RTI imaging of Cuneiform Tablets

A (non Rylands) tablet under the RTI 'dome'

RTI, or Reflectance Transformation Imaging, is a computational photographic method that captures a subject’s surface shape and color and enables the interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction.

The Library’s remarkable collection of over one thousand cuneiform clay tablets is currently being digitised by a team from Oxford University, using advanced imaging technology.

Written in Sumerian and Akkadian, the collection contains by far the oldest material in our Special Collections, with many items being over four thousand years old.  Most of the tablets come from the temples of Drehem and Umma in present-day Iraq and date from the Ur III dynasty (22nd-21st centuries BCE), but there are also First Babylonian Dynasty fragments (20th-17th centuries BCE) and later Babylonian and Assyrian pieces. Among the most significant are a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a rare tablet showing the floor plan of a Sumerian temple.

Klaus Wagensonner measuring a tablet

Digitisation is being carried out by Klaus Wagensonner, Research Associate in Assyriology with the ‘Creating a Sustainable Cuneiform Digital Library’ (CSCDL) project, based at the Oriental Institute in Oxford. This international project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is led by Dr Jacob Dahl.

Images and data of the Rylands tablets will be uploaded onto the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative database at UCLA, as well being made available to us. In addition to conventional photography, approximately one quarter of the tablets is being digitised using a special imaging dome, a large plastic hemisphere incorporating an array of 76 computer controlled LED light sources. Using a Nikon D3x mounted in the roof of the dome, the  system takes a series of images using different combinations of lighting. The images are then ‘stitched together’ electronically to create interactive images. It takes around fifteen minutes to digitise each tablet. For more information on this technology, see the Ashmolean RTISAD pages. The work is expected to take 3-4 weeks.

John Hodgson, Collection & Research Service Manager (Archives and Manuscripts)

The RTI system

The 'dome' in action (click to see changing light sources)

There is a freeware version of an RTI viewer and examples available to download from the Cultural Heritage Imaging site here.

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2 thoughts on “RTI imaging of Cuneiform Tablets

  1. […] now available online. We posted an interesting piece a while back about the digitisation process here. The library worked in collaboration with the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative based at UCLA, […]

  2. […] A detailed explanation of RTI can be found at Cultural Heritage Imaging. For more information about CHICC Manchester’s project, see this post on their blog. […]

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