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posted 11 November 2015 at 11:12:34

Six years ago, following a series of fierce winter storms, a 400 year-old shipwreck was washed ashore off the North Carolina coast of the USA. It was one of the oldest wrecks ever to be washed up in the area, known locally as 'The Graveyard of the Atlantic'. For maritime historians, it was a Red Letter Day.  
The mercantile ship, believed to date from the 1600s, was made from white European pine oak, held together with wooden pegs. The preservationists' excitement soon turned to concern, as the poor weather conditions continued and there was every chance that the wreck would be destroyed or washed back to its watery grave. It was dragged onto the beach and taken to The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, in Hatteras. Six years later, without the salty, freezing waters of the Atlantic to preserve it, its timbers have decayed, shrunk and it is barely recognisable as a ship. 

Determined to not lose more history in this way, the Education Programmes Coordinator for the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese, John McCord, turned to 3D printing and 3D photogrammetry – the process of using multiple images to accurately measure objects or landscapes that are too large to measure quickly – to take virtual snapshots that will last forever.  

In September, McCord dived on the wreck of a submarine that sank off the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1942 and took more than 700 photographs of it from every angle. Back in his lab, he loaded all of the pictures into a software package that used an algorithm to convert the separate images into a 3D printable model of the submarine. Seven years ago, it took a team of five a full four days and hundreds of hours to produce a drawing of the same wreck, which was much less accurate than the one McCord created from a single dive.  

The software that converts photogrammetry into a 3D model is relatively new. Originally created for large construction projects, or to track the movements of wildlife, it is now being adapted for historical finds, such as shipwrecks that are often in danger of being lost or destroyed by nature.  

McCord and Nathan Richards, Head of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Institute, are currently using 3D photogrammetry to capture what is known locally as the O’Keefe Wreck, after Charles O’Keefe, the man who discovered the wreck on the beach in the 1990s. The shipwreck, located on the Corolla beach area, appears and disappears throughout the year. It is believed to be the remains of the Metropolis, a Civil War steamer that sank in 1878.  

While 3D photogrammetry doesn’t replace the need for researchers like McCord and Richards to visit sites to study the material characteristics and workmanship of a ship’s remains, it does allow them to create a more accurate record of their findings and their work is paving the way for further developments in the field of hi-tech preservation using 3D technology.

Image © Thinkstock/iStock/Paul Vinten