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Monday, July 25, 2011

Digitization Project Brings Ancient Near Eastern Inscriptions into 21st Century

*Image:   Detail of a cuneiform squeeze. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.

"The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives announces a new 3-D digital resource that will enable scholars and the public to learn more about the ancient Near East through a unique group of pressed-paper molds called squeezes. This resource provides unparalleled access to the archives' collection of squeezes from ancient Near Eastern archaeological sites."

What is a Squeeze?
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives (Freer|Sackler Archives) holds a significant collection of 393 squeezes; the largest outside of Iran and Iraq. A squeeze is a series of sheets of paper that are layered on top of each other and moistened to create a wet pulp. This substance is pressed upon the inscriptions of ancient monuments, creating a paper mold and capturing the impressionistic writing for a 3-dimensional negative effect. (See the Squeeze Making tab for more information). The captured inscriptions were often carved on commissioned temples, civic buildings and statues to record battles won, titles acquired or the lineage of kings.

Squeeze Collection
The squeezes in the F|S Archives' Ernst Herzfeld papers date from 1911-1934. The materials used to create squeezes range from very high-grade, robust paper to low-grade cigarette paper. Over time, the squeezes have been transported around the world, handled and stored in less than ideal conditions, and have suffered from various issues that affect all paper products. The squeezes contain Arabic script, Middle Persian, and Cuneiform impressions from archaeological sites: Bastam, Isfahan, Rayy, Samarra, Shiraz, Sunghur, Taq-i Bustan, Tus, Sarpul, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Naqsh-i Rustam, and Paikuli. The Herzfeld papers have been vital in the research of these sites, and the squeezes he created for temporary reference have helped scholars access information from monuments that for many reasons may no longer be available. (Caption for this image below).

Unreachable Inscriptions and Unreadable Squeezes
Three and a half years ago the F|S Archives hosted a team of international archaeologists to research the ancient Paikuli site of Iraq.  Due to a complicated situation, the team's access to the archaeological site and Sassanian Monument was no longer an option.  Aware of Ernst Herzfeld's research, the archaeologists traveled to DC to spend two intensive weeks pouring over the 170 Paikuli squeezes in the collection.  Unsure of when they could return, they requested reference images for further research. We took snapshots of the squeezes for them, but  couldn't help regretting the illegibility of many of the squeezes from poor materials and weathered inscriptions.  As we switched the squeezes over we stumbled upon an interesting discovery - the readability of the inscriptions increased at certain angles of lighting.  Realizing there must be potential behind this, I endeavored to find a way to make the ancient inscriptions more readable and reachable.

Squeeze Inventory
An inventory was the first major step in preparing to undertake a digital imaging preservation grant project. Over three months an intern conducted an inventory noting the physical conditions of the drawings, maps and squeezes in the collection.  With this initial inventory I was able to roughly discern: how many squeezes we had, from which archaeological sites, in which scripts, and in what dimensions. 

Identifying Technology and an MCI Partnership
The Freer|Sackler Archives performed initial feasibility testing with several multi-dimensional imaging tool and strategies.  Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI) resulted in the most consistent and highest quality scans for the flat-nature, yet 3-D qualities of the squeezes.  We identified that the Museum Conservation Institute of the Smithsonian as a knowledgeable tester of RTI technology, and found that MCI was interested in partnering with a collection entity to further their efforts in the technology. Together, we sought funding to acquire equipment that would benefit all Smithsonian units, and hire a skilled contractor to image the squeezes and create a web resource.

In 2010, the Freer|Sackler Archives received a grant from the Smithsonian Institution's Collections Care and Preservation Fund to aid in the preservation of the squeezes and the 3-D information they contain. The project would result in the creation of a digital preservation surrogate for each squeeze available via the Squeeze Imaging Project web resource.

Packing Squeezes
The first part of the project was the practicality of safely packing and transporting the squeezes to MCI in Maryland for imaging. The squeezes varied in levels of physical stability due to the materials used and previous storage conditions.  An added level of difficulty was the varying sizes of the squeezes; many of which measure longer and wider than the table image to the left.  After consulting with the F|S Conservation Department's paper conservator, we settled on packing the squeezes in black museum cases, contained in folders, and secured with foam cushioning.

Squeeze Imaging Project - Web Resource
The final product was compiling all of the squeeze RTI images into an easy to use web resource.  Each site is listed on the right-hand side, and allows further breakdown of the site by script or language type.  Once a script option is selected all squeezes display for that area accompanied by a link to the MARC records containing all the known information for the selected squeeze.  (See Paikuli site example to the right; click on each script option at the top of the picture to see digitized squeezes for that selection).

Squeeze Viewing Tool
In addition to protecting the squeezes from further damage, RTI allows the end user to manipulate the image and enhance the squeeze's readability. Scholars will be able to find intellectual and physical information that was previously not known to exist or had been lost. This will allow researchers to learn more from the digital images than they could from the physical object. These images provide unprecedented access to ancient histories, delivered from the cradle of civilization to the homes of scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Please read the Technical Note for more information on RTI technology and how to view the squeezes, as well as the Archival Note for further details on the project.

Related Post:
3d Imaging to Unlock Ancient Mysteries

*Image above for Squeeze Collection is from the Ernst Herzfeld papers, "Naqshi-Rajab." I selected this image because in the center it shows squeezes laying out on a rock to dry.

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