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The West Semitic Research Project

History and Purpose of the West Semitic Research Project

The West Semitic Research Project is an academic project affiliated with the University of Southern California School of Religion and directed by Dr. Bruce Zuckerman. For the past 32 years WSRP has used advanced photographic and computer imaging techniques to document objects and texts from the ancient world. In doing this we have built a vast collection of images that we are now making available to scholars, students, educators and the general public through a variety of ways.

Leningrad Codex
Bruce Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg photographing the Leningrad Codex in the Russian National Library (Saltkov-Shchedrin) as part of a joint project between West Semitic Research and the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont, California.

WSRP was started in the early 1980s by Bruce Zuckerman and his brother Kenneth. Bruce, a scholar and teacher of the Bible and ancient Semitic languages, was frustrated by the lack of good photographs of important ancient inscriptions. With the help of his brother, Ken, he set out to remedy the situation.

The study of ancient writing is called epigraphy. In this field it has been typical of scholars who read ancient texts to do their own reading, produce a drawing of the text and publish the drawing, translation and transcription as the main tool for study. Photographs, if provided, can rarely be used for study. The reason is that the photographs are either taken by scholars who know little about photography, or by photographers who cannot read what they are looking at and so may miss important data.

The most important principle that governs the work of the WSRP is the combining of good photography with knowledge of the scripts and languages. We believe in training scholars to be good photographers, or at least encouraging them to work closely with photographers to get the best possible results.

Photographic Techniques

Large Format Cameras and Digital Backs

Another important principle is the production of "high resolution" images. Because of this concern for resolution, we have uses a large format camera on most of our projects for capturing conventional images. This is a camera, like the one shown to the right, that will take film that is 4 inches by 5 inches (when we were still using film), or a digital scanning back that captures, for example, 10200 x 13600 pixels. Large film like this will record an image that has very high resolution.
Genesis Apocryphon
Kenneth Zuckerman photographing the Genesis Apocryphon at the Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem, as part of a collaborative project with Princeton Theological Seminary.
Large format camera with lights.
Better Light Digital Scanning Back with large format camera.

Just about every object or manuscript we shoot requires a special technique, but the key to all of these techniques is light. Some texts are incised in stone and so we use light to create shadows in the shape of the letters that will be caught on film. Some documents are written on parchment or papyrus and so we want a soft, diffuse light that will create no shadows at all. Some writing is so tiny that we have used a "light brush" that directs a very narrow beam of light to a small area. Some writing cannot be seen at all because the background is so dark that it looks like ink. In that case we might use infrared techniques that make the ink stand out while the background "drops out." Ken Zuckerman likes to say that we have a whole "bag of tricks" out of which we can take whatever technique is best for a particular object.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging

For objects that are incised, or for imaging the texture of parchment or papyrus, it is important to photograph using many light angles, something which WSR has always made a priority. This has been made easier using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) technology, originally developed by Hewlett-Packard as Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM). An RTI image is created by taking many digital photographs, each from a different light angle (see RTI Demo). The images are then combined using special software, the result being an image in which one can view an object from any light angle. One can build a dome with many lights, as illustrated below, or use a hand-held flash or other light source to take the place of the fixed lights of the dome. As each image is captured, a highlight is registered on a shiny ball placed within the frame of each image, and these highlights are read by a computer program that then calculates the coordinates of each light position in the creation of the interactive image.┬áSuch a highlight-RTI technique is particularly well suited for field-environments, or for larger objects.

Dome for PTM Imaging

Dome for PTM Imaging, detail (top);
Cuneiform tablet captured with PTM technology, with specular enhancement

WSRP’s most recent work has involved the combination of Multispectral Imaging and RTI. Multispectral imaging entails capturing a sequence of images in different wavelengths across the light spectrum, including ultraviolet and infrared. As we have shown, RTI technology provides the capacity to view in detail the textured surface of an artifact. The combination of the two allows the user to see data beyond the visible light spectrum, together with the texture on the surface of the manuscript or other object. Multispectral imaging can be helpful with objects that utilize ink or pigments. This is because various inks or pigments react to wavelengths differently and this property can be used to enhance contrast in a composite image to see data not apparent to the unaided eye. This 16th century manuscript page has been erased, and very little of the ink remains, making it difficult to read. RTI can be useful, because even if the ink is gone, the parchment still retains the impressions of the pen that was used to make the letters. Note that, even without enhancement, the texture of the writing can be seen as the “flashlight” moves around the page. This evidence of texture can be combined with spectral data in which images from across the spectrum, including ultraviolet and infrared, can be mapped to the normal red, green and blue wavelengths that can best be seen by the human eye. Further, pseudocolor images can be produced by creating principal component images and manually selecting the two or three most useful images to place in the red, green, and blue channels of an RGB image. The pseudocolor combination makes it easy to see at a glance the difference between the letters and the background, or, in some cases, the difference between two layers of ink.

Accurate Color
Extended Spectrum

Cylinder Seal Rollouts

Cylinder Seals are small objects carved from stone or shell, about the size of a AAA battery, up to a size D battery. They were used much like a signet ring in the Middle Ages, or a credit card today, in that they were rolled across clay tablets to verify a person’s participation in an economic transaction. In other words, they were the ancient equivalent of a signed charge card.  West Semitic Research has developed a way to photograph cylinder seals and other cylindrical objects as 360 degree rollouts—panoramic photographs in reverse.
"TheTwister"--a turntable and digital scanning back for producing 360-degree rollouts of cylindrical objects.
A 360-degree rollout of a cylinder seal from the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Using Computers for Enhancement and Distribution
Computer Screens
InscriptiFact Database Application for image distribution.

Computers can help scholarly research in two major ways. First, copies of images can be distributed to scholars much more cheaply and efficiently using an online database application than by conventional photographic methods. In the early years we sent out prints or transparencies to researchers, but the process was expensive and time-consuming. With a computer image, once the photograph is scanned and in the computer it is fairly easy to recopy it for distribution.

During the past several years we have created an on-line digital library of high resolution images through a project called InscriptiFact. InscriptiFact allows users to have access (with a password) to our images on-line (see InscriptiFact for more information). There are currently approximately 67,000 images online.

The other way that computers can help research is with an imaging program such as Adobe Photoshop. With such a program an image can be easily enlarged or enhanced. Letters can be drawn right on the computer screen, fragments can be moved and matched, alphabet charts can be produced, all in ways that are much simpler than can be done by hand.

We have made available an illustrated Adobe Photoshop Scholar's Manual of commands and procedures that can be downloaded and used in conjunction with Adobe Photoshop. Computer imaging programs such as Photoshop were originally developed for photographers and printers, and are not always easy to use for those whose specialty lies in the reading of ancient texts. Our manual includes the most useful imaging procedures in forms that are easy to apply to our very specialized field.

Computer Screen
Drawing and inscription using Adobe Photoshop

The West Semitic Research Project on the World Wide Web

The web site of the West Semitic Research Project was made possible by a grant from The Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California with a view to furthering both educational and scholarly goals.

We want to use the site to educate people about inscriptions from the ancient Near East, particularly those that relate to the Bible. For this part of the site we have included images, commentary, and, in some cases, translations of texts.

The work of the West Semitic Research Project is ongoing and always changing. We welcome your questions and suggestions and hope you find our site both useful and interesting. If you would like more information, please email us at For on-line articles about our work, see Publicity.

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