Bringing 21st-century access to ancient artifacts
Any university department can tell you that they have shelves and storerooms full of books, artifacts and research collected over several decades past. So what do you do when the “skeletons in your closet” are a box of 2,000-year-old artifacts? This was the question facing our department at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.
In 2012, the jewel of our collection, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet, took a field trip from storage to a graduate seminar about the ancient Near East. Students took interest in this tablet and the other unique artifacts from the department’s collection—of which they had been previously unaware—and launched a project to catalogue and research these artifacts. The initiative quickly expanded to include the department’s substantial epigraphic squeeze collection.
For those unfamiliar with epigraphic studies, a squeeze is a copy of an inscription made using wet filter paper and a horsehair brush to pound the filter paper into the grooves of the stone. Once the paper has dried, it can be peeled off and will be a mirror copy of the inscription. Our squeezes are primarily inscriptions dating to the Classical period, from ancient Athens, Methone and Nemea. Together, the two collections provide a broad view of antiquity across periods and regions that fits the equally broad scope of UBC’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies (CNERS).
But what was the purpose of organizing the collections if they were only to be available to a select few scholars? To resolve this problem, the project took on a new direction: to make these objects accessible to a wider audience. This coincided with a recently developed interest in Digital Humanities within our department and is how most of us found ourselves pulled in to what would become From Stone to Screen. The CNERS graduate students eagerly took up the challenge, and in the last two years, our initiative has produced three websites which variously showcase the two collections and the project blog, as well as a major collaboration with UBC’s library digitization center. Spearheaded by Ph.D. candidate Chelsea Gardner and M.A. student Lisa Tweten, in collaboration with several CNERS graduate students, From Stone to Screen has grown exponentially in just two years and has received substantial support from both the CNERS department and the University of British Columbia in the form of a Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) grant.
Technology is changing the way we study and preserve texts and artifacts. Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study: Digital Humanities and the Ancient World for more articles on this emerging field of study.
One of the problems we encountered when starting this project was balancing our elementary digital skills with the desire to maintain full control of the database for future additions and changes. This June, Lisa Tweten attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, where she learned about Omeka, a free web-publishing platform for digital collections and exhibitions. She saw the potential of Omeka as a tool to easily create an online gallery of the artifact collection so that it could be studied by both students and the general public. Our Omeka site, cnerscollections.omeka.net, currently has all of the data from the preliminary assessments and will be ready for classroom use in the fall. The collection is keyword-searchable and will eventually include student research on individual artifacts. Our goal for the coming year is to include 3D photos, which will allow users to fully rotate and examine all of the artifacts online.
Lamps are some of the most interesting and important ceramic finds in the ancient world and feature prominently in our collection. Our oldest example is a Phoenician lamp from Carthage, uncomplicated in its early design (see image right). It may not look impressive, with its shallow, wheel-made plate and two pinched spouts, but the style was a favorite among Phoenician lamp-makers. This particular example has been dated by Dr. Hector Williams, professor of Greek art and archaeology at UBC, to ca. 800–600 B.C.E. The long-standing production of this type of lamp has yielded copious comparanda, meaning this object has great potential for both teaching and research.
A later lamp, likely from Palestine, resembles a “Herodian Lamp” and dates to the first century C.E. (see image below). This lamp is closer to what one would expect an ancient lamp to look like. However, due to the unusual proportions of the spout, its identification and dating is far from certain. Clearly, further research must be conducted to conclusively date this lamp. This is precisely why we are so passionate about this project: to give the public and our students better access to these unpublished artifacts.
In addition to lamps, the Fuller Collection at UBC has a variety of other objects from the Near East and the Roman Empire. The oldest object in the collection is the small, roughly 3.0 x 2.5-cm cuneiform tablet that dates to the Ur III period (ca. 2000 B.C.E.) (see image below). UBC professor of Near Eastern art and archaeology Dr. Lisa Cooper initially assessed the tablet and suggested that it comes from Puzrish-Dagan, modern Drehem in southern Iraq. The city served as a taxation and redistribution center during the Ur III period and produced thousands of tablets, many of which were used as a receipt for the delivery of goods. We believe the text on our tablet refers to a delivery of livestock and possibly oil, but it would benefit from proper translation by a Sumerologist.
The need for research and an expert opinion on the date of the “Herodian” lamp and the contents of the tablet are just two examples of how the digitization of these artifacts is bringing many exciting research opportunities to light. Our Omeka website was designed to be used as a guide to facilitate this research; it will have references and basic information that will allow our students to study these objects independently or work hands-on in collaboration with their professors, acquiring skills that are not possible in the usual lecture setting. Our goal is that any student interested in conducting independent research will be able to access the existing data, photographs and scholarly analyses and incorporate this information into their own work. In the past, CNERS students have published objects from the collections of Vancouver’s world-famous Museum of Anthropology, and we hope that From Stone to Screen will encourage students to correspondingly work with the departmental collection.
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Our work is far from finished. We have ambitious plans to push this project further and to share our progress with the Digital Humanities community and others considering similar digitization projects. In September we will present our work both at the upcoming Europeana network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy (EAGLE) 2014 International Conference on Information Technologies for Epigraphy and Digital Cultural Heritage in the Ancient World in Paris, France, and to the Vancouver chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America. The CNERS graduate students, with the support of the faculty and UBC, created an impressive multidisciplinary, collaborative, open-access digitization project in just two years. Imagine what we can do in the future.
From Stone to Screen is a graduate student project at the University of British Columbia creating digital archives of the classics, Near Eastern and religious studies artifacts. For more information, you can visit our project website at fromstonetoscreen.com, find our artifact collection at cnerscollections.omeka.net and our epigraphic squeeze collection will soon be available at digitize.library.ubc.ca.
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David Assaf is a recent graduate of UBC’s classical archaeology program. Kaitlyn Solberg and Haley Bertram are both second-year M.A. students in classical archaeology. Lisa Tweten is completing her M.A. thesis in ancient cultures, religion and ethnicity at UBC. Chelsea Gardner is a Ph.D. candidate in classics with a specialization in classical archaeology.
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