The following is a guest post by Helena Arose, Junior Fellow in the Geography and Map Division, who worked with the Pre-Columbian objects of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas during the summer of 2016. Helena has done fieldwork on Cyprus and is currently an archaeology student at Johns Hopkins University.
This summer I worked directly with the Pre-Columbian material of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas to inventory, photograph, and create 3D digital models of objects housed in storage. As an aspiring archaeologist, this was an exciting opportunity to work with an amazing collection of material culture and to use cutting edge technology to help make the collection more accessible to the public.
The first part of the project, which involved creating a digital finding aid to the items in storage as well as photographing them for identification purposes, allowed me to spend time with the objects in the collection and carefully examine each one. Having never intensely studied the civilizations of the Early Americas, I found it very interesting to learn about them in detail through the objects in the Kislak Collection. Each piece is remarkable, and closely working with the material provided a window into the time period of the early civilizations of the Americas.
I focused primarily on examining the Maya ceramics, as this was the group of objects that would be subject to 3D imaging. These ceramics often feature painted imagery of Maya creation myths including figures, animals, and material goods that give insight into the Maya belief system. Maya glyphs also cover the surfaces of these ceramics. The language system of the Maya is one of five originally developed languages from which all others subsequently formed (Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Chinese, Sumerian, and the still un-deciphered Indus Valley Script are the other four). The process of translating Maya glyphs has been long and arduous, and it continues today. One fairly recent breakthrough is the decipherment of something known as the Primary Standard Sequence, a glyph series that generally circles the top of many Maya vases including many vases in the Kislak Collection. Previously thought to be related to the images, the Primary Standard Sequence was discovered to actually relate information about the owner and use of the ceramic it is inscribed on.
In conjunction with the 3D imaging, I also worked on determining the structure of ceramic matrix found in some of objects in the Kislak Collection using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). We were primarily interested in the make-up of the red pigment found on some of the so-called “poison flasks” in the collection.
In order to look at the composition of the red pigment, which was thought to be either cinnabar, a red colored form of mercury sulfide, or hematite, a form of iron oxide, a spectrum that was obtained from the electron beam of the SEM. Here we could see a prominent iron peak indicating that the red pigment was iron oxide.
Once I completed this phase of the project and had developed a good general understanding of the ceramics in the collection, I began the next step of learning how to create 3D digital models. The models were made using photogrammetry and structure-from-motion imaging, a technique that creates 3D models from a large series of 2D photos taken at different angles. This allowed for the creation of point correspondences between all the images, converting the object into a large triangular graph.
The process was remarkably easy to learn, as well as being relatively fast. I was able to complete seven models over the course of about three weeks, learning more about the process as I went. For example, initially I thought that smaller objects would photograph well and create better, more detailed models. However, with trial and error I discovered that larger objects produced more quality models. Based on this, I imaged a large ceramic incense burner that was then able to be viewed in virtual reality. This aspect took the 3D model even a step further and provided another way for these models to be used.
Imaging and non-destructive testing of the kind that I learned during my Junior Fellowship at the Library this summer are important skills for any archaeologist or curator interested in the long-term preservation of cultural heritage.