PhD Candidate Conducts High-Tech Research on Ancient Artifacts


Old Testament PhD candidate Jason Riley, recipient of the Edwin M. Yamauchi Award for Excellence in Textual Studies given by the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative, traveled to London and Oxford this summer to conduct Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on several Assyrian palace reliefs. This high-tech photography work contributes to research for his dissertation on children and warfare in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East, a project supervised by Christopher Hays, D. Wilson Moore Chair of Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

Much of the material for his dissertation consists of scenes depicted on basalt and alabaster stone reliefs that were once displayed in major royal Assyrian palaces in locations such as Nineveh and Dur-Sharrukin (modern day Mosul and Khorsabad, Iraq). Many of these pieces of sculptured royal propaganda depict deportation scenes, displaying children and their families being forcibly displaced by the Assyrian army to Assyria and other locations.

PhD-Candidate-Conducts-High-Tech-Research-on-Ancient-Artifacts-2“This was a tremendous opportunity,” said Riley, “to conduct high-tech research in support of my dissertation at two prominent museums in the U.K.” Riley also included a side trip to Paris in order to photograph Assyrian artifacts at the Louvre Museum.

RTI is an imaging technique that involves taking a series (40 or more) of still photographs of a stationary object with the flash in different locations. Each flash position is at the same distance from the object but at a different position and angle, creating a virtual dome of light around the artifact. These pictures are then processed using several programs, the end result of which is a single high-resolution image that allows the viewer to manipulate a virtual light source around the image in real time. RTI allows for detailed research on any artifact that contains texture and that benefits from being viewed in high-resolution and with illumination. Commonly studied using RTI are small objects such as cuneiform tablets or other small inscriptions, cylinder seals, clay figures, and manuscripts, and large objects such as rock reliefs, large inscriptions, and statues. RTI is also a method of digital conservation.

“I am incredibly thankful to have had this opportunity,” said Riley. “It shows that the Old Testament program at Fuller provides a number of significant opportunities for PhD students.” Doctoral students have taken part in archaeological excavations, workshops in Oxford as part of the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative, and other research opportunities abroad.PhD-Candidate-Conducts-High-Tech-Research-on-Ancient-Artifacts-3

Prior to conducting his research, Riley underwent RTI training with Marilyn Lundberg, associate director of West Semitic Research at the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California. Riley then traveled to London and conducted more than a week of one-hour photo sessions before the British Museum opened each day. Under the supervision of Gareth Brereton and with the assistance of Elisabeth Sawerthal, a PhD student at King’s College, London, Riley was able to image numerous Assyrian reliefs, including scenes from the famous Lachish Reliefs. On his final day in England, Riley traveled to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to image a relief on display there. Permission for this photography session was granted by Paul Collins, the Jaleh Heam Curator of Ancient Near East.

For more information and videos showing RTI at work.

For more information on Fuller's Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

(First Photo: Here Riley holds the flash to image a relief from Sargon’s palace in Dur-Sharrukin, on display in the British Museum. For each picture, the flash must be the same distance from the artifact. His assistant, Elisabeth Sawerthal, holds a string in order to get the flash at the proper distance from the relief.)

(Second Photo: The above picture depicts the virtual dome created by the different light positions. Each circle represents a different position of the flash, each at the same distance from the object but at a different position and angle.)

(Third Photo: This image depicts a scene from Room XXXVI in Sennacherib’s “Palace without a Rival” with generally overhead light.)

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