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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 28 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

Another important principle is the production of "high resolution" images. Because of this concern for resolution, we use what is called a "large format" camera on most of our projects. This is a camera, like the one shown to the right, that will take film that is 4 inches by 5 inches in diameter, 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.
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 might need to use 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.

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 a technology developed by Hewlett-Packard, Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM). A PTM image is created by taking many digital photographs, each from a different light angle. The images are then combined using special software, the result being an image in which one can view an object from any light angle. Polynomial Texture Mapping is one kind of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI).

Dome for PTM Imaging

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

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

Most of the work we have done in the past few years has been done with computer imaging.
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.

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.

Computer Screen
Drawing and inscription using Adobe Photoshop

During the past several years we have created an on-line database 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 26,000 images online.

The West Semitic Research Project on the World Wide Web

The World Wide Web site of the West Semitic Research Project has been 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.

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.

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 mlundber@usc.edu. For on-line articles about our work, see Publicity.




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