Image:
Houseman

Interview by Kevin Scahill

          The Digital Epigraphy and Archaeology project is being developed to provide new open-access scientific tools that would allow its users to “apply concepts from digital and interactive media and computer to science to Archaeology and Classics.”  It is a joint effort between the Digital Worlds Institute and the Department of Classics at the University of Florida.  Cody Houseman, a graduate student in Classics at the University of Florida who received his BA in Classics here at UGA, is involved with this project and was nice enough to give us some details about this cutting edge, yet classic technology.

OK, first question: DEA sounds almost a little like sci-fi to me – in your words, what does it do and how does it work?

DEA should not sound too far-fetched. After all, gaming systems which use haptic technology and 3D motion detection and on-screen recreation have been on the market for a few years now. It is about time we apply similar technology in the field of archaeology beyond artists' renderings based on maps.

The DEA Toolbox, the basis of the project, is an open source JavaScript program accessible to all Internet users who wish to participate on the website, www.digitalepigraphy.org. The website content is moderated for accuracy by trained scholars. Dr. Angelos Barmpoutis, a computer-scientist, along with classicists Dr. Eleni Bozia and Dr. Robert Wagman along with others at the Digital Worlds Institute developed the program and an algorithm which converts paper squeezes (or similar materials) scanned on regular flat-bed office scanners from different lighting angles and converts them into 3D replicas.  The full details of the algorithm and program were published at the program's onset in 2010 in the Journal of Machine Vision and Applications.

After scanning in the squeeze and letting the program create a 3D version, anyone then can study the digitized squeeze while adjusting the lighting, magnification, etc., all of which can increase the legibility of an inscription. The three-dimensional nature maintains the squeeze's physical features, which are a direct impression from the original artifact. Thus, the product is a digital squeeze, an easily accessible yet highly accurate version of the archaeological inscription rather than a typed version that has been edited down in a publication. However, this project in no way seeks to replace the professionally trained eye of an epigraphist; rather, DEA can help even the experienced epigraphist view the squeeze in a new way by manipulating its presentation and digitally measuring the squeeze's parameters. It is beneficial for all sides.

Interesting!  What is a squeeze and why is it called that?

A "squeeze" is the term epigraphists use when they take specialized paper and actually squeeze the material over an inscription for an impression. Essentially a paper cast model or mould of the inscription, the squeeze is what scholars then can study after leaving the archaeological site where the original inscription was found and will stay unless it goes to a museum. Squeezes also can be difficult to read given their white color. Squeezes can even deteriorate over time, suffer from the elements, or be lost after being stored away in collections. The DEA project digitizes these squeezes into a 3D model for computer storage, analysis, and sharing.

What impact do you think DEA will have on archaeology?

The ultimate goal of the DEA project is to facilitate digital preservation, study, and electronic dissemination of ancient inscriptions. It allows epigraphists to digitize in 3-D their epigraphic squeezes using a novel cost-effective technique, which overcomes the limitations of the current methods for digitizing epigraphic data in 2-D only.  If more people across the field support the project by helping to populate the database/gallery, the project can be a success. The program is capable of working with many artifacts, ranging from squeezes, medals, and coins to vases and sculpture that fits within the limits of a 3D scanner. If a 3D printer is available, the scanned materials/3D models can be printed.

Also in the works is something similar to a virtual classroom. By using a certain device, a student or teacher can project his or her actual dimensions on the 3D plane that is a model of a real space. For example, teachers of ancient drama could simulate the setting of a particular ancient theater for a better demonstration of real space and how a chorus of people would fit on stage.

How do you think it can impact Classics in general?

The hopeful effect is to open up epigraphy, numismatics, and archaeology in general to a wider population of scholars and students alike. Over the years, many archaeologists keep their notes unpublished for years and possibly never publish. Alternatively, some scholars might want to collaborate on a project but cannot transport artifacts for various reasons. Across the field of Classics, a greater number of scholars want to incorporate material culture into their philological studies but lack access, time, or training to deal with the physical materials or squeezes. This project increases access and facilitates collaboration.

We also live in an increasingly digital age with more universities seeking online options or supplements for classes.  DEA can help. If a student working on a bachelor's degree honor thesis wants to research inscriptions from Epidauros, he or she could analyze the inscriptions via the online gallery (of course combined with the traditional research method of going through publications). For undergraduates and and graduate students, travel to museums or collections of artifacts is not always funded or practical. DEA is an alternative option. For a program offering an online course, DEA offers a way for teachers to provide links to the gallery or specific digitized items for their own course websites. The DEA Toolbox also allows private collectors, scholars, and museums to share or even collaborate on their squeezes. If a 3D scanner is available, other archaeological artifacts can be added to the gallery. All scanned and digitized artifacts can be meticulously labeled with all the important information ranging from the find spot to the type of material on which the inscription was made.

For some people, learning about the ancient world can become boring. By adding an interactive and computer-related component to a class, this project can interest more students.

How did you personally get involved with this project? If someone reading this wanted to get involved, is there anything they could do?

I am a more recent addition to the project, having become involved after learning about the project in my MA Classics Proseminar. I grew more interested in the archaeological side of Classics while working on my MA thesis, so I wanted to learn more by participating in the archaeological project. This program offers a new and exciting way to study archaeology which my thesis could have benefited from if the project's gallery were more populated from greater support.

Anyone interested in joining the project or helping should contact either Angelos Barmpoutis or Eleni Bozia via their contact information on the DEA website. The easiest way to become involved is by spreading the word about the project and its website (http://digitalepigraphy.org/contact).

How can we support DEA?

Currently, the project receives support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Digital Worlds Institute (UFL), the Gerondelis Foundation, the Center for Greek Studies (UFL), and the Center for the Humanities and Public Sphere (UFL). The bulk of the support for the project comes from grants, such as from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, the project's main group members are applying for the next level of grant funding. This is where and why we need support, for we would like to increase the database and show it can be used by the masses. Spreading the word and scanning any available inscription squeezes to digitize for the database will prove the most helpful.

Those who are interested can join the social media side of the project to spread the word as well by visiting https://www.facebook.com/groups/digitalepigraphy.

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 8:06am