My research interests encompass Egyptian Archaeology and early writing systems and art of ancient Egypt and ancient Near East, as well as Digital Humanities as it intersects with archaeology. I am particularly interested in the application of digital technologies to the study and visualisation of the technological, material and environmental aspects of ancient reading and writing.

Digital Magic for Magical Texts

It has been a grey damp day here in London. Glad to be tucked in working from home with the cat on my lap and a fresh pot of the black stuff.  I have been beavering away on a pile of image data for Magica Levantina, a University of Cologne project on magical texts from the ancient Near East.  Although I am a Research Associate at the Cologne Center for eHumanities, I have spent a good portion of my time working in museum collections far beyond Cologne, including the Princeton, Philadelphia, Paris, Naples, and soon (all being well) Jerusalem. But for now I have been working at the British Museum, which happily is not far from home and is giving me a bit of a break from the travel.

Gypsum tablet

Part of a gypsum tablet with a magical Greek inscription from Amathus, Cyprus (1891,0418.50 + 59,  © Trustees of the British Museum).

This week I have been conducting Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on inscribed tablets fragments in the Department of Greece and Rome. The tablet fragments are made of selenite (gypsum), and were found at  the site of Amathus and date to between 100 CE-300 CE.

The almost complete tablet above bears a curse written in alphabetic Greek. However, the technique used to make the inscription, combined with its small size and the translucence of the material, make it very challenging to read or discern other potentially significant physical features.

RTI specular enhancement detail of Greek inscribed selenite tablet from Amathus, Cyprus. (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Detail from the upper left of the above, visualised using the RTI specular enhancement mode  (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

BM staff very kindly took the tablet off display* yesterday so I could image it using RTI. The  detail to the right does not really do justice to the results I processed today since it is not possible in this context to have the relighting and other functionality of the RTIViewer. Nevertheless, the text is now vastly more readable.

Thanks to the magic of modern tablets, this ancient one, or at least its visual surrogate, is currently making its way through the ether to my colleagues in Cologne.

* The tablet was put promptly back on display today I am told (Room G72/2), so do pop down to the British Museum and take a closer look.

Rescue Archaeology in Egypt and Digital Image Analysis

I kicked the day off here in TOPOI Haus, Freie Universität Berlin, with further preparations for a planned joint rescue archaeology mission in Aswan, Egypt, early next year. Egypt has been facing very challenging times and while thdeske looting of Egypt’s cultural heritage is horrific, it pales in comparison to the economic hardship and other woes people are enduring in their-to-day lives up and down the Nile Valley. So while in the short term, planning future fieldwork is filled with uncertainty, I am pressing forward in the hopes that things will improve. My heart goes out to my Egyptian colleagues and friends today especially, with more rival rallies being held and resolution seeming rather far off.

This afternoon I shifted gears and continued with analysis of Reflectance Transformation Imaging data. I am finishing up some loose ends from my Marie Curie COFUND fellowship project on inscribed and decorated objects from early Egypt and Southern Mesopotamia. I am re-processing some images to see if I can improve the visualisation of surfaces with self-shadowing problems and preparing digital illustrations of others.

In tandem with this work, I am annotating my processing and digital epigraphy workflows in a training document in preparation for an RTI training workshop I am organising for TOPOI affiliates (similar to the fantastic training Cultural Heritage Imaging ran for us last year). I also had a couple of phone and email exchanges with folks from the Cologne Center for eHumanities (CCeH). They are interested in following up a digital imaging workshop I co-delivered a few weeks ago with a project applying RTI to lead curse tablets in various collections around the world – an exciting prospect!

 

Museum Archaeology Prep and a Bit of Gold Digging

Good morning from Berlin! We are finally getting a bit of sun….which we need given the Euro2012 match results last night (Glückwunsch an Spanien und Italien!). So — since my Day of Archaeology post last year, I’ve started a Marie Curie COFUND fellowship at Freie Universität Berlin, in association with the Dahlem Research School and TOPOI. My research project is entitled:  A Comparative Study of Scribal and Artistic Spaces in Early Egypt and the Ancient Near East: Integrating micro- and macro-scale analyses. More information can be found here and I am also keeping a blog on my progress. (In fact, in addition to posting here I really need to update said blog, but that will probably happen Monday now since today is already chock full!)

So here is a bit about what I am getting up to today. I am in the course of planning several museum research visits for this summer. I need to document 100 ancient art- and writing-bearing objects dating to the early period of graphical development (c.3200-c.2500 BCE) in both southern Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. I am documenting and examining both portable objects (e.g. cylinder seals, impressed sealings, cuneiform tablets, labels) and fixed image-bearing surfaces (e.g. stelae, tomb relief, rock art), using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI).

Inscribed tablet

Stone tablet with early writing incised into its surfact, University of Pennsylvania Museum, B16105

Although I am an Egyptologist first and foremost, I did dabble a bit in Near Eastern archaeology and languages (e.g. Akkadian) as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. With this project I am finally getting back to this side interest which is quite exciting. But it means coordinating museum research with both the Egyptian and Near Eastern curators and other staff at each museum. This morning my goal is to get my object list and research permission request sent off the the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology before lunch.

Dahlem Research School in der Hittorfstrasse

Dahlem Research School

This afternoon several other post-docs and I will be participating in a peer coaching session at the Dahlem Research School, with the help of a successful grant applicant, on drafts proposals for funding we’ve been preparing for a follow-on research projects. My COFUND fellowship is for 15 months, and in addition to completing a research project this year, I am tasked with bringing in funding for a follow project (Note: details for the next COFUND application should be posted soon at link above. Do consider applying!).

It’s great to be in a fellowship programme that is emphatically about training and career development. Many fellowships / post-docs focus resources on completing of a particular piece of research. Fair enough I suppose, but having more advice, time and support thrown in my direction to help ensure the next gig is lined up is great. The level of regular contact, mentoring and–yes–deadlines that the DRS provide both for achieving our short-term goals and hammering out a longer-term career plan and getting it funded is super valuable. I need to take even more advantage of this in fact.

Anyway, I’d best finish sorting out this museum object request list and reading my colleagues’ funding proposals for our peer review session.

Planning field work in Egypt

So-called "barrow" on Hampstad Heath
Boadicea’s Grave‘ on Hampstead Heath

The chapter writing  is coming along but after driving my desk for a few hours, I needed a break and went for a run. I often go up to Hampstead Heath, and even there archaeology is never far off. Somewhere on the Heath is a Saxon ditch and earth bank, which formed early ownership and administrative boundaries (since at least AD986), though as far as I am aware I’ve not come across it yet. And of course, there is the so-called ‘Boadicea’s Grave‘ which may be nothing more than a foundations of an old windmill or a folly (right).

My desk

My desk

So back here at my desk for more writing, I am excited to find an email regarding some paid field work in Egypt. I may have the opportunity to undertake reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) this Autumn at South Abydos in Upper Egypt. Prof. Joe Wegner (who taught me during my BA at the University of Pennylvania) has been directing excavations there for years and is keen to document the sealings from the Middle Kingdom town. The sealings are quite small, only a few centimeters across, and there are a lot of them, so this will be an ideal job for the RTI mini-dome (see Figure 5).

We’ll see what happens though. As many Egyptians continue to seek a better future and more economic equality, the current political situation in Egypt means that the cultural heritage sector is undergoing many changes. It’s an issue that weighs on my mind quite a bit as I job hunt and look for opportunites to collaborate. As an archaeologist I’ve developed various skills and experience relating to Egypt’s ancient past. Now the question for me is, how can I both obtain employment in my field, and do so in a way that supports a better Egyptian present?

 

Shedding new light on the past

I’m finally getting down to writing my first post of the day! I am occupied with several tasks today which capture the essence of my past few weeks, basically doing museum and desk-based archaeology:

  1. Finishing up various loose ends for a 1-year research project at the University of Oxford I was working on until recently: “Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) System for Ancient Documentary Artefacts” (RTISAD);
  2. Submitting job applications (and trying not to get too depressed about the lack of jobs in my field of Egyptian Archaeology!);
  3. Taking advantage of the time I now have to address my publication backlog (important for the success of no. 2).

I’ll write a bit about about no. 1 now, and then must get back to drafting a chapter for a publication on the development of early Egyptian writing/art. RTISAD involves some super exciting developments in the digital imaging of cultural heritage. The RTISAD project is a collaborative endeavour funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2010 via the Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact (DEDEFI) scheme. A press release about our project results can be found here and a more detailed explanation of RTI is found on our project partner’s (Cultural Heritage Imaging) website.  My task at Oxford was to test the RTI lighting dome on various inscribed material types. I had the fantastic opportunity of working with Ashmolean collections, imaging cuneiform inscribed clay tablets, early Egyptian and other objects (for a pic of the RTI dome and some results click here).

PTM of the Battlefield Palette

PTM detail of the Battlefield Palette, perhaps from Abydos, EgyptLate Predynastic period, c.3150 BCE, EA 20791, © The Trustees of the British Museum

I also spent a week at the British Museum where I imaged the so-called Battlefield Palette (or Lion Palette) and Hunters Palette, 1st Dynasty inscribed labels and more.

RTI has been brilliant for my research on early Egyptian graphical culture as technology process and material practice. For the chapter I now need to go work on I have been analysing surface marks on the palettes to understand how the production process such as evidence for tool types and the techniques the artisen(s) used to produce these incredible scenes. For now I will leave you with a close up of the Battlefield Palette (right) on wich I have found evidence for recarving.