Pyu Inscriptions in Myanmar shown in a conventional, static image versus RTI (l-r) / Uriyahu Inscription shown in a conventional static image versus RTI (l-r) / Kyle McCarter and Heather Parker photographing the Mesha Stele at the Louvre Museum, assisted by Bruce Zuckerman, June 2015 / Palmyrene Project: Nathaniel Green is using a large flash for RTI capture

Recipient: University of Southern California, School of Religion

Program: Laura Bush 21st Century Librarians Program - Continuing Education

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Contact: Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, Professor, School of Religion, University of Southern California

Dr. Leta Hunt, Associate University Librarian and Associate Director for InscriptiFact, University of Southern California

Pictured above: Kyle McCarter and Heather Parker photographing the Mesha Stele at the Louvre Museum, assisted by Bruce Zuckerman, June 2015 

“Destruction due to the ravages of war and of time are constantly encroaching on our documented history. Anything we can do to safeguard that record is essential to maintaining the legacy of civilization.”

Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, Professor, School of Religion, University of Southern California.

When a professor from the School of Religion at the University of Southern California (USC), Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, and his colleagues, Dr. Leta Hunt of the USC Libraries and Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of West Semitic Research, first learned about Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), they knew it was going to have a profound impact on the documentation of cultural heritage all over the world.

RTI provides the capacity to view, in unprecedented detail, the textured surface of an artifact. This is done by using a stationary camera to take multiple images of an object from different light angles by moving light-positions in a virtual dome-like shape. Once these images are recorded, special software developed by Hewlett Packard, and further developed by Cultural Heritage Imaging and others, processes the images with an algorithm, which calculates how the light reflects off each target. After the software runs through the algorithm, it creates a texture map of the artifact surface. This allows researchers to use a cursor like a flashlight to move a virtual light-source around the image at any angle, thereby revealing subtle variants in texture in real time.

With this method, inscriptions on artifacts are delineated with remarkable clarity, details of ancient artwork such as brush strokes and tool marks are revealed, and as a result, the way we document, study, and view historical collections has changed forever. Even better, RTI does not require specialized equipment or extensive training.  Buoyed by this discovery, the team was motivated to develop a program that would train their peers in the RTI method and which would allow them to borrow the needed equipment to launch pilot-projects.

A Perfect Storm of Potentiality

USC established the training program with an emphasis on RTI technology to help selected trainees gain in-depth, practical, hands-on skills and knowledge that enables them to accomplish their own field image documentation projects of collections. Their goal was to empower library and museum professionals, archivists, researchers, scholars, and students to start up and carry out their own highly sophisticated image documentation for field projects involving ancient texts, artifacts, paintings, and other cultural heritage objects—especially those potentially at risk.

The USC project not only provides the training for the pilot programs, it also offers an infrastructure for cataloging and distribution of the images through USC’s InscriptiFact Digital Image Library. Once each trainee’s pilot field project has been completed, USC provides guidance and assistance in facilitating longer-term expanded projects in order to accomplish each trainee’s goals, with an emphasis on building collaborative projects and networks. The loaned equipment is then returned to USC to be employed for further projects.

Past Year’s Extraordinary Findings

With the help of a grant from IMLS, USC has jumpstarted the training in RTI documentation for some 21 professionals during its three-year duration and loaned equipment to use in 20 pilot field projects all over the world, including Burma, Indonesia, Wales, England, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, and Israel. Some of the most outstanding results came from the following four projects that generated highly significant findings of ancient history and provide proof of the momentum that the training program has created in the field.

Arlo Griffiths from the École française d’Extreme-Orient in Jakarta captured images of many ancient Pyu inscriptions, inscriptions that have not been well documented or studied. He was able to show the capabilities of RTI to many local museum curators who are now interested in learning RTI to document their precious and fragile artifacts. Griffiths has recently been given sponsorship by the ACLS to carry out RTI imaging projects in India and possibly Myanmar in 2017.

Jody Washburn from the University of California, Los Angeles, imaged first millennium BC limestone inscriptions from Khirbet Beit Lei and Khirbet el- Qom at the Israel Museum and Israel Antiquities Authority storage facility. Washburn was able to capture important inscriptions from ancient Israel, especially ones that shows signs of “over-writing,” that is, re-incising letters on top of older versions of those letters. These inscriptions have also been of great interest to scholars because of their relevance to the history of Israelite religion, and have not been easy to read until Washburn’s RTI images were created.

Bill Endres from the University of Kentucky spearheaded a project at the Lichfield Cathedral in England, as well as other libraries, concentrating on dry-point glosses in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Dry-point glosses are marginal notes written on manuscripts with a pen, but no ink. His project proved to be significant, in that his imaging of the manuscripts revealed dry-point glosses that had not been seen under previous examination. In continuing his training and knowledge of RTI Endres says, “I’m working on funding to put together my own RTI kit. I have an endless number of projects to pursue using RTI for medieval manuscripts, capturing dry-point glosses and the state of pigments. Also, after using RTI at the National Library of Wales, I helped them set up their own RTI capabilities. I returned to Wales this spring and gave a workshop with European scholars on advanced imaging techniques. From that workshop, I am in the process of helping the library at Trinity St David University set up RTI for their collection.”

P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. and Heather Parker from Johns Hopkins University collaborated with the West Semitic Research Project to initiate their pilot project to obtain for the first time high-quality images from the 9th century BCE of the Mesha Stela in Paris, along with various “squeezes” (paper maché casts) that were made of the Stela in the 19th century. The inscribed stone called the Mesha Stela provided one of the most important direct accounts of historical events involving Israel. These squeezes are the best evidence for the original inscription since the stone itself was broken up in the 19th century and many of the pieces were lost. The images taken using RTI are already seen to be much clearer and are being used for further study on this remarkable piece that has been fragmented for so long.

Safeguarding History

The aim of the project has been to facilitate the initial launching, propagation, and incubation of a wide variety of imaging projects that will then have an increasingly profound influence on the study of ancient cultural heritage. In just three short years, the impact has been extraordinary. Each project completed shows the credibility of the RTI method and how useful the imaging and research are—propagating other groups to do the same work and spreading technology into scholarship as opposed to having technology run scholarship. 


Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program