Rita Lucarelli creates 3D images of ancient Egyptian coffins. Using Agisoft Photoscan, the Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies and her team transform 2D photographs into 3D models before annotating the virtual figures with transliterations, translations, and other relevant data. Since Egyptian hieroglyphics adorning funerary materials were copied and read from different directions, 3D interaction with digitized images provides better access to the texts of such objects than traditional 2D representations. Such work advances research into the role of ancient Egyptian funerary equipment in the transmission of ideas of death, magic protection, and the afterlife.
For Images of Eternity’s graduate research assistant, Kea Johnston, this coffin analysis compresses the manual aspect of archival research while expanding its comparative potential: “On my computer I have hundreds of pictures of coffins from multiple different angles and distances, which I usually use for these comparisons. However, having a high-resolution 3D model allows me to view the coffin from every angle, and to examine the pictures and texts on every surface, even those that might be hard to view when the coffin is on display or in storage in a museum. I no longer need to search through hundreds of individual photographs in search of one that captures the exact detail I want to compare.”
Johnston, a Near Eastern Studies PhD candidate, has already seen the new methodology bear fruit: “Because it's now so easy to refer to the coffins from all angles, we've actually been able to find another coffin in the Hearst Museum which may have originally been buried with one of the coffins in our survey. The colors used are similar, and the hieroglyphs are drawn in a very particular way on both of them. Each one has a picture of the owner (in a different place on each coffin) wearing a very unusual costume. The owner of both coffins even has the same name.”
Several UC organizations support Images of Eternity. To accelerate image rendering, the Berkeley Research Computing program offers Lucarelli’s team GPU nodes on Berkeley's Savio cluster. The Hearst Museum of Anthropology provides coffins for analysis. The Berkeley Archaeological Research Facility and the “Immersive Humanities” working group of the Center for Digital Humanities at UCLA have developed a digital viewer for the uploading and analysis of the annotated 3D models. Finally, a Digital Humanities at Berkeley Collaborative Research Grant has allowed Lucarelli to hire University of St. Andrews computational linguistics scholar Mark-Jan Nederhof to help with the Unicode text encoding of the coffin hieroglyphics.
The sophisticated technology of Images of Eternity is yielding powerful, if at times unexpected, results, according to Johnston: “More research is, of course, needed, but our project already underlines how technology is aiding our work, often in ways we didn't originally anticipate. It's helping us to learn more about the individuals who owned our objects, and the time in which they lived.”