High-tech cameras digitize ancient tablets

U. CHICAGO (US)—Thousands of tablets recovered from the palaces of Persepolis, where kings of the ancient Persian Empire held court, are being digitally recorded and archived online by experts at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Scholars and viewers across the world will be able to examine the tablets as if they had picked them up and rotated them under a light thanks to advanced imaging technology.

Researchers are recording two sets of high-resolution digital images for each tablet. One set is made with a large-format scanning camera with polarized and filtered lighting. The lighting compensates for some of the staining, glare, and fading problematic in viewing inked texts.

The second set of images is captured using a technology developed by Hewlett Packard Labs and Cultural Heritage Imaging. Only a dozen or so apparatuses featuring the Polynomial Texture Mapping technology exist, and two of them are recording Persepolis tablets in the basement of the Oriental Institute.

A computer controls the camera in each device, making a set of 32 distinctly lighted views of each document. Each image set is combined by a software application in such a way that viewers can control the apparent direction, angle, and intensity of the light falling on the object, using a computer mouse just as if they were handling the original object under a desk lamp.

The tablets are part of the Persepolis Fortification Archive, a collection some 30,000 administrative tablets and fragments that Oriental Institute archaeologists recovered in 1933 at Persepolis. Since 1936 they have been on loan from Iran to the Oriental Institute for analysis and recording.

The artifacts include pieces of language and art from the center of the Persian Empire, all made when it extended from India and Central Asia to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Most have texts in impressed cuneiform characters, many them have inked texts in Aramaic writing and almost all of the tablets have seal impressions.

“They were written, sealed and filed in a short span of time, between 509 and 493 B.C., in the middle of the reign of the Achaemenid Persian king Darius I,” explains Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, where the tablets are kept. “The oldest Greek tragedy of Aeschylus, and the first Greek history of Herodotus tell us about the reign of Darius, but they don’t tell us anything like this. The administration that these documents record touched every level of society, from lowly workers through bureaucrats and governors to the royal family itself.”

Stein is principal investigator along with Matthew Stolper, John A. Wilson Professor in the Oriental Institute. Other team members and coprincipal investigators are Annalisa Azzoni at Vanderbilt University, Elspeth Dusinberre at the University of Colorado, Mark Garrison at Trinity University, Wouter Henkelman at the Free University of Amsterdam, and Bruce Zuckerman and members of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California. The team collaborates in person, but also electronically.

A team of researchers began work in 2007 on the digital project with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now, with a second Mellon grant, the team will continue this work through 2010. By that time researchers hope to have about 10,000 tablets and fragments recorded.

The tablets have challenged scholars since their discovery. Only one other document of its kind had been found before the discovery of the archive, making the comparison, reading and understanding of the archive’s tens of thousands of pieces difficult.

Oriental Institute professor Richard Hallock devoted his career to the tablets. His work, culminating in the groundbreaking publication of 2,087 texts in 1969, fundamentally changed how scholars look at the Persian Empire.

“It is no exaggeration to say that this knowledge has transformed every aspect of modern study of the languages, history and society, institutions, and art of the Achaemenid Persian Empire,” Stolper says. “No serious treatment of the Achaemenid Empire can any longer omit the perspectives provided by the Fortification Archive.”

As the project continues, scholars will be able to better analyze the information available in the archive. Online presentation of images of the tablets, images of the seal impressions, and editions of the texts will allow researchers to be able to look at each piece, compare and connect it with other pieces, and to assemble and work with the archive as a whole system.

High-resolution images of about 200 Persepolis Fortification texts are available on InscriptiFact, the West Semitic Research Project’s Web site. Several hundred more will be available soon. Images of about 150 more Persepolis tablets, along with editions, and analytical tools, will soon be released on the Online Cultural Heritage Research Environment, the archaeological and textual database and presentation application developed at the Oriental Institute and maintained by the University of Chicago Library.

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