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Watch this video on Vimeo to explore an RTI example: marble stele from the Tauric Preserve of Chersonesos, Ukraine, imaged in July 2008.

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Stelae of Chersonesos

Ukrainian scholars, archaeologists, and scientists from the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Classical Archaeology (ICA) are studying this unique group of stelae (gravestones) from the Late Classical or early Hellenistic period (the fourth and third centuries BCE).

These scholars are looking for clues to understanding the social, artistic, and cultural situation at Chersonesos at the time these stones were made.

Oath of the Chersonitai

Stele of Mendiko, daughter of Heraios, wife of Sannion

Stele of Kotticha, wife of Damatrios

Stele of Apollonios, son of Sannion

Preserving and Sharing Ancient Treasures With Cultural Heritage Imaging Technology

Cultural Treasures of the Crimean Peninsula


“1930 Basilica,” at Chersonesos, Ukraine, view to west. Photo courtesy of Chris Williams.

This project was completed in 2008. The following article about it is by Claudia Willen.

Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI), the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute of Classical Archaeology, and the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, with support from the Packard Humanities Institute, deployed interactive, 3D imaging technology to preserve and share amazing artifacts from a world-class archaeological site in Ukraine.

Chersonesos (chayr-soh-KNEE-sohs) is an ancient Greek city overlooking the cerulean blue waters of the Black Sea in the modern-day republic of Ukraine. The extensive remains of this world-class site include the ruins of city walls, townhouses, necropoleis (cemeteries), pagan and Christian places of worship, and a uniquely well-preserved agricultural territory. The site contains many other archaeological relics, including a very important ancient oath carved into enduring marble. The National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos also boasts a museum, research labs, and a library.

The Value of Digital Preservation

Documenting Chersonesos artifacts is vital to preserving this site and its contents for future study. Cultural Heritage Imaging’s unique technology was developed in collaboration with some of the world’s top research scientists including Tom Malzbender and his colleagues at Hewlett Packard Laboratories. Cultural Heritage Imaging specializes in training archaeologists and other researchers on how to capture, process, and share interactive three-dimensional (3D) images using easy to learn techniques and inexpensive, widely available equipment.

Chersonesos, Ukraine, view to west

Participants in the workshop, imaging an artifact

After taking a Cultural Heritage Imaging workshop, archaeologists, students, and other staff can use the techniques on their own projects anywhere in the world. Cultural Heritage Imaging’s methods also provide reliable, trusted information that can be shared with other researchers via the Internet.

A Site of Great Historical Significance

Perched on the tip of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Chersonesos is a highly strategic port in what has always been a very dynamic part of the world. In ancient times, Greeks, Romans, and other cultures battled constantly for control of the Black Sea region. In the 21st century, this area is the focus of intense activity related to exporting petroleum products. The great beauty of this seaside locale also attracts many tourists.

All of these competing activities threaten the site and its artifacts, which is one reason why Chersonesos scholars wanted to learn Cultural Heritage Imaging’s digital documentation and preservation techniques.

Bringing Hidden Knowledge Into View

Until quite recently, much of Chersonesos was off-limits to visitors because it is within modern Sevastopol (seh-vah-STOW-pole), which, as the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, was a closed city during the Soviet period. As official restrictions have relaxed, researchers have been able to examine artifacts such as stone grave markers known as stelae (STAY-lie).

Telling tales With Gravestones

Along with Ukrainian scholars, archaeologists and scientists from the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Classical Archaeology (ICA) and other groups are studying the stelae and related carvings. They are looking for clues to solve the complex puzzle of ancient history by understanding the social, artistic, and cultural situation at Chersonesos at the time they were made. This unique group of gravestones dates from the Late Classical or early Hellenistic period (the fourth and third centuries BCE).

They are also a very important source for our understanding of the use of color in Greek sculpture. Greek sculpture was often painted, but in most cases the paint does not survive. The painting on these stelae was preserved only because they were reused in the city wall before the paint could be worn away. These monuments thus give us information about social relationships, artistic practices, and the craft of stone-cutting at ancient Chersonesos.

Researchers use the stones to piece together the lives of people buried at Chersonesos. Cultural Heritage Imaging’s technology helps researchers see fine details, often difficult or impossible to see under direct physical examination, such as worn, damaged, or partially obscured carvings. Cultural Heritage Imaging techniques also reveal differences in tool marks on the artifacts, allowing the viewer to understand how different groups of stelae were produced in different workshops.

Sharing Cultural Heritage Imaging Techniques in a Multicultural Setting

In just 9 short days in July 2008, Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) taught 12 people how to document their ancient cultural treasures with revolutionary interactive 3D imaging techniques. Working with a single interpreter, Cultural Heritage Imaging staff shared equipment tips and imaging procedures with Russian-speaking preserve staff and Ukrainian students from Kiev and Lviv who quickly picked up the knowledge needed to create their own interactive 3D images.

Swearing Oaths to the Gods

Cultural Heritage Imaging helped the ICA and Chersonesos site staff create interactive, 3D reflectance transformation (RT) images of an object that holds great importance for people in the region — the Oath of the Chersonitai (chur so KNEE tay). This imposing marble object is inscribed with the Greek words of a civic oath sworn by the citizens of Chersonesos to confirm their loyalty to their community and its political system.

The citizens who recited this oath stood before the gods and swore by their very souls that they would defend the community and their democracy against plots and attacks. In 3rd century BCE Chersonesos, many threats to social stability existed both inside and outside of the city-state. Ukrainians still highly value the principles laid out in the oath and the object itself is an important symbol of modern Ukraine’s democratic ideals.

By the sixth day of the workshop, the Ukrainians had shown they were ready to document this national treasure on their own. That afternoon, word was sent to the entire Preserve staff inviting anyone who wished to participate in the documentation of the Civic Oath of Chersonesos to meet at its location the next morning. Twenty six Ukrainians converged on the shoot the following day. While most had little experience with digital imaging, all were united by their desire to be part of the act of recording the evidence of Ukraine’s historical commitment to democracy and sharing this legacy with their fellow citizens as well as people around the world.

The Ukrainians from the workshop set up and managed the documentation session entirely by themselves. CHI and the workshop attendees invited all the Ukrainian volunteers to help with the work by triggering the camera through the computer, and holding, aiming, and positioning the light. Participants shot more than twice the usual number of photos to give everyone a turn. The Ukrainians from the workshop processed these images to build the final virtual marble inscription of the Oath. It was then that CHI knew the workshop was a success.

With the study, hard work, and inspiration of Ukraine’s people, Cultural Heritage Imaging’s advanced technology has preserved every aspect of the carved oath in great detail and in a form that can be shared worldwide over the Internet.

Presenting an Awesome Interactive Image Show

After learning Cultural Heritage Imaging’s methods, the workshop participants enthusiastically set to work lighting their objects, capturing images with digital cameras, and processing the image files into interactive 3D images. The students and staff created RTI documentation from objects of many shapes, sizes, and styles — including large stone slabs, tiny engraved gem stones from signet rings, items displayed on floors and shelves, or locked away in basement storage rooms.

Workshop attendees used the new interactive images to create a stunning public presentation in the preserve museum. When the presentation was over, National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos staff hurried to where they had stored their favorite artifacts and brought them back to the workshop requesting that they too be imaged. The workshop students documented these precious artifacts. Expect to see many new interactive 3D images of the treasures of Chersonesos in the months and years to come.

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