Elucidating ancient writings with Reflectance Transformation Imaging

Posted on 03 February 2015

Talk: Kathryn E. Piquette (Cologne Center for eHumanities, Universität zu Köln), “The Herculaneum Papyri and Greek Magical Texts: Elucidating ancient writings with Reflectance Transformation Imaging”

Permalink: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-1780-0000-0024-BF5F-2

Date: Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Time: starting at 17:00 c.t. (i.e. 17:15)

Venue: DAI, Wiegandhaus, Podbielskiallee 69-71, D-14195 Berlin (map)


This seminar will revolve around two Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) projects based at the University of Cologne dealing with ancient Greek texts. In addition to presenting selected results, focus will be directed to methodological and theoretical issues arising from the imaging work. The conventional use of the digital image as a resource for interpreting past written meaning will be contrasted with a more active concept of the digital image as constitutive of both past reconstructions and the interpretive process itself.

The presentation will begin with RTI work on the Herculaneum Papyri. Preserved through carbonisation when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, these papyri constitute the largest surviving ancient library in the world. For over two centuries scholars have sought to unroll and read the c.1800 papyrus rolls found in the Villa dei Papyri. Multispectral images taken over a decade ago have vastly improved legibility. Recent infrared RTI imaging takes this work forward, revealing further writings and providing vital information about the physical structure of the rolls.

The second part of the seminar will present results from “Magica Levantina”, a project aimed at creating an edition of Greek magical texts from Cyprus and the ancient Near East. These difficult-to-read writings date from c.100-600 CE and are comprised mainly of curses incised on lead and gypsum. Persistent challenges to legibility, including fragmentary condition, surface accretions and corrosion, translucence and complexity in surface shape, are overcome through the application of RTI.

The final portion of this seminar will bring together several themes arising from these case studies. The concept of the constitutive digital image will be developed to argue for greater reflexivity in use and epistemological awareness of the role of digital visualisations — whether employed for research on the Classical world or the ancient world more generally. Points to be raised for discussion include the knowledgeable and critical use of digital images in reconstructing the ancient past, and discussion of ways in which dialogue between digital image producers and users can be increased.


Or you can download the slides from here (9,3 MB).