You are on page 1of 9

Ancient Science in a Digital Age

Author(s): Daryn Lehoux

Source: Isis, Vol. 104, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 111-118
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society
Stable URL:
Accessed: 02-10-2016 15:01 UTC

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

The University of Chicago Press, The History of Science Society are collaborating with JSTOR
to digitize, preserve and extend access to Isis

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
Ancient Science in a Digital Age

By Daryn Lehoux*


Technology is rapidly changing our understanding of ancient science. New methods of

visualization are bringing to light important texts we could not previously read; changes
in online publishing are allowing unprecedented access to difficult-to-find materials; and
online mapping tools are offering new pictures of lost spaces, connectivities, and physical

R EGARDLESS OF FIELD, digitization is rapidly changing the way scholars access and
share material. For the historian of ancient science some of these changes are partic-
ularly exciting, promising not only to enable increased accessibility and new forms of
scholarly collaboration but also to increase our actual evidence base by bringing to light
new readings of difficult primary-source documents, whether written on papyrus, clay,
bronze, or stone. Groundbreaking work in the field of digital imaging has produced
spectacular results in the last decade, and very recently some of these powerful techniques
have become surprisingly affordable and user-friendly, bringing them within the grasp of
even modest humanities research budgets.
For the historian of ancient science, the most spectacular triumph in information
recovery has been the revolutionary material coaxed out of the Antikythera mechanism in
the last two decades. Beginning about twenty years ago, Michael Wright and Allan
Bromley experimented with X-ray tomography (the process of taking a series of two-
dimensional X-ray image slices through a body) to try to tease out the internal gearing
of this device.1 While Wright and Bromleys work was still under way, Tony Freeth and
his colleagues picked up the pace of research and (eventually working in concert with
Wright) showed how cutting-edge medical imaging technology (microfocus X-ray to-
mography using a considerably more powerful X-ray source) could allow us not only to
see gears but also to read some of the writing that had been mashed into the internal folds

* Department of Classics, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6, Canada.

1 They improved considerably on the earlier X-ray study by Derek Price, taking advantage of improvements

in the imaging technology. See, e.g., Derek de Solla Price, Gears from the Greeks (Transactions of the American
Philosophical Society, N.S., 64[7]) (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974); and M. T. Wright,
A. G. Bromley, and H. Magou, Simple X-ray Tomography and the Antikythera Mechanism, Journal of the
European Study Group on Physical, Chemical, Biological, and Mathematical Techniques Applied to Archae-
ology (PACT), 1995, 45:531543.

Isis, 2013, 104:111118

2013 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.


This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
112 FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013)

of the device by whatever accident brought it to the bottom of the sea.2 So, for example,
where naked-eye and early X-ray imaging determined inscriptions on the upper rear dial
of the mechanism to be quite unintelligible, more recent work has shown that what were
earlier thought to be sets of concentric dial circles were in fact two continuous spirals
carrying indicator needles (in a manner not entirely dissimilar to a modern phonograph)
indicating a nineteen-year lunar calendar cycle and an eighteen-year eclipse cycle, re-
spectively. Moreover, thanks to X-ray tomography, we can now read a great deal of the
previously illegible writing on the back-dial inscriptions, identifying all of the month
names listed in the calendar inscription (which month names turn out to be quite
surprisingly of Corinthian origin), and the writing on a smaller, four-year dial, which
indicates position not in the astronomical Callippic cycle, as originally supposed, but in
the civil/religious Olympiad cycle.3
The writing still visible on the surface of this remarkable astronomical computer was
also better rendered by another computing breakthrough, this time flotsam from the
unlikely source of the video game industry. Polynomial texture mapping (PTM), invented
by Hewlett-Packard, is one type of what is now more generally referred to as reflectance
transformation imaging (RTI). It was originally developed in a quest to improve, among
other things, the way monsters reflected the moody lighting of videogame environments,
part of an effort to make the visual experience more realistic for the player. The problem
for video games was to find a computationally efficient way to render light reflecting
off of the various objects and actors in a game environment in a manner that looked
plausible and natural to the human eye.4 The solution turned out to be easily applicable
to the digital rendering of ancient inscriptions (and I find it both remarkable and
wonderful that anyone at Hewlett-Packard thought of the humanities application).
Although RTI is limited to rendering surface features rather than internal details, it is
in many ways more revolutionary for ancient history than microfocus computed
tomography (CT), since so much of the textual information for classical sources is on
stone, clay, and other (external) surfaces (see Figure 1). Moreover, unlike microfocus
CT, RTI is surprisingly inexpensive, as well as fast and easy to capture. Hewlett-
Packard has quite commendably, I might say even gone so far as to make the
software freely and easily available to interested scholars.5
Thanks to some clever design innovations, the taking of a reflectance transformation
image in the field involves very little specialized equipment: a slightly better digital
single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) than one might buy for holiday snaps, a decent
wide-angle lens, an external flash, and a couple of simple and inexpensive remotes, in
addition to some odd extras like a billiard ball and a length of string for maintaining
constant flash distance. The RTI itself is built up from a series of still photographs taken
from a single camera position but with multiple light directions. The photographer simply
takes a series of forty to fifty shots of an inscription, moving the flash for each photograph

2 See, e.g., T. Freeth et al., Decoding the Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculator Known as the Antikythera

Mechanism, Nature, 2006, 444:587591.

3 Price, Gears from the Greeks (cit. n. 1), p. 15 (quite unintelligible); M. T. Wright, Counting Months and

Years: The Upper Back Dial of the Antikythera Mechanism, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, 2005,
87:8 13 (continuous spirals); and T. Freeth et al., Calendars with Olympiad Display and Eclipse Prediction on
the Antikythera Mechanism, Nature, 2008, 454:614 617 (back-dial inscriptions).
4 If one compares screen shots from, say, Doom (1993), Quake II (1997), and Deus Ex: Human Revolution

(2011), the significance that the rendering of lighting effects has on naturalism becomes clear.
5 The software is available at

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013) 113

Figure 1. PTM detail from the Antikythera mechanism under normal lighting conditions (above)
and through a specular-enhancement filter (below). Note the amount of surface detail and
increased legibility in the latter image. (Original PTM and derived still images copyright and
courtesy of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project:

but keeping the camera absolutely still. The software then reverse engineers the flash
position for each photograph from the flashs glare on the sphere of the billiard ball, which
was included in the frame of the photographs. Looking at the brightness for each pixel in
that photo, it then works on the (correct) logic that a given pixel will be brightest when
the flash was perpendicular to the surface of the photographed object at that point of its
surface, and it is thus able to reconstruct a highly accurate digital three-dimensional model
of the surface.

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
114 FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013)

In the old days (five or six years ago), in order to read an inscription or examine a
sundial, historians had to travel to the collection where it was housed, bring a flashlight
(to create sharp contrasts in fainter lines), and try to read as much as possible before time
ran out. If they wished to take more time in the examination, or to preserve a copy of the
inscription, they had to rely on photographs (very much suboptimal) or what are called
squeezes. A squeeze is an inverted copy of the inscription made by pressing wet paper or
latex into the face of the inscription under some pressure (potentially damaging more
delicate stones), allowing it to dry, and then peeling it off to take away, study, and store.
With an RTI of the inscription, scholars can now work at leisure on their computers,
moving a virtual light to any angle over a near-perfect virtual inscription, zooming in on
details as needed. Moreover, continued development in the viewers available for RTIs
have enabled new rendering algorithms as well as new visualization filters to be applied
to the original data set. One such filter, called spectral enhancement (among the earliest
developed), has become a kind of gold standard for many epigraphy applications, as it
renders the surface of an inscription in what appears to be chrome plate, making even the
faintest scratch or impression pop out. One oft-repeated story from the initial development
stages of RTI is that on the very first cuneiform tablet imaged and spectrally enhanced by
Hewlett-Packard, researchers were not only able to see the text more clearly than with the
naked eye, but they even managed to find a thumbprint left behind in the wet clay by the
tablets long-dead Mesopotamian scribe.
Given the ease of learning and capturing RTI, and given its remarkable portability and
inexpensiveness, we can foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when RTIs will be the
standard means of consulting ancient inscriptions of all sorts. Moreover, the visualization
and rendering tools for RTI have shown convincingly that they can reveal new text not
available to the naked eye under physical light. They give us, in short, new material, and
they make all surface-detailed material more easily distributable among scholars. Finally,
it is a sad truth that material can become damaged or simply go missing from museum
collections. When that has happened in the past, scholars have had to rely on squeezes or
photographs, if any exist, to try to tease what they can out of the lost inscription.
Preservation through RTI, though no substitute for protecting the original inscription, is as
faithful a method as one could hope for (one even imagines a time when it might be
combined with three-dimensional printing technology to enable physical copying of
inscriptions across time and space). It is no exaggeration to say that this technique is
While RTI is effective for surfaces where texture (carving or engraving) is the
primary means of data storage, other methods have to be found for situations where
color contrast is key, as with ink on parchment or papyrus. In these instances, as with
RTI, both desktop image-processing software and computational photographic tech-
niques have become ever less expensive and ever easier to apply in the field, and they
have been producing some very exciting results. The proliferation of high-quality
digital photographs of papyrus and other manuscripts, in combination with powerful
programs such as Photoshop and ImageJ, allow any number of transformations,
including contrast enhancement, edge finding, elimination of noise from the grain of
the papyrus or wood, and more.
The easy availability of good-quality digital cameras has also enabled the increasing
spread of infrared (IR) photography of papyrus and other manuscripts. IR photography
was previously constrained by equipment costs and the not insignificant limitations

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013) 115
imposed by the difficulty of handling the old IR films.6 In the digital age, however, even S
standard DSLR cameras turn out to have native IR capability as a side effect of how their
light sensors are made. But because IR interferes with visible-light photographs, the IR
wavelengths in DSLRs are routinely suppressed through the use of a special filter
manufactured into the camera. Removing this infrared filter turns out to be a fairly simple
modification.7 In combination with a quartz or xenon flash, the use of these modified
DSLRs enables the highlighting of faded ink, drawing out features, letters, and words that
are otherwise invisible to the naked eye (the effect is particularly pronounced with
carbonized papyri such as that from Herculaneum). Similarly, standard DSLRs can be
used, again with minor tweaks in equipment and technique, to take ultraviolet (UV)
photographs. Whereas IR photography captures light from above the visible spectrum, UV
captures it from below, and so between the two we can significantly expand the spectrum
from which information can be gathered. Faded or overwritten inks on papyrus or
parchment that are all but invisible under normal light will in many cases be partly or
wholly legible under IR or UV. Recent work on the Archimedes palimpsest, for example,
has shown the effectiveness of both of these approaches in revealing text that is otherwise
difficult or impossible to read.
In fact, the Archimedes Palimpsest Project has, since its inception in 2000, generated
a great deal of new imaging knowledge by bringing experts in scientific imaging and
experts in ancient mathematics and papyrology together in a happy collaboration. The
Archimedes palimpsest is a thirteenth-century Byzantine prayer book that is written on
what turns out to be recycled parchment. The recycling of parchment for such purposes
was not uncommon: the process involved scraping and cleaning the pages from some old
codex or codices as best one could and then rebinding and overwriting the new text at right
angles to the old (to increase legibility where traces of the old text still showed). In the
early twentieth century it was recognized that what had been scraped off and written over
in the prayer book included several works by Archimedes, and in fact two entirely lost
treatises by the great mathematician were discovered in the palimpsest. These were
originally published in the early years of the last century, but then the codex completely
disappeared from its monastery home only to resurface, the worse for wear, on the
private art market in 1998. Bought by an anonymous collector, it was generously made
available to scholars to study, and a research project developed to try to image the traces
of the erased (and sometimes even painted-over) text.
As the project developed, those involved sought solutions to problems encountered
page-by-page in the codex and worked toward constant improvements in imaging tech-
niques.8 From the projects initial experiments with multispectral imaging (combining
UV, low-watt tungsten, and ordinary strobe-flash light) and the production of digital
pseudocolor images selectively highlighting the palimpsested text and suppressing the
overwritten prayers, to later experiments with X-ray fluorescence (XRF) that sought to
highlight visually any residual iron, barium, calcium, or zinc in the erased ink (see Figure 2), the
investigators seem to have left no avenue unexplored. The high media profile of this

6 See Adam Bu low-Jacobsen, Infra-red Photography of Ostraca and Papyri, Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und
Epigraphik, 2008, 165:175185.
7 Instructions are widely published online (amateur astronomers seem to be the largest market for such

modifications), and individuals and companies are currently offering the full service, for those who do not want
to undertake the modification themselves, for prices in the $200 range.
8 See Reviel Netz, William Noel, Natalie Tchernetska, and Nigel Wilson, eds., The Archimedes Palimpsest,

2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
116 FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013)

Figure 2. Folio 001v of the Archimedes palimpsest under visible light (above) and under X-ray
fluorescence that highlights iron content in the ink (below; iron shows as white). Text running
vertically in this image belongs to the prayer book. The faint horizontal lines of the text contain part
of Archimedes On Floating Bodies. (Images courtesy of the owner of the Archimedes palimpsest
and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.)

project, as well as the generosity and determination of its backers and researchers, has
meant that considerable specialized imaging expertise has been developed. Not only did
it produce new tools and techniques that are now accessible to scholars trying to read and
preserve other ancient texts, but it has also made the projects entire image set available
online for use in future research.9 This is particularly exciting in that parts of the
palimpsest have yet to be fully deciphered. Of the techniques developed or improved by
the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, UV and IR photography, and perhaps also the use of
multispectral pseudocolor images, will be the most accessible and affordable to the
majority of papyrologists and so promise to become increasingly widespread in the field.
The power of these multispectral pseudocolor images to generate legible text is abun-
dantly clear in the recent publication by Cambridge University Press, where folio-sized
color images are set on facing pages with the new transcriptions; it is evident from the
apparatus that accompanies the transcriptions how much more legible the new images
make the text over what Johann Heiberg could discern in his original publication of a
century ago (and in spite of the damage that has occurred since that earlier publication).10
It is still too early to speculate on how these new readings may change our view of the text
overall, but what we can say is that scholars not only have a more reliable edition to work
from, they also have the revolutionary ability to verify and question that text against the
multispectral images in the published book as well as against the many very-high-quality
original images (UV, IR, XRF, tungsten) published onlineall from the comfort of their
offices. And perhaps this is the most important point: this work can be done from virtually

9 Digital images have been made available online at

10For the legibility enabled by multispectral pseudocolor imaging see esp. Netz et al., eds., Archimedes
Palimpsest (cit. n. 8), Vol. 2; for the earlier publication see J. L. Heiberg, ed., Archimedis opera omnia cum
commentariis Eutocii, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1910 1915).

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013) 117
any office, anywhere in the world (and so scholars from jurisdictions where library and S
travel budgets are severely limited now have access to research materials that would have
been all but inaccessible just a few years ago).
Turning away now from imaging per se, we find that new applications for Geographic
Information Systems incorporating Google Earth and other mapping applications are
transforming the communication and teaching of archaeological finds by localizing find
spots, photographs, and other kinds of customizable commentary on zoomable maps.11
Projects are under way for Near Eastern, classical, and preclassical sites, as well as other
sites the world over. Inherently collaborative and technically innovative, these projects are
transforming not just the ways in which the past is visualized but also, and perhaps more
importantly, the ways in which ancient historians and archaeologists work together.
Plotting archaeological information into Google Earth makes information about the
relationships between objects, find sites, and terrain much more immediately and intui-
tively available than it ever has been before, and sites can be viewed not only in their own
geographical context but also in relation to each other in space. Questions like why and
how technologies spread from one location to another can partly be answered by topog-
raphy, which is very difficult to understand without having been on the ground. Archae-
ological applications of Google Earth put interested viewers on the virtual ground,
surrounding them with clickable photographs and markers for finds.
Similarly, the very newly released project uses zoomable maps to
plot out transportation connectivity in the Roman Empire, thus establishing much clearer
time frames for communication and trade between a great (and expanding) number of
urban and rural centers. How far was Alexandria from Rome? While scholars who work
on the period may well have a good ballpark estimate ready to hand for this one busy trade
route, they will not have an easy estimate for many such places. Who knew, for example,
that the fastest route from Britain to Rome portaged its way through south-central France,
relying on a combination of sea, river, and land travel, as opposed to simply sailing its way
through the Straits of Gibraltar? (Moreover, Orbis shows clearly that this fastest route was
navigable only from late spring to early autumn, with storms on the Atlantic forcing travel
in winter as quickly as possible across the English Channel and thence much more slowly
and expensively across the whole of Gaul by river and land.) By merging travel times with
economic costs, the spread of information, scholarly and other communications, and
goods and technologies can be more readily understood, and a more complete picture of
the contexts in which Roman science is situated begins to emerge. Moreover, Orbis stands
as a prototype for mapping transport and connectivity for other cultures, at different times
and in different places, which will surely enrich our knowledge of the economies,
communication networks, and travel patterns of these past cultures and of the science and
technologies they developed, copied, altered, and traded.
Ancient maps themselves are also being digitized and made accessible online. The famous
Peutinger map of the Roman Empire, completed in the fourth or fifth century A.D., is now
available for anyones perusal in all its high-quality, zoomable glory at,
showing how digitization can fruitfully collaborate with and enhance an old-fashioned printed
book, which in this case was published simultaneously by Cambridge.12 This achievement

11Work in various stages of development includes ANE.kmz, GeoDia, and Visible Past.
12R. J. A. Talbert, Romes World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,
2010). Perhaps for the sake of completeness I should also mention the marriage of the Peutinger map with
Google Maps available at

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to
118 FOCUSISIS, 104 : 1 (2013)

should not be understated: scholars have for centuries struggled with how to publish a
document as unique as the almost seven-meter-long, full-color, hand-drawn ancient map.
Before the invention of photography the Peutinger map had to be hand copied as sketches or
engravings, with inevitable errors (particularly in place-names) and scaling problems intro-
duced, not to mention the problems with using heraldry-type hatchings to represent the
important colors of the original in a black-and-white publication. All of this is not even to
mention the prohibitive costs of production and purchase. The new digital version offers us,
for free, a virtually full-scale (on a twenty-two-inch computer monitor) scrollable map, in
accurate color and free of copyists errors. Far from a compromise, it represents unprecedented
fidelity, and in terms of its (zoomable) legibility and, especially, its accessibility it is a
considerable improvement even on the original.
Finally, as with all other subfields in the history of science (indeed, in history gener-
ally), the Internets game-changing ability to make historical texts available to anyone
anywhere at any time will continue to affect the development and teaching of ancient
science in profound ways. The digitization of texts in translation and in the original
languages, as well as the ability to share high-quality digital photographs or RTIs of
papyri, inscriptions, and clay tablets, makes the textual basis of the discipline more readily
consultable than it has ever been before. At the moment, though, there is an interesting
phenomenon at play when it comes to the availability of primary sources. The more
popular (and therefore more profitable) textsAristotle, Plato, Lucretiusappear online
only in old, out-of-copyright editions and translations, whereas (traditionally more ob-
scure) papyri, ostraca, and tablets are being digitized and shared relatively quickly and
efficiently in reliable online editions.13 By contrast, if one wants to access Aristotle online,
for example, one is forced to use old translations or editions (although sometimes these are
still usefulindeed, in some cases these are the only editions, and one is grateful for
collections such as that at the Bibliothe`que numerique medic@, where one can download
the complete Kuhn edition of Galen or the Littre Hippocrates for free). But the best
versions of most ancient authors texts are still controlled by copyright and a punishing
publication model that prices access to the latestand the only really reliable edition of
Strabos Geography, for example, at just under $2,400, making Ptolemys Geography
look like a positive steal at only $335. Perhaps the recent and growing international
discomfort with the current academic publishing model (witness the recent Elsevier
boycott) will have a spillover effect that will make for more open-access editions of
ancient texts. For that to work, though, tenure and promotion committees will have to
learn to look as favorably on good open-access editions as they currently do on the
expensive editions produced by academic publishing houses.
As historians of science in all periods turn increasingly to material culture, new tools
and techniques for analyzing those materials will play increasingly large roles. For those
of us who study periods where even the source documents face what we might think of
as materials problems (questions of provenance, access and handling problems, pres-
ervation issues, and so on), new advances prove doubly useful, offering us new and better
texts, as well as a deeper understanding of archaeological objects such as tools and
instruments. Digital preservation, while no substitute for the original objects themselves,
is a welcome side effect, as is the revolutionary availability of digitized texts and objects
to scholars and researchers around the world.

13 One thinks of excellent collections such as those at, the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, and

ORACC, among a growing number of others.

This content downloaded from on Sun, 02 Oct 2016 15:01:58 UTC
All use subject to