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U. of I., USC students collaborating on unique archaeology project

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Wayne Pitard
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Wayne 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 USC students.

CHAMPAIGN, 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 first impressions. 

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.

seal shows a goddess on the left raising her hands toward a depiction of the king
Click photo to enlarge
Carved 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 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.”

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 example.

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 80 years.
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.

seal shows two lions crossing each other to attack two gazelles
Click 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.
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 next semester.

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 project.

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.