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Using RTI and Digital Epigraphy at the Haffenreffer

by on December 9, 2013

Today’s post is from Jen Thum, doctoral student in Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute, and proctor at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

Hello, readers!

As you may remember from my last post,  I’ve been doing on the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s Old Kingdom relief block, which is from an ancient Egyptian private tomb of the 5th or 6th Dynasty (ca. 2494-2181 BCE).

The block came to the museum through a series of donors, and we do not know its place of origin. It is in poor condition, with cracks, worn areas, and residue from reconstruction (at some point in its history, it broke into pieces and was repaired). It is hard enough to see the details of the carving on this block with the naked eye, and it is even harder to get a good photograph using conventional methods. All of these problems made the block an ideal candidate for Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and digital epigraphy.

HR Blog Photo
It is difficult to read the inscriptions and see the figures on the block with the naked eye. The shiny sphere circled in red makes RTI possible (see below). Photo: Jen Thum

RTI is a light-based technology that merges a series of photographs, each with light coming from different direction, so we can shine light digitally over a composite image of the object. Note the shiny sphere I have circled in the picture above: it reflects the light in each photo, allowing the computer software to “read” the direction the light is coming from. In the photo below you can see a composite image of the object, with the color stripped out, as it appears in our RTI Viewer software from Cultural Heritage Imaging.

HR Blog RTI Viewer
A screenshot of the program displaying a composite image. Photo: Jen Thum

Epigraphy is the study of inscriptions through drawing and recording. Digital epigraphy is the computer-based version of epigraphy, where a tracing is made over a picture of the object using drawing software. To digitally draw our block, I am using Adobe Illustrator. But I cannot simply draw over ordinary pictures of it, since the details aren’t clear enough—instead, I am drawing on the RTI images. To get the best angle of light for each section of the block, I divided our RTI image into 16 rectangular sections, and took four “snapshots” of each one. These are arbitrary numbers that I chose after considering how much detail each section of the block would show.

HR Blog Artboard
A mock-up of the block using RTI snapshots. Photo: Jen Thum

Each of the snapshots shows the same section of the block, but with the light shining from a different direction. Below you can see two of these snapshots side-by-side: see the difference the light makes! Now, when I want to draw a detail on the block that I cannot see too well in one snapshot, I can “turn on” the other three to see if one of them will give me a better view.

HR Blog Side by Side
A side-by-side image of two RTI snapshots from the same section of the block. Photo: Jen Thum

I’ve already started to draw the block—not just the figures and hieroglyphs, but also the damage and restoration. Here’s what it looks like so far:

HR Blog Drawing
My drawing progress to date. Photo: Jen Thum

On the final line drawing, I will mimic the effect of raised relief by adding some shadow, as in the picture below.

HR Blog Shadow
In the circled area, I have added shadow to show that this is raised relief. Photo: Jen Thum

This project will take a while longer, but I’ll keep you posted—in the meantime, come see the block on display in Manning Hall‘s CultureLab, and follow my progress on the Museum’s Twitter account at, with the hashtag #EgyptoloJen!

Thanks Jen!  Readers, if you’d like to hear more about this, Jen is giving a short talk TODAY, December 9th, for Brown University’s Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies Colloquium at 1pm on the 3rd floor of Wilbour Hall (home of the Egyptology Department).

We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact Jennifer Stampe, blog editor and Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology, at

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