Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI): A taster

In my previous post I referred to the way in which the digital imaging technique Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) can make visible surface marks which may not be apparent with the naked eye -- or at least enhance features that are difficult to see depending on lighting conditions and how you look at an object (more on seeing/looking in another post, but just to highlight here that this is not necessarily a neutral activity!).

I am exploring the possibilities of inserting an RTI viewer into this blog, or otherwise linking to one in order to show examples of my RTI results. In the meanwhile, if any reader comes across a solution -- please do let me know. For those unfamiliar with the kinds of results one can achieve with RTI, here is one of my favourite examples from the AHRC-funded University of Oxford and University of Southampton RTISAD project I worked on in 2010-2011 (for more information check out our interim report).

Here is a detail of a stunning portrait from the mummy of a Roman woman who lived around c.160-170AD. She may have been buried at El Rubaiyat in Egypt where the portrait is thought to have been found (and now housed in the British Museum). Her portrait is made with encaustic on limewood and added gilding. The top image is an RTI output with even 'default' lighting; the middle image shows the 'diffuse gain' rendering mode which enhances the perception of surface shape features for interpretive purposes; and the lower image exemplifies the 'specular enhancement' mode which renders the shape-based reflections to also enhances the perception of the surface shape.

(EA 65346. All © Trustees of the British Museum)

I hope this example gives some idea of what RTI can do to aid research of material surfaces. The aspect of RTI that I cannot show here on the blog (yet...) is the ability to reposition the light virtually. This re-lighting feature together with the different rendering modes constitute a powerful toolkit for studying the details of material surfaces, whether one is a conservator, art historian, text scholar, archaeologist or even...undertaking criminal forensic investigation!!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

As If By Magic!

TOPOI House, from where I write this post
The interdisciplinary environment created by the COFUND programme here at Freie Universitat is something I am quite excited about. To be able to work at the intersection of the Excellence Cluster TOPOI and the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies, as well as the Egyptology Department presents opportunities for taking my research on early writing and art in new directions.

Given that this is the first year of the COFUND fellowships, the procedures and infrastructure to support such interdisciplinary work are undergoing refinement. With the help and advice of excellent staff in the collaborating departments, we have been figuring out how to get my research funding administered. When establishing new networks, a period of settling in simply comes with the territory, so my recounting this is by no means a criticism. In fact, having been based in the UK HE system for years, seeing how the German system operates is super valuable. I need to learn what is required when bringing together different project partners in this academic environment since one of my goals is--by the end of the fellowship in May 2013--to have developed and achieved funding for a follow-on project involving RTI (...fingers and toes crossed!).

So, beyond literature survey and a bit of writing, the past couple of days have been dedicated to ensuring I can finish assembling my RTI gear and fund research and conference travel. Then I can set about organising my museum visits in earnest to the Louvre, UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, British Museum, Ashmolean Museum, the Berlin Museums of course--and all being well with the events in Egypt--the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

During each museum visit I will be doing RTI on about a dozen objects. The type of RTI I will do is called 'Highlight RTI' or H-RTI--and as I'll explain in my next post, is quite versatile since it does not require a lighting dome. Here is an example of some of the H-RTI kit I will shortly be ordering in for my COFUND project.

This equipment belongs to the University of Oxford who kindly lent it for my H-RTI fieldwork at Qubbet el-Hawa, Aswan with the University of Jaen this past Jan-Feb. Oh look...Antonia, our little Abyssinian kitteh thinks she can haz RTI too!

H-RTI in action at Qubbet el-Hawa in the magnificent Middle Kingdom tomb of Sarenput II. Here I am taking some 50 photographs, while applying the flash in different positions, of the decorated rim of a ceramic New Kingdom jar found in a neighbouring tomb last year. Sarenput II's tomb provided an excellent 'lab' space this kind of work--much to his objection I'm sure! For a virtual tour of his grand tomb, check out the 360° view for Tomb 31). 

With a high quality camera, hand-held flash and various other small gizmos, plus a laptop, these together will constitute my mobile laboratory for data capture, image processing and analysis. H-RTI might look like conventional digital photography in many respects, but there is a neat twist that I will explain in due course for readers not familiar with this technique. In a nut shell, careful manipulation of shadow and light can make the invisible visible! David Blaine (or equally Copperfield) -- eat your heart(s) out!

Monday, 5 March 2012

Past the First Post

So here it is: my first post on my first blog! A blog about the past--but also about the present, and by the time of this blog's conclusion 15 months from now, something of the future.

I've just begun a COFUND Research Fellowship with the Dahlem Research School, in affiliation with Excellence Cluster TOPOI and the Institut für Altorientalistik at Freie Universität Berlin. From now until May 2013 I will be undertaking a research project on some of the world's earliest writing and other imagery from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Exciting stuff - if you're in to this sort of thing! 

My project is entitled: ‘A Comparative Study of Scribal and Artistic Spaces in Early Egypt and the Ancient Near East: Integrating micro- and macro-scale analyses’. I'll explain more about this in future posts -- about 3 times per week. In addition to a spot of field work in Egypt, I'll be poking around museum basements (love museum archaeology!) as I collect my data, including photographs of hieroglyph-inscribed funerary stelae, seal impressions, cuneiform tablets, decorated vessels, etc. 

A key topic on this blog will be the open access digital imaging technology, Reflectance Transformation Imaging(RTI). This is a method of photography which enables the virtual re-lighting of material surfaces and will be a tremendous aid as I research early scribal and artistic use of materials, tools and techniques. I've been using RTI for a while, but the RTI community is growing quickly and new developments in hardware and software are continually emerging. So I will also be posting my general thoughts and views on RTI news and developments.

Well, I've managed to polish off an Eidauer Schwarzbier in the writing - aroma of caramel and roasted malt, not too sweet. A fine blogging companion.