Virtual Reality Model of Medieval Spon Street

Medieval Coventry is working in partnership with the Visualisation Group, WMG, University of Warwick to create a virtual reality, multi-sensory model of Spon Street as it would have appeared c. 1500. This important industrial suburb was important for its weaving, dyeing and tanning crafts and the model will bring this to life, incorporating the existing 14th- and 15th-century buildings and images of ‘lost’ buildings.

Work has started on medieval weaving, in partnership with professional re-enactors Ruth Gilbert and Tim Jenkins and The Weavers House (www.theweavershouse.org). Here we see Ruth and Tim using the replica medieval horizontal loom and winding quills at the Weavers House.

The next step will be medieval tanning, which we hope will be filmed in early 2018 at the UK’s only traditional tanning works in Devon.

The finished model will be available to the public later in 2018.

Suburban Spon Street was the location for the medieval tanning industry. In the late medieval period leather was used for making belts, purses, shoes, boots, gloves, saddles and tents and for carrying liquids.

The process of turning an animal hide into leather was known as ‘tanning’ (for cattle hides) or ‘tawyering’ (for other hides such as sheep and goat). Tanning was a noxious process which, in most towns in the 15th century, was banished by regulation to the outskirts.

By c. 1500 in Coventry, 70 per cent of Coventry’s tanners worked in the north-western part of the city, around Spon Street, Hill Street and Well Street. Using a mix of documentary and archaeological data, together with an analysis of the existing standing buildings in Spon Street, it is possible to build a picture of tanning and other crafts and industries in the area in the late
medieval period.

Scraping the cattle hides – the first stage of the tanning process
Scraping the cattle hides – the first stage of the tanning process
Scraping the cattle hides – the first stage of the tanning process
Scraping the cattle hides – the first stage of the tanning process

The tanning of cattle hides was a labour-intensive and smelly activity After the hooves and horns had been chopped off the animal skins provided by butchers, the skins were immersed in pits filled with dog dung or lime, scraped and then sprinkled with urine and left to rot in a warm environment. Finally, the hides were soaked for up to twelve months in a tanning liquid to achieve the desired quality of leather.

To fully appreciate the medieval tanning process, any virtual reality needs to be multi-sensory: the sites of the skins in various stages of processing, the shouts of the workers, and the pungent smells.

Using the latest multi-sensory technologies, usually used in the motor car industry, it is possible to create a Virtual Reality Model of Spon Street in this period. The project is being created in conjunction with the Visualisation Group, WMG, University of Warwick.

VR offers the possibility of recreating environments which no longer exist. This is particularly valuable as VR can allow people to experience cultural heritage sites which have long since disappeared. The real world is multi-sensory with sights, sounds, smells and feelings, including motion and temperature, all of which combine to provide richness to any real experience. The aim is to create as authentic an experience of a medieval tanning district as possible.

We have already laser-scanned Spon Street and modern features such as street furniture, cars and buildings from the 16th century onwards have been eliminated from the model. The model will show Spon Street as it would have looked in the later medieval period.

Initial scan results of Spon Street, showing St John the Baptist Church
Initial scan results of Spon Street, showing St John the Baptist Church
Scan of the tanning house that VR visitors will be able to enter
Scan of the tanning house that VR visitors will be able to enter

The model will allow VR visitors the opportunity to walk down Spon Street as it would have appeared in around 1500. They will encounter medieval craftspeople going about their business and will enter buildings to hear the sights, sounds and smells of the medieval industries in action.

Scan of the tanning house that VR visitors will be able to enter
Scan of the tanning house that VR visitors will be able to enter

Future work will include medieval dyeing and weaving, which were also major industries in the area. The finished model will be made available to schools and museums in Coventry.