Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Photoshop, the archaeologist's best friend

Adobe have produced a PDF on how Photoshop is used to work on ancient texts. Edited excerpts follow:

“Even a single letter in an ancient inscription can sometimes determine or change history,” says Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), part of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California (USC). “Without Photoshop we often wouldn’t be able to decipher these texts. Photoshop has revolutionized the study of ancient objects and texts and opened up a new frontier. Because of Photoshop, we can read what we’ve never been able to read before. Even inscriptions thought to have been well deciphered in the past are now wide open for reexamination, and our interpretations of ancient history are going to change as a result."

Since bringing photography, digital imaging, and epigraphy (the study and deciphering of ancient inscriptions) together, WSRP has been a powerful force behind several breakthroughs. For instance, the Tel Zayit Inscription at the Zeitah Excavations in Israel was heralded in 2005 as one of the most important discoveries in the last decade. Confirmed to be approximately 3,000 years old, it is the oldest known datable example of an abecedary - the letters of the linear alphabet - carved in stone that has been found in Israel.

...tiny silver scrolls found in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, a burial area near Jerusalem, were carefully documented and analyzed. These texts are sensational finds because they contain the Priestly Benediction from the Biblical Book of Numbers. Because they date from sixth century b.c. they are the oldest artifacts yet to be discovered containing quotations from the Bible.

To decipher the scrolls, Bruce Zuckerman and his team took high-resolution photos of the scrolls using fiber-optic light. Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg were also involved in this work along with Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University, discoverer of the Ketef Hinnom texts, and Andrew Vaughn, an expert epigrapher from Gustavus Adolophus College.

The researchers then used Photoshop CS2 to build composite pictures with a level of precision and accuracy that had been previously impossible. This in turn enabled them to read parts of the texts that had not been deciphered before. Recently published new readings of these texts were determined to include additional quotes taken from elsewhere in the Bible, including the Books of Deuteronomy and Daniel, and further described the Biblical God as the “rebuker of evil.” This indicated that the scrolls originally served as amulets to protect their wearer from harm.

The WSRP has also been deciphering fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls for over two decades. Using original photographs of the fragments from as early as 1948 along with newer visible light and infrared images plus Photoshop, the team has manipulated high-resolution images of the fragments and put them together like a puzzle. The WSRP has also matched fragments based on analysis of common handwriting characteristics. The ability to use the early photographs has played a crucial role in their work because in the intervening years the scroll fragments have continued to deteriorate. In some cases, only the old images contain data that otherwise would have been lost.

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