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Technology + Teamwork = New Discoveries

In a new course, undergrads at two universities harness state-of-the-art imaging for original investigations of ancient artifacts.

By Pamela J. Johnson
January 1, 2007

Technology + Teamwork = New Discoveries

Inside a darkened lab at University Village, two professors and a group of students huddled around a computer screen depicting the image of a person or deity whose head resembled a fastener doohickey.

“There’s the Wing Nut Man,” one student cracked. Everyone laughed, then launched into a discussion about the primitive-looking image and jotted down notes.

A casual observer might dismiss the scene as one of the countless interesting research projects taking place at USC every day. But take a closer look. These undergraduates from USC College and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) were conducting original research on 3,000- to 4,000-year-old artifacts borrowed from a prized museum collection.

Such research is usually reserved for experienced scholars.

“The conventional wisdom is that undergrads are not able to do serious, even ground-breaking research,” said Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of religion in USC College who is collaborating with UIUC religion professor Wayne Pitard. “But we have proven that this is wrong.”

The artifacts were cylinder seals used in Mesopotamia [modern-day Iraq] to certify purchases. Merchants trading grain for a few goats, for example, would ask the customer to roll out a cylinder seal, which held an individual’s unique “signature.” Each signature was an intricate picture finely carved into a cylinder-shaped stone, scenes such as a figure of a man stabbing a lion while the lion attacks a gazelle.

During purchases, a cylinder was pressed like a rolling pin over wet clay — the equivalent of a signed receipt.

“You say cumbersome, but for them it was a revelation,” Zuckerman said. “Sure beats trying to keep everything in their heads.”

In this unique research collaboration between two universities, students and their professors photographed 62 of the seals in a project that began last summer. The UIUC group traveled to Los Angeles and spent a week photographing the objects at USC. This fall and spring, participants from the campuses 1,704 miles apart are analyzing the images and sharing their discoveries.

“I’m confident in their ability to play a major research role, especially when we give them powerful technological tools,” said Zuckerman, whose collaboration also includes Lynn Swartz Dodd, curator of USC College’s Archaeological Research Collection.

Zuckerman is among six USC College professors participating in a pilot program, Multimedia in the Core, in which as many as 420 undergraduate students will take general education courses that involve multimedia authorship. The joint endeavor between USC College and the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Institute for Multimedia Literacy is the first of its kind.

Students taking Zuckerman’s course, “The Ancient Near East,” are participating in the pilot program, although the professor has used his advanced computer technology in his classroom for years.

“It’s nice to see that the world is catching up with us,” Zuckerman said with a grin.

His students are examining the seals with a level of detail only recently possible. About 25 years ago, Zuckerman and his brother, Kenneth, developed the West Semitic Research Project (WSRP). Today, WSRP is the acknowledged world leader in advanced photographic and computer imaging of ancient objects and texts — particularly the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. They share the images through the online InscriptiFact database.

Sometimes dubbed the “Scroll Brothers,” the Zuckermans and their longtime colleague, Marilyn Lundberg, helped the students photograph the seals.

The conventional photographic method would have been to roll each cylinder over clay and photograph the impression, but Bruce Zuckerman wanted students to analyze the actual surface of the seals.

So the entire surface of each cylinder was photographed in one continuous, flat image.

Kenneth Zuckerman, Lundberg and industrial designer John Melzian developed the advanced photographic technique, which involves adapting panoramic digital cameras capable of taking pictures in 360 degrees.

But rather than rotating the camera around a seal, the camera remains stationary while the seal is placed on a platform, which slowly revolves. The resulting detailed “roll-out” photo is in a digital form, so students may magnify and move the image around on a computer screen to aid in their research.

“We’ll have the students’ research work almost immediately available over the Web,” Bruce Zuckerman said. “This is an opportunity to show the world that this can be done.”

Zuckerman’s class differs slightly from the others in the multimedia pilot program. His is coupled with another new program launched this year — the College’s Team Research Communities (TRC). The five TRC courses involve students and a professor collaborating on a yearlong original research project.