The Lost City of Clonmacnoise Now Found on an App

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Tom Murphy's picture
Tom Murphy has worked as a producer and cameraman specialising in current affairs and documentaries, filming in many different environments, hostile and otherwise, throughout the world. @tom_murphy

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias - Percy Byshe Shelley

While the Lost City of Clonmacnoise has not been altogether lost to the sands of time, a new app by RealSIM, the makers of Virtual 3D Galway, has, through a combination of modern technologies, recreated a virtual version of the city to be interacted with on mobile devices. The app gives a visually enhanced, spatially accurate rendering of what it would have looked like at some point in its heyday in the early 12th Century. The Clonmacnoise app can be used either as an on-site guide should you pay a visit or you can take a remote tour regardless of your location.

First, a little history: Clonmacnoise was founded about 1500 years ago on the banks of the River Shannon on the main east-west road that ran through the low-lying bogs of the Irish midlands. By the 9th century it was a thriving city but its ascendancy was only to last another couple of hundred years before the world moved on leaving behind what has come to be the ruins that inhabit present site and an incomplete set of annals that serve to remind us of what once was.

Clonmacnoise is now a major tourist destination and there are a considerable number of things to see in a relatively small area. There are churches, temples, towers, important Celtic crosses and a even a cathedral.

All these structures stand testament to the craftsmanship of old and the good use of the rough, rugged, long-lasting stone. But as redoubtable as these materials are they can only ever tell a partial story of what life was like in Clonmacnoise. We know where people worshipped but where did they live? What did they do? How did they get by? What sort of people were they?

Our available knowledge of societies in the so-called Dark Ages combined with the archaeological record and the events described in the annals does provide us with enough information enough to deduce and infer what life may have been like then with what we believe to be some degree of accuracy.

However, it still remains hard to visualise how life was lived in the mundane, quotidian sense. Away from the monks, priests and High Kings, the minutiae of every day living still had to be handled. How do we begin to compare our daily lives with the daily lives of those who lived back then? Even more interestingly wouldn’t it be fascinating to see the city of Clonmacnoise on something like the scale that it originally had - in three dimensions?

With the Clonmacnoise app Gavin Duffy has just done that. He and his team have combined 3D content with GPS and mobile technology to provide an interactive guide whether the user is on the site or not.

According to Gavin, “Most of the geo-located apps are 2D augmented reality — images super-imposed on the camera view. This is the first app that I am aware of that you can navigate an app which is a full 3D environment just like a game but using your own movement through the real-world scene.”

As the user walks around the iPad (soon to be other devices) uses GPS to locate their position. Because it is connected to the compass as well as the user turns the 12th century version of the scene shown on the device turns with them. The net effect is of the user moving through the 3D environment while simultaneously moving through the location. The image they see on the screen is what they would have seen if they had been standing in the exact same spot more than a thousand years ago.

“The big advantage over traditional 2D augmented reality.” According to Gavin, “Is that you don’t have to be here on site to appreciate it. You can be in Dublin or San Francisco. You can use simple touch-screen movements to look around the environment just as you would in a regular game.”

While Gavin’s background as a geo-physicist went a long way to help him in developing the app there were still a number of major challenges to overcome. "It’s relatively easy to map what exists, photographing and modeling in 3D. It is more challenging to map what does not exist. There are no maps from a thousand years ago so we had to create those maps ourselves with reference to literary information from various annals that survive and archaeological evidence from other sites of the same period.

“From that we were able to establish that there was a blacksmithing industry and a thriving market place, people came from all around. This was a university town — Ireland was one of the bastions of learning. Students came from all over Europe. At the time Europe was in the dark ages and this is a prime example of why Ireland became known as the Land of Saints and Scholars.”

While we can never know what life was really like, especially for the ‘ordinary’ people that have inhabited our history the more we endeavour to seek an understanding of their lives, the more we can, perhaps, gain vital insights into our own.

As Gavin says, “We are all very interested in where we come from. There is a natural, innate, curiosity as to what has made us what we are. What is the fabric of our history makes us who we are today.”

Also, by taking advantage of the technology available to us to render a better of understanding of our own very temporary place in the scheme of things.

“Clonmacnoise is a classic example of things that are great today do and will fall, change and evolve. It’s good to keep in mind that humanity and our values are continually changing. It is an important lesson to communicate that great empires and great cities fall.”

What has gone has gone and there is no likelihood of any app bringing the past to life again. But with carefully applied use of the mobile, mapping and rendering technologies we have at present we can make a decent attempt of envisioning the past.

The Clonmacnoise app is now available for iPhone and iPad. Do have a look at the following video to see how the Clonmacnoise app works in greater detail.


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