reflectance transformation imaging

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.

A day of archaeological geomatics

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in flight.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in flight.
Image © Callen Lenz

Well, firstly, I can’t believe it’s been a year since last time! Doesn’t time fly? What’s happened since then I hear you cry? I’m still the Geomatics Manager for Wessex Archaeology, responsible for GIS and Survey. The big news is my desk is now paper free and I’m trying to keep to a paperless work regime, essential seeing as most of my workspace is taken up with computer equipment, leaving no room for unnecessary clutter. In the photo you can see not only my laptop but the recently rebuilt GISBEAST machine with it’s quad cores, 64-bit OS and 12Gb RAM, tooled up with all the software I need to do what I do. (more…)

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?