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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

3d Imaging to Unlock Ancient Mysteries

There are some very exciting activities happening around the Freer|Sackler Gallery, and in the Archives specifically.  I am going to unveil to you my favorite object.  I know I say that about a lot of the collections I show you, but this object really is an amazing specimen.  Let me introduce to you squeeze 50A. For you to better understand, below are a couple definitions.

A squeeze: is a series of sheets of paper that are layered on top of each other and moistened to create a wet pulp affect.  This substance is pressed upon the inscriptions capturing the impressionistic writing like a 3-dimensional negative affect.  These inscriptions typically cover the ancient culture's mythology, and histories. The squeezes in the Ernst Herzfeld papers are roughly 80-100 years old.  The squeezes have been made out of varying qualities of paper from very high grade, to cigarette paper Herzfeld must of had to use in a pinch.  The squeezes have since been transported around the world, squished in non-archival approved ways, and suffer from various issues that affect all paper products.

Squeezing: Here, you see Herzfeld and his team on ladders applying the wet paper to the monuments of ancient Iran.

Ernst Herzfeld: Archaeologist, art historian, and architect who excavated pre-Islamic and early Islamic sites.

So meticulous was Herzfeld's work, that we have his journals, sketchbooks, notebooks, photographs, drawings, maps and squeezes documenting various archaeological sites.  We have approximately 400 squeezes of Arabic script, Middle Persian, and Cuneiform impressions.  The Herzfeld papers have been vital in the research of these sites; and the squeezes he created for his temporary reference have  gone on to help scholars access information from monuments that for many reasons may no longer be accessible.

We have already begun some exciting work on this collection to preserve and make it's contents accessible.  What I am sharing with you, is the next phase in this effort received Federal support from the Collections Care and Preservation Fund.  We teamed up with the Museum Conservation Institute to image the squeezes with a technology called Reflectance Transformation Imagining that provides a mutli-dimensional image by stitching together an average of 48 shots taken at different flash angles.  The image you see in this demo link is squeeze 50A.  The squeeze is almost unreadable in some parts, but when manipulated through this technology the information we once thought was lost is now regained.  With these new images we hope to not only preserve the newly uncovered impressions, but to provide unparalleled access of the squeezes to scholars and hobbyists alike.

This is a 1 minute demonstration video that shows what user-end manipulation can be done to help view seemingly unreadable portions of a squeeze.  Click here to read more information on the Museum Conservation Institute performing Reflectance Transformation Imaging - featuring Squeeze 50A!

This project fulfills one of the Smithsonian's Grand Challenges by providing access and understanding of world cultures.  But perhaps more excitingly I'd like to argue that by preserving these squeezes AND by providing online access, scholars may better be able to unlock ancient mysteries - one squeeze at a time.

Rachael Cristine Woody 

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