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Blog: Preserving The Words Of Ancient Palmyra Through Digital Humanities

3rd c. CE Palmyrene Funerary Inscription and Bust from the Princeton Museum of Art (Photo by Sarah E. Bond).

How can digital humanities projects within the field of Classics preserve and allow public access to endangered materials? The Wisconsin Palmyrene Aramaic Inscription Project (WPAIP) is already addressing theses question head-on. WPAIP is a digital humanities project housed at the Digital Collections of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and established by Jeremy M. Hutton. Similar to the Palmyra Portrait Project of Aarhus University in Denmark, which works to collate and digitize Palmyrene portraiture, the primary goal of WPAIP is to collate and digitize Palmyrene Aramaic inscriptions. This allows researchers to then analyze the language of Palmyrene Aramaic, the development and variations of its script, and other features.

Though these inscriptions are usually from the ancient city of Palmyra, they can also be found throughout the ancient Roman world, including Roman Britain and in the city of Rome itself. In fact, some feature bilingual and trilingual inscriptions with Latin and Greek texts that range from funerary inscriptions to dedicatory altars.

Left: Conventional image of Palmyrene bust with inscription from Yale University Art Gallery (1954.30.1) in direct light. Center: Conventional image of close-up of inscription in direct light. Right: Standard RTI image with light raked from right hand side of bust (All images by Nathaniel E. Greene and Catherine E. Bonesho of the Wisconsin Palmyrene Aramaic Inscription Project). 

As part of WPAIP, my colleagues and I apply the photographic technique known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). The technique has been used to digitize and analyze various objects, from graffiti found at Herculaneum (Herculaneum Graffiti Project) to fossils. In this blog post, using examples from WPAIP’s digital collection, I briefly discuss the process of performing RTI and its value for the study of ancient objects.

Developed by researchers at Hewlett-Packard, RTI technology creates the ability to manipulate the direction of a light source digitally in real time. In addition to preserving a high-quality image of an object, RTI technology can reveal details and intricacies of an object unseen to the naked eye. Organizations such as the Cultural Heritage Imagine Project and the West Semitic Research Project housed at the University of Southern California have promoted RTI technology through education and development, as well as training programs. For more on the history, technology, and development of RTI, as well as downloads of programs necessary for the performance of RTI, check out Cultural Heritage Imaging and Hewlett-Packard Labs

Jeremy M. Hutton and Catherine Bonesho move the flash in dome-like shape around a Palmyrene inscription at the Cincinnati Art Museum (Image by D. C. Hutton, edited by Catherine Bonesho, unpublished). 

WPAIP has performed RTI on over thirty Palmyrene Aramaic inscriptions housed at various museums and collections. In my brief description of how to perform RTI, I include photos from previous sessions to best show the space and equipment required. In order to produce an RTI image of an object, a digital camera is stabilized on a tripod a distance from the object. With a stationary camera, a light source or flash separate from the camera is moved in a dome like structure around the object. A series of photographs are then taken (usually at least forty-five) at each new placement of the flash around the object. With each photo taken, the position of the flash changes, resulting in a series of images with the exact same field of vision of the object but illuminated by the flash from a variety of directions, essentially creating an imaginary dome of light over the object. This series of photographs is then compiled and processed using specialized software (available via open access) into a single file that is then able to be viewed in a program known as RTI Viewer (available for download from Cultural Heritage Imaging).

RTI technology gives researchers the ability to move around light on a digital representation of an object, such as a Palmyrene funerary bust. RTI technology thus can illuminate details unseen to the researchers in conventional photography. With an RTI image of an object, it is almost as if researchers have access to the object itself, with the ability to move the light around the object to illuminate details via raking shots with the move of their computer mouse, instead of in real-life.

Catherine Bonesho stabilizes camera on tripod during RTI photography of Palmyrene bust at the Freer Gallery of Art (Image by Nathaniel E. Greene, unpublished). 

For example, WPAIP’s digital humanities project provides photos of a Palmyrene funerary bust with an inscription, known as Palmyrene Aramaic Texts 908.[1] The inscription is currently housed at the Yale University Art Gallery (catalogue no. 1954.30.1). The first image (left) depicts the entire object using conventional photography, with the light source front and center on the funerary bust. The second image (center) shows a close-up of the Palmyrene Aramaic inscription once again with the flash front and center on the inscription. The third image (right) is a capture of an RTI image of the inscription, with the light source raking from the right-hand side of the bust’s direction.

As this example illuminates, the ability to manipulate light in real time via RTI technology gives researchers better access to the details not only of inscriptions but also of other details of the object, including the portraiture of Palmyrene busts and their material. The raking shot (right) captured from RTI provides details of the inscription otherwise inaccessible from the conventional photos, aiding in the decipherment of the inscription. Almost all of the objects included in WPAIP’s digital collection have been photographed with RTI technology. WPAIP’s use of RTI not only provides high quality documentation of Palmyrene Aramaic inscriptions, but also helps to access details of the inscriptions not usually available to scholars who do not have immediate access to an object. RTI thus provides a digital means of preserving an object beyond a mere photograph and then allows digital humanists to disseminate images that can allow anyone in the world to study these inscriptions. Recent efforts to preserve Palmyra's precious monuments have already demonstrated the impressive ways in which digital methods like 3D modeling can preserve cultural heritage for the next generation, but the myriad inscriptions that tell us of the life and death of Palmyrenes is similarly significant. 

To see other Palmyrene inscriptions included in WPAIP’s collection, check out https://uwdc.library.wisc.edu/collections/wpaipcoll/

Palmyrene relief of a man and child (ca. 150 CE) now at the Harvard Art Museums. The inscription reads: "Malē, son of Maliku, son of Bagad. Alas!" (Photo by Sarah E. Bond). 


[1] Delbert R. Hillers and Eleonora Cussini, Palmyrene Aramaic Texts (Publications of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).







Catherine Bonesho's picture

Catherine Bonesho is an Assistant Professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. She writes on the intersection of ancient Judaism and empire in the Near East. bonesho@ucla.edu.

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