The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
ASCSA

Dimitri Nakassis holds a wireless flash for RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) of a leaf-shaped tablet from the Palace of Nestor

08/16/2013

ASCSA Alums Employ Advanced Imaging of Linear B Tablets from Pylos


Advanced Imaging of Linear B Tablets from Pylos

For four weeks this summer, a team of researchers began digitally recording the clay administrative tablets from the Mycenaean “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos, now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece. This project is affiliated with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and is part of the official publication of the Palace of Nestor by the University of Cincinnati. This phase of the project, co-directed by Dr. Kevin Pluta (ASCSA Regular Member, 2002–2003;  the University of Texas at Austin) and Dr. Dimitri Nakassis (ASCSA Regular Member, 2003–2004; University of Toronto),  also includes Dr. James Newhard (ASCSA Geoarcheology Fellow, 1999–2000; College of Charleston), 3D metrologist Benjamin Rennison (Clemson University) and undergraduate assistant Jami Baxley (College of Charleston). Hembo Pagi (University of Southampton), a specialist in Reflectance Transformation Imaging, also worked with the team for several days. Here, Dr. Nakassis reports on their research.

This summer our team photographed and scanned approximately 300 out of some 1000 tablets and other inscribed clay documents (principally labels and sealings) at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos. The remaining tablets and documents will be scanned in the summer of 2014.

The goals of this project are twofold. First is to produce the print edition of the administrative texts from the palace, promised by Carl Blegen in the first volume of the Palace of Nestor series. Much work joining and transcribing the tablets had already been done by Drs. Emmett Bennett, Jr. (ASCSA Member, 1953–1954), José Melena, and Thomas Palaima (ASCSA Regular Member, 1976–1977), the primary authors of the print edition. Our role is to continue their work by preparing line drawings and high-quality photographs.

Our second goal is to digitally document all of the tablets from the “Palace of Nestor” in order to provide researchers with imaging whose quality allows for an interactive experience with the artifacts that approaches autopsy. To accomplish this, we employ two techniques. The first is Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a method that involves taking multiple photographs of the same artifact under variable lighting conditions. These photographs are then stitched together into one image file that stores the color of each pixel in addition to how it reacts to light, allowing the user to "re-light" the artifact in an interactive virtual environment. RTI affords the opportunity to select the best lighting angle or angles for the clearest presentation of the inscriptions. Our second imaging technique is structured light three-dimensional scanning, using a Breuckmann smartSCAN (generously loaned to us by Breuckmann). Although slower than laser scanning, the structured light scanning process retrieves raw data of greater accuracy, with less point-to-point error, and most importantly, in color. In combination, these two techniques will provide highly accurate renditions of the color, shape, topography, and texture of each and every administrative document from Pylos.

There are two closely-related advantages that we see to this digital imaging. First, we anticipate an improvement in the conservation and archiving of the physical artifacts, since the availability of high-resolution images in two and three dimensions will reduce the need for their study and handling. Second, a planned digital edition will provide users with the ability to work interactively with the administrative documents in a digital environment. The resolution of the imaging is such that it even permits users to propose new readings and joins. This allocation of high-quality primary data to scholarly experts represents an exciting development. Far from being merely an enhancement of standard methods of illustration, these imaging techniques have the potential to transform the field by distributing control of the primary data to all qualified experts. Now that the handful of Linear B tablets housed in the Ashmolean Museum have also been imaged with RTI through a joint project with the University of Southampton (RTISAD) , we hope that a robust digital library of Linear B documents may become available to scholars in the future.