New Technologies:

Reading Ancient Inscriptions in Virtual Light

by Marilyn J. Lundberg
Associate Director, West Semitic Research


The West Semitic Research Project of the University of Southern California has long sought to use the latest in photographic and digital technologies to assist scholars in the decipherment of ancient texts. Those technologies, however, are changing at an ever more rapid rate. So how do we take on and incorporate new technologies and the wonderful potential they offer us?

How do we "read the unreadable" now? And once we have "read the unreadable," then what? What do we do about distribution of highly sophisticated images to take fullest advantage of what the world wide web now offers and what it will offer to a much greater extent in the immediate future? How do we plan now for a rapidly evolving technological future so that when the future arrives, not only will the scientists benefit, but those of us in the Humanities as well?

Such planning for the future is the main focus of the West Semitic Research Project. For example, a WSRP team is now working with a completely new imaging system in cooperation with Hewlett Packard scientists Tom Malzbender and Dan Gelb. These scientists joined us at Yale University this past summer to try out this system on the premier collection of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets in the United States, the Yale Babylonian Collection. Working with Assyriologists William Hallo, Marcel Sigrist and Walter Bodine, Malzbender and Gelb captured variable light views of cuneiform texts using the technology they call "Image-based Relighting".

Bruce Zuckerman, Director,
Marilyn Lundberg, Associate Director,
West Semitic Research, in front of
the Sterling Library at Yale.

The device they use to take the digital images looks like something out of a Frankenstein movie and seeing this juxtaposed with some of the oldest written records of civilization is something to behold. The device is a dome with fifty electronic boards spaced evenly along it. Each electronic board is attached to a strobe flash on the inside of the dome. All of the electronics are attached to a laptop computer by means of a thick cable.

The HP imaging device in its packing case.

Tom Malzbender, Director of Visual Computing, Hewlett-Packard, and Dan Gelb. 

Using a digital camera mounted on top, the device fires off a succession of digital pictures, each one illuminated from a different lighting angle--some 40 to 50 lighting angles in all. Then their program amalgamates these images into a single, integrated view that allows one to see the target at any light angle--including angles that were not actually shot by the camera. As one moves a control device around, e.g., a computer mouse, the light also moves and plays at different angles across the surface--like having the equivalent of a very precise beam of light that one can place at any angle at any given moment. As the virtual light moves, the play of shadows changes, making the subtle indentations on a clay surface jump out at you in a way that has never been previously possible. Moreover, with a couple of clicks, Malzbender and Gelb can change the reflectivity of the surface to startliing effect. For example, they can make the dull matte finish of the clay surface "super-shiny" as though it had been dipped in molten metal. Once again, with this lighting effect, nuanced details suddenly become clear that were not visible before.

Dan with Dome


Dan Gelb of Hewlett-Packard Imaging Labs
with the HP imaging device at Yale.

The digital camera on top of the imaging device.

One notable point: we didn't go looking for Hewlett-Packard; rather, they came looking for us. That is, it was totally at H-P's initiative that this technology was placed on our doorstep. They had heard about the work we were doing and had gone to our website to see what we do. It was then that they contacted us to see if we would be interested in employing various technologies at their disposal. After a series of talks that we gave at the Hewlett-Packard Imaging Labs, we were approached by Tom Malzbender, who had developed the variable light technique, and needed objects on which to test the value of the new technology.

William Hallo


Marcel Sigrist (left), William Hallo, Curator
of the Yale Babylonian Collection (center),
and Bruce Zuckerman (right).

Bruce Zuckerman with Ulla Kasten, Museum
Editor of the Yale Babylonian Collection.


In the months that followed we provided Malzbender and Gelb with several objects from the University of Southern California Archaeological Research Collection. Their results were impressive, but we soon realized that we needed to test the technology with inscriptions that were actually being studied by scholars--preferably, cuneiform tablets that presented problems in decipherment, problems that might be solved by the user of the variable light technique.

The project at the Yale Babylonian Collection this past summer allowed us to do just that. Malzbender and Gelb joined Bruce Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg, and their assistant Joshua Goldstein, at Yale in August, where they digitized a series of tablets for William Hallo, Marcel Sigrist and Walter Bodine, all prominent scholars of Akkadian and Sumerian. Their reactions were all we had hoped. Bodine, in particular, was able to make some significant new readings on a Sumerian tablet of model contracts.

Computer Screen


Hewlett-Packard scientists, scholars from the
Yale Babylonian Collection and WSRP, and a
crew from CBS Sunday Morning.

 Walter Bodine with the "miner's helmet"
he has used to study texts.

The CBS Sunday Morning segment features the work done at the Yale Babylonian Collection by Malzbender and Gelb of Hewlett-Packard, as well as an analysis of results done by Walter Bodine at the scanning lab at the University of Southern California. Li Hunt, Software Development Director for the InscriptiFact Project, was also taped by CBS, demonstrating our database Prototype. It is our hope that the CBS coverage will make scholars in the field of ancient Near Eastern languages, and in the Humantities in general, aware of the exciting new possibilities raised by this latest advance in computer imaging.

Marcel Sigrist

Joshua Goldstein, student at Catholic
University, Washington, DC

 Marcel Sigrist of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem,
at work in the Yale Babylonian collection.


We hope in the near future to do further projects with Hewlett-Packard labs, using this new imaging device. Our next aim is to use this system to examine a discrete corpus of texts and thereby to assess how this new way of seeing ancient inscriptions can be most effectively employed for the further documentation of the ancient Near Eastern world.


Photographs by Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Researh


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