Monday, November 02, 2009

THE WEST SEMITIC RESEARCH PROJECT is profiled in the Los Angeles Times:
Messages from the past become easy to read
USC researchers are producing crisp images of inscriptions and artifacts from biblical Israel and other Near Eastern locales and putting the pictures online.

By Duke Helfand

November 2, 2009


Over the last three decades, the USC project has produced thousands of crisp images of inscriptions and other artifacts from biblical Israel and other Near Eastern locales, making the pictures available to the public in an online archive,

Among the items shown in the online collection is a Dead Sea Scroll dating to the 1st century that discusses a buried treasure in modern-day Israel. (It's impossible to pinpoint the precise location because landmarks mentioned in the text no longer exist.)

The database also features an Aramaic inscription on a sheet of papyrus written by a group of Jews in Egypt five centuries before the birth of Jesus. In the text -- whose image is so sharp it reveals the grain of the papyrus -- Jews petition distant Persian rulers for permission to rebuild a temple.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Bruce Zuckerman, a USC religion professor who founded the research project in the early 1980s. "Sometimes big issues in history can turn on the interpretation of a single letter."

Zuckerman's foray into the world of photography and ancient texts grew out of his frustration over the poor quality of archaeological photos.

Museum photographers, he recalled, often missed important details because they lacked scholarly expertise.

Biblical researchers, meanwhile, typically did not have enough experience with photography to produce compelling images.

Zuckerman wanted to bridge the gap. He turned to his older brother, Ken, a self-taught photographer and former Caltech engineer.

Together, the Zuckermans began taking -- and distributing -- photos of ancient inscriptions.

The brothers combined large-format cameras and multiple sources of light that revealed an object's otherwise hidden details. Digital cameras and computers, introduced into the process about a decade ago, provided more precise images.

I was there when they started, as Bruce's research assistant in 1982-83. Back then the equipment consisted of a polaroid camera to get the shot set up just right, then a high-quality camera and film to take a perfect image.

Read the rest of the article to learn about their new gizmos. One is actually called "the Gizmo."

For the websites of the West Semitic Research Project and Inscriptfact follow the links. For one of the current projects, go here. There's more on Bruce Zuckerman here (and follow the links back). And there's a post on Marilyn Lundberg here, although unfortunately the main link has rotted.