustainable and economic urban area, which requires a lot of building activities. In the historical city center archaeologists mostly have only a couple of days to excavate and record archaeological remains before they are being destroyed, and covered over by new constructions. These sites often consist of the remains of churches, monasteries, castles, houses and related finds like pottery, glass, animal bones, ornaments and other finds.

Due to archaeological research it is possible to tell parts of the rich history of the city and its inhabitants for periods when there are no written sources available.

Due to photogrammetry in archeology we are able to capture lots of information in a short time span. Photogrammetry also provides us with a new tool to make reconstructions of the buildings, it gives historians new ways to look at their research, and it helps to make archaeological data available to a broad audience.


I started 11 years ago as a 3D visualization artist at the Department of Heritage of the city of Utrecht, during my communication and multimedia design studies, archaeologists were excavating Roman watchtowers along the northern frontier of the Roman empire, which goes right through the municipality of Utrecht. The researchers where strongly in need of visualization of the excavated remains. They asked me to make a reconstruction, together with archaeologists and a craft carpenter specialized in building wooden windmills. Since then I have used Autodesk’s Maya to make reconstructions of a variety of buildings, from prehistoric finds to modern buildings.

I was also involved in the research of the building history of the medieval Dom Tower, the largest church tower of the Netherlands. This resulted in a new way to perform historical research. By combining all data, from documents, drawings, archaeological excavations and of course the building itself, we were able to reconstruct in detail the way the tower was built. The 3D-reconstructions did not only provide an easy way to make the history of this historical tower available to the public, but it also gave us new insights into the building process itself and the combination of different types of data.

For a few years I have also used photogrammetry as a way to capture historical data. I use RealityCapture to convert images into 3D models. It gives me a way to quickly document complex archaeological information.

When a colleague archaeologist discovered a series of Roman and medieval ships in his home town Dreumel, I was asked to capture the remains. Due to the complex location of the ships, in a river, they only had a couple of days to excavate and document the ships. When they found a complete small medieval boat, and excavated only the inside of the vessel, they were looking for a way to completely lift the ship out of the ground without damaging the fragile wood. The use of photogrammetry allowed us to visualize cross sections of the boat in several places. With these cross sections, builders could then construct a cage to lift the ship, while it still was encased in the ground.

Complete medieval vessel, found upside down. In this capture the bottom planks are removed:

The small boat encased in the ground:

Another medieval ship:

Photogrammetry also helped us with excavations in the city centre of Utrecht, next to the early 20th century post office. The monumental building is being transformed into a library and a food market, and therefore the cellar needs to be expanded. Because of the building’s location, which had earlier housed a medieval cloister and later a mint, archaeological research was needed.

The excavation was also under high time pressure. I was asked to capture the scene in 3D for later review of the complex foundations from all the different buildings. Sometimes I needed to capture everything within a lunch break. For the expansion of the cellar all the remains were destroyed, but with the 3D model it’s now possible to revisit the excavation.

Complex archaeology in the city centre:

Walls of cloister, mint and houses:

Some archaeologists need to get used to this form of documenting, but even the process of measurements done in the field can be sped up with the use of photogrammetry.

The captured remains can now be used as a “base-layer” for a later 3D reconstruction.


Sketchfab gives me the ideal platform to share these models online. Archaeologists can revisit the excavations, share their ideas with colleagues, and make annotations, which I then again can add to the models. The next step would be to take the models and let the archaeologist experience them in VR.


About the author

Daan Claessen

3D visualization artist for the Heritage Department of Utrecht.

No Comments

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    "Post comment" will create a new comment that can be read by anyone who visits this website and has access to this topic. Do not include sensitive data like IDs, credentials, or non-public information.

    To remove a comment, contact the Sketchfab Community Team.

    Related articles