Imaging system sheds light on ancient manuscripts

Oct. 24, 2012
UK researchers have developed a Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) system to capture images of some of the world's most important historical documents.

Researchers from Oxford University (Oxford, UK) and Southampton University (Southampton, UK) have developed a Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) system to capture images of some of the world's most important historical documents.

Among the documents are manuscripts written in the so-called proto-Elamite writing system used in ancient Iran from 3,200 to 3,000 BC which is the oldest undeciphered writing system currently known. By viewing extremely high quality images of these documents, and by sharing them with a community of scholars worldwide, the Oxford University team hopes to crack the code once and for all.

The RTI system designed by staff in the archaeological computing and electronics and computer science research group at Southampton University comprises a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome. A manuscript is placed in the center of the dome, after which 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit.

In post-processing, the 76 images are joined so that a researcher can move the light across the surface of the digital image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.

"I have spent the last ten years trying to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system and, with this new technology, I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough. It is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning," says Dr. Jacob Dahl, a co-leader of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and a member of Oxford University's faculty of oriental studies.

The Louvre gave the researchers access to the c. 1100 proto-Elamite tablets in its collections, half of which can now be viewed on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website here.

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