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Research Project Garners $600,000 Grant

The Institute of Museum and Library Services helps USC collaborators preserve the digital fingerprints of ancient scribes.

Research Project Garners $600,000 Grant
A joint grant-writing initiative of USC's West Semitic Research Project, InscriptiFact, the USC Archaeological Research Collection and the USC Libraries has secured $600,000 in funding from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Uniting USC's expertise in the humanities, technology and librarianship, the cross-discipline alliance will use the museum and library institute funds to continue developing advanced imaging systems in partnership with Cultural Heritage Imaging and Hewlett-Packard Labs.

The project is a photo-archival system that preserves ancient, Near Eastern inscriptions in some 125,000 high-resolution images. InscriptiFact, a collaboration between USC Libraries and USC College, digitizes the images to make them accessible online.

Scholars and educators in 26 countries use InscriptiFact to study more than 19,000 images of the Dead Sea Scrolls and many other ancient inscriptions, clay tablets and artifacts.

USC Professor of Religion Bruce Zuckerman leads the project and InscriptiFact with associate directors Marilyn Lundberg and Li Hunt, who is also a USC librarian. According to Zuckerman, InscriptiFact is the most sophisticated resource of its kind, allowing users to study images of artifacts at the level of resolution necessary to read the minutest details.

The museum and library institute leadership grants are designed to encourage creative partnerships that bring together libraries, museums and cultural institutions in new ways.

At USC, the grant will enable research and development of InscriptiFact's three-dimensional imaging techniques that support viewing and decipherment of biblical, Near Eastern and Mediterranean-area inscriptions.

Since the 1980s, the project has pioneered imaging methods for capturing hidden details and reclaiming otherwise inaccessible text from ancient artifacts. It devised techniques that use infrared and other specialized films and photographic equipment to rescue information from objects despite faded inks, fragile or reactive materials, and centuries of decay.

Zuckerman's team recognized early on that sharing archives with the global research community would become the project's most important goal, so they recruited Hunt to design and implement the InscriptiFact software.

“We were immediately impressed with Li's capabilities,” Zuckerman said. “She was able to translate our complex requirements into details that made sense to engineers.”

Hunt also recruited and managed software and database engineers while guiding the InscriptiFact development process.

When manufacturers began to discontinue many of the specialized films the project had been relying upon, Zuckerman turned to Matt Gainer, the USC Libraries' digital imaging director, for help with the increasingly urgent transition to digital media.

Gainer worked with Zuckerman's team to develop a process for converting existing photographs to high-resolution digital formats. He also helped select the advanced, large-format digital cameras necessary for direct-to-digital photography.

This year, in addition to expanding the InscriptiFact database by 15,000 images, Zuckerman plans to build Polynomial Textural Mapping into the system. The mapping gives users the ability to manipulate the intensity and direction of lighting on images viewed through InscriptiFact. In effect, a researcher will be able to use a computer mouse like a powerful, narrowly focused light source that can be moved in any direction.

When the textural mapping is fully integrated into InscriptiFact, researchers will be able to explore fine details in a way that's inching ever closer to approximating physical study of an object.

“The Polynomial Textural Mapping is an extremely effective tool for reading inscriptions, and it's even allowed us to see the fingerprints of ancient scribes on clay tablets imprinted thousands of years ago,” Zuckerman said.

Such advances have prompted Zuckerman to think constantly about ways to enhance InscriptiFact.

“For us, the Holy Grail would be to allow users to rotate digital objects 360 degrees in any direction while simultaneously using mapping to change the direction of the lighting post-capture,” he said.

Working closely with Cultural Heritage Imaging's Mark Mudge and Carla Schroer, as well as Tom Malzbender, who created textural mapping imaging at HP Labs with his colleague Daniel Gelb, Zuckerman's USC team will use the museum and library institute grant to pursue that goal.

Todd Grappone, USC Libraries' associate executive director of information development and management, points to Zuckerman's work as a model for others in the humanities seeking easier entry into digital scholarship.

“This project has been so successful in part because it's been able to tap into local USC Libraries' experience and services,” he said.

“InscriptiFact is a world-class scholarly tool, and I'd like to see other innovative humanities projects follow in its footsteps by partnering with the library's Archiving, Imaging and Metadata Services team.”

Zuckerman agreed that the future of humanities scholarship rests in ambitious projects that demand interdisciplinary collaboration, a core USC value.

“Over time, you'll see teams of scholars in the humanities with a technological agenda working together on projects that require multiple forms of expertise,” Zuckerman said. “In the future, the humanities will start to look more and more like us.”