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U. of I., USC
students collaborating on unique archaeology project
Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
Ill.— Six students at the University of Illinois
are wearing white gloves in class this semester. They’re learning to
handle issues of age and fragility with aplomb and to make excellent
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Pitard, an archaeologist and professor of religion
at Illinois, is co-director of a project researching
small signature stones that artisan scribes crafted
up to 5,000 years ago. Illinois undergrads, including
Camille Noel, senior in physics, are mentoring
No, this isn’t a course in business etiquette, but rather,
archaeology – and it’s a first.
The undergraduates are doing original research on a U. of I. collection
of small signature stones that artisan scribes crafted up to 5,000
years ago. The research involves, among other things, examining,
analyzing and documenting each item in minute detail, X-raying them,
and rolling them out on soft clay, just as the original owners did
when they needed to seal a deal, endorse and verify transactions.
The ancient Mesopotamian stones – what archaeologists call
cylinder seals – are the subject of intense scrutiny at two
universities. In the unique collaborative program, two sets of undergraduates
thousands of miles apart and guided by experts in archaeology and
computer technology are conducting innovative research that will
result in the first published article about these artifacts and the
creation of a sophisticated image database on the Web.
Despite their importance, the artifacts have never received the attention
they deserve, said Wayne Pitard, an archaeologist and professor of religion at the U. of I. who is directing the research project with
Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of religion, and Lynn Dodd, the curator
of the archaeological collection, at the University of Southern California.
Illinois’ young researchers are upper-division students in
the liberal arts and sciences. Five are seniors and all have taken
courses in Illinois’ Program for the Study of Religion. They
were chosen for this rare research opportunity because they are “highly
motivated and very smart,” Pitard said.
The research team, which includes 28 lower-division students at USC,
some of whom are being mentored by the U. of I. students, collaborates
by e-mail, videoconferencing, on-site visits and a wiki – an
online software program that supports group communication and contributions.
The aim of the project,
said Pitard, a pioneering translator and publisher of the Ugaritic
tablets of Syria, “is to bring together
undergraduates, professors, curators and technological experts at
various centers of learning into a networked mentoring environment – a
mentoring web – that will yield outstanding
models of research and teaching.”
photo to enlarge
in black hematite and dating to the reign of
Samsuiluna, king of Babylon (1749-1712 BCE),
the seal shows a goddess on the left raising
her hands toward a depiction of the king. The
inscription reads "Dakia, son of Damiq-ilishu,
servant of Samsuiluna."
The stone artifacts display complex decorative motifs and vignettes – an
astounding achievement given their size, some being less than an
inch in length and a half-inch in diameter. In the days before written
signatures, men of wealth hired artisan scribes to design and execute
the stone or shell objects.
“Each seal is unique, and the artistry and craftsmanship in these small
objects are of extraordinary quality, beauty and intricacy,” Pitard said.
Moreover, the scenes depicted on the seals serve as “cultural
time capsules that reveal a great deal of information about ancient
Mesopotamia,” he said.
One sees, for example, miniature roaring dragons, lions and bulls,
even scorpions and fish, plus cosmological elements, fierce warriors
wielding all manner of weapons, curly-locked heroes, and gods and
goddesses in finely detailed costumes. Some seals have cartouche
panels enclosing mysterious markings. Some show signs of having been
recarved, signifying a shift in ownership, from father to son, for
The 62 cylinder seals dating from 3,200 to 400 BCE have been in the
U. of I.’s Spurlock Museum and its predecessors for more than
Pitard said, “It is a wonderful collection” even though
the original acquisition papers were lost decades ago, so that details
about their exact provenances are not known.
However, in the 1950s, Edith Porada, an expert on cylinder seals,
visited Illinois to study its cache of seals with the intention of
having an article published about them.
Her project fell
through, but her notes survive, and they have served as the starting
point for the current researchers, who hope to release their findings
photo to enlarge
|Made of dark green serpentine and belonging to
the Akkad Period in Mesopotamia, between 2350 and
2200 BCE, this seal shows two lions crossing each
other to attack two gazelles. To the right of them
, a mysterious figure with a long neck, perhaps
a pair of wings, and an abstract head carries an
unidentified object with an "X" on it.
Pitard, who has led several photographic expeditions to Syria and
France to photograph ancient inscriptions, has worked for many years
with Zuckerman, one of the world’s leading innovators of the
digital imaging of artifacts, and has been an associate of Zuckerman’s
West Semitic Research Project, a Web-based catalog and database for
ancient images and commentary relating to the Bible and the ancient
Near East, since 1989.
According to Pitard, Zuckerman offered to take on the Spurlock seals
as “the prototype project for using his astonishing new techniques
for imaging and studying ancient artifacts.”
The techniques for digitally imaging small round objects like the
seals will make the publication of an article about the Spurlock
seals “a unique and ground-breaking presentation that will
surely become the model for future publications,” Pitard said.
“The processes are revolutionary.”
One technique, an adaptation of digital panoramic photography, makes
an image of the seal in 360 degrees as a continuous flat image. The
other allows 3-D objects to be photographed from 30 different angles,
then merges the images into a program that allows a viewer to use
a cursor to move the light source from point to point – “actually
shift from one image to another, as if the light source were there
in the computer,” Pitard said.
Last summer, Pitard and three of the U. of I. students went to USC
to learn how to photograph the seals in the 360 degree technique.
Now they are annotating the seals, including the distinctions between
the artisans’ work and later events, such as chipping.
This week, Pitard and his students X-rayed the seals at the U. of
I.’s veterinary medicine laboratory. The stable ones will be
rolled out on soft clay.
Finally, all of the data will be assembled for cataloging the seals,
for creating a virtual exhibition on the Spurlock Web site using
a template supplied by the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities,
Arts and Social Sciences (I-CHASS) and for posting on USC’s
InscriptiFact Image Database for worldwide access.
A follow-up field project will begin next spring, when selected U.
of I. and USC students go to the University of Chicago’s Oriental
Institute to demonstrate the techniques they developed during the
The Illinois students are seniors Ian Clausen, English; Megan Davis,
philosophy; Kyle Garton, English; Aaron Graham, history; and Camille
Noel, physics; and junior Rebecca Bott, history.
Several units at Illinois, in addition to the Program for the Study
of Religion and the Spurlock Museum, are involved in the interdisciplinary
intra- and inter-university mentoring project, including I-CHASS
and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The Provost’s
Office provided funding for the pilot program.