Illuminating the Vindolanda Tablets

A guest blog by Alex Meyer

In this blog Alex Meyer (Western University, Ontario) tells us about his project Illuminating the Vindolanda Tablets which started last year and in which the LatinNow team is involved: Alex Mullen is a Co-Investigator and Anna Willi has been writing messages on replica tablets made by Roy Lawson to put in the CT scanner… For RTI work in 2019 on the Vindolanda tablets led by LatinNow at Blythe House, see our video.

Aerial image of Vindolanda. © The Vindolanda Trust, Adam Stanford and Aerial-Cam.

The pandemic hasn’t been great for research that seeks to generate new evidence based on physical artefacts. It has been hard or impossible to travel and many libraries and museums have limited access to or closed their collections. Fortunately, digital technologies are making artefacts more and more accessible to scholars around world. For example, while I haven’t been able to travel outside of North America in the last seventeen months, work on Illuminating the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets has resumed in my absence and is producing new high-resolution 3D images of stylus tablets from Vindolanda. Vindolanda is most famous for its extensive collection of ink tablets, but excavations on the site have also produced over 300 stylus tablets. Although about a quarter of those stylus tablets have visible writing on them, none of them have yet been published, because the writing that remains is illegible using current techniques.

The ink-written tablet display at Vindolanda. © The Vindolanda Trust.

This past month the Illuminating the Vindolanda Writing Tablets project, with the assistance of James Miles from Archaeovision, was able to use a state-of-the-art 3D laser scanner to examine some of the unpublished stylus tablets from Vindolanda Roman Fort now on loan to the Vindolanda Trust from the British Museum. These scans are accurate to approximately 30 microns (.03 mm). We hope that scans of this accuracy along with new image manipulation techniques will allow us to read previously illegible tablets.

James Miles of Archaeovision scanning a fragmentary tablet at the Vindolanda Museum.

Over the last century several large collections of stylus tablets have been published from places like Pompeii, Vindonissa and London, but the vast majority of tablets remain unpublished. Some of these tablets are apparently blank, while others have writing that can’t be made out. This is largely because what writing is preserved on stylus tablets is the result of inadvertent incisions that were made through the wax that once covered the tablets but is now almost always lost. To make matters worse, stylus tablets were generally reused. This means that stylus tablets often have overlapping, fragmentary texts that are difficult to interpret in the best of circumstances.

In order to read the tablets, scholars traditionally depend on their naked eyes, assisted by raking light which serves to highlight the texture of the incisions left behind by over-zealous writers. In the past 25 years, this technique has been augmented by the advent of Reflection Transformation Imaging (RTI), which produces composite digital images of tablets with a virtual, movable light source. This technique has done wonders to help read problematic texts. However, it has its limitations. Color and shading can be misleading and some marks are still too shallow or faint to make out.

Illuminating the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets is a collaboration between me, Alex Mullen of Latin Now, Roger Tomlin of Oxford and Barbara Birley of the Vindolanda Trust, and is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We’re exploring new methods by which we might be able to recover texts preserved on these tablets. High-resolution 3D scanning is just the first step. There are many technologies to apply to this problem. For example, in the coming months we’ll be running a replica tablet through a CT scanner and trying various methods of manipulating the results of the 3D scanning and the CT scan to recover and read texts that have so-far eluded interpretation.

The applications of this research are extensive. Not only may this process represent a significant advance in our knowledge of Vindolanda and the Roman empire’s northern frontier, but these same techniques could be applied to previously illegible stylus tablets from other sites, of which there are hundreds. Similarly, these techniques could be applied to other media, including other types of wooden artefacts, bronze tablets, inscriptions on stone and almost any other inscribed or incised material. Most excitingly, these technologies improve everyday and promise to continue revealing new evidence of the ancient world.

Reading texts with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

By Alex Mullen

The LatinNow team has been busy putting together the Manual of Roman Everyday Writing on and off over the past few months. Volume 2, on writing equipment, written by Anna Willi and turned into an eBook by Janie Masseglia, jumped the queue and came out earlier this summer. We’re hoping Volume 1, Scripts and Texts, co-written by Alan Bowman and me, will generate similar interest. Just one of its figures, a table of cursive scripts from corpora ranging from first-century Pompeii to sixth-century Ravenna, has taken me days to create: I wrote out the cursive letter forms in the cells literally 5,000 times before getting it right. The thought that someone, one day, might possibly find it useful inspired me to keep going!

One of the reasons for choosing the eBook format was the fact that we could use as many images as we liked and could even embed videos. We’ve made three new videos for Volume 1, which you can watch now as a kind of sneak-preview trailer for the book, which is coming out in a couple of weeks. They are designed for people new to RTI.

The first is a feat of multitasking skill. Our senior scientist Janie, from the University of Leicester wrote it, starred in it, shot it and produced it all on her own. All in a day. I’m in awe. In the video she explains how we can use RTI to help us to read worn inscriptions – in this case the epitaph of a Victorian couple on a tombstone from a Leicestershire village.

Video 2 is more of a team effort. Scott Vanderbilt shot the footage in Blythe House in London in summer 2019 when we were capturing the unpublished stylus tablets from Vindolanda with the superdome RTI machine. It features a noisy RTI dome, me (out of breath because I’m pretty pregnant with LatinNow baby #7), Richard Hobbs from the British Museum, and some rather special tablets. The legible marks on the stylus tablets are exceptionally hard to read and work is still underway to try to decipher their texts. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’…

The third video is about deciphering a tricky-to-read text on the base of a pot from East Farleigh in Kent and it accompanies the section on ‘How to read cursive texts’ in the manual. It shows how we can use the RTI technique demonstrated in the other two videos to read a text that hasn’t been read for 1800 or so years.

The LatinNow team has been doing quite a bit of RTI over the course of the project: training others to use it and getting involved in some new adventures imaging understudied collections in museums. We’ll blog about some of these soon.

If you are interested in fuller details about how RTI works, these can be found in chapter 8 ‘Modern technologies for reading everyday texts’ in the Manual (we’ll let you know when it is published online), including how you can do it yourself without the expense of a dome. Do contact us if you know of a Roman collection that needs deciphering!

New digital approaches to ancient texts

By Simona Stoyanova

Digitext workshop posterThe LatinNow summer started with a training session for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham and our team on Digital techniques and resources for textual research. Led by Dr Gabriel Bodard (Institute for Classical Studies, London) and me, the DigiText workshop introduced our colleagues to four major digital approaches to humanities research: digital philology, text encoding, linked open data and linguistic annotation. The topics we covered included introduction to online resources, imaging techniques for cultural heritage, methods in digital palaeography, EpiDoc XML markup, LOD annotation, treebanking and translation alignment. While most of our examples were taken from the ancient Mediterranean, the principles and practices applied to all disciplines and cultures represented in the audience – from Scandinavian studies to modern languages translation studies. Our colleagues enjoyed a good amount of practice, starting with marking up modern gravestones in EpiDoc (the more errors and erasures the better), annotating and disambiguating place names in Recogito and aligning translations in Ugarit. Our aim was to showcase these major topics and what progress has been made in digital classics, as well as to highlight the applicability of these approaches and methodologies to virtually all textual research. We had fruitful discussions and quite a few ideas for future collaboration, both national and international – watch this space!

Dr Kathryn Piquette setting up the RTI highlight kit

Our second trip to Nottingham’s leafy University Park campus was for a training session in Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), led by the fabulous Dr Kathryn Piquette. We were joined by a couple of colleagues all the way from Vindolanda who pulled all the stops with their multispectral filters. In two days we learnt how to put up and dismantle the RTI highlight setup, how not to drop a £2000 camera on a museum object, how to use a transmitter and how to hold one’s hand steady at 60°, 45°, 20° and 15° with no wrist tilting. The training covered the theory and physics behind RTI, followed by lots of practice. On the second day we processed the images we had taken the day before and produced our finished RTI images. The fortuitous incident of a foot just slightly nudging the board holding the object being imaged during one session showcased how/what things could go wrong, what to keep an eye out for and how to attempt fixes. We discussed various image-enhancing techniques and tools, tried one on a newly-imaged tablet from Roman Vindolanda and confirmed the reading of a stamp on a terra sigillata mould sherd from the University of Nottingham Museum collection. It was a whirlwind of a training, we learnt a great deal and are massively grateful to Kathryn!

A sherd of a mould from the University of Nottingham Museum collection being RTI-ed. It turns out that LEGO is ideal for holding the spheres!