To decode the ancient, cameras get innovative

Four thousand years ago, a government bureaucrat in Mesopotamia jotted down a tally of slave laborers on a clay tablet.

The bureaucrat left behind the count in wedge-shaped symbols that proved hard to fully decipher with the naked eye.

Until now.

Researchers at USC’s West Semitic Research Project have helped uncover its hidden narrative with the aid of lighting and imaging techniques that are credited with revolutionizing the study of ancient texts.

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.

The Zuckermans brought their new techniques to museums throughout the U.S., Middle East and Europe, transforming an otherwise staid science into a captivating enterprise -- one they intended to open to the public despite objections from some museum curators and scholars who feared losing control over rare objects, leading experts said.

“What West Semitic Research Project did was create a collection of photos of inscriptions that were unlike anything that had been done before,” said Wayne Pitard, a religion professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has collaborated with the Zuckermans. “It’s just astonishing.”

Their research project occupies two floors of an academic building at USC. Its offices are filled with gadgetry dreamed up by the Zuckermans and their research team and by engineers off campus.

One office holds the Twister, a contraption with a large-format camera that snaps pictures of ancient “cylinder seals” about the size and shape of triple-A batteries.

The seals -- featuring pictures and symbols that once served as a form of personal identification -- are mounted on a turntable and slowly moved around in a circle while the camera snaps photos, producing a single large image.

“The picture is better than holding it in your hands,” Bruce Zuckerman said.

Another office holds the Light Dome. It resembles a round scuba helmet and contains 32 lightbulbs, plus space for an artifact.

A camera peers inside and takes pictures, each lighted from a different angle. Using that information, a computer program produces a composite that “allows you to create combinations of light and shadow that show you different details of the objects,” said Marilyn Lundberg, the project’s associate director.

Yet another room holds a larger version of the dome that looks like a giant black tarantula with lights affixed to its outstretched arms.

The Multi-View Apparatus -- or Gizmo, as it’s called -- is experimental. But the Zuckermans and others who know them say it’s only a matter of time before they integrate the large piece of equipment into their repertoire.

“They are cutting-edge,” said Andrew Vaughn, executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research at Boston University.

“They want to create a resource to pass on to generations, and that is so vital for what the scholarly society needs.”