UC building digital gallery of ancient Troy

UC Classics is digitizing photos, records from the 1930s excavation of the famous Trojan War city

Under a bleached Middle Eastern sky, archaeologist Marion Rawson shoots film from atop a tall ladder held precariously upright by workers in a scene evocative of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima.

Marion Rawson stands on a ladder using a videocamera while six workers hold the ladder aloft.

UC graduate Marion Rawson stands precariously on a ladder taking video during UC's 1930s excavations of Troy. Photo/UC Classics Archive

The black-and-white photo of the University of Cincinnati graduate at work is part of the Classics Department’s vast archives from UC’s 1930s excavation of Troy in what is today Turkey. The picture is one of more than 5,700 images from the project supervised by legendary UC archaeologist Carl Blegen of the city mentioned in Homer’s Iliad that served as the setting of the Trojan War.

Now UC wants to share these albums with the public through a new digital record. The department received a grant from UC’s Digital Scholarship Center to create a digital archive.

“The photo albums are exceptionally important because we can see the excavations as they took place year to year,” said Jeff Kramer, archivist for UC Classics.

The project demonstrates UC's commitment to innovation as described in its strategic direction called Next Lives Here.

This was a pioneering excavation. And it has the magic name: Troy.

Jeff Kramer, UC Classics archivist

Jeff Kramer stands over a table covered in maps, field journals, books, photos and documents.

UC Classics archivist Jeff Kramer points to a variety of historic maps, field journals, photos and government records documenting UC's 1930s excavation of Troy. Now UC is opening the collection to the public in a new digital archive. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Examining a world heritage site

The Blegen Library’s classics archive contains field journals, artist renderings and documentation from UC’s projects across the Mediterranean. Kramer said they began digitizing the Troy excavations because those records are among the department’s oldest and most extensive.

“The gem of our collections are the Troy archives from Blegen’s excavations in the 1930s. We have all the records that survived: correspondence, notebooks, financial documents,” Kramer said.

“This was a pioneering excavation. And it has the magic name: Troy,” Kramer said.

Troy, sometimes called Troia or Troja, was the backdrop for one of Greek mythology’s most dramatic stories: the Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans. The stories feature the heroes Odysseus, Hector, Ajax and Achilles, who was cut down by an arrow to his heel. And its legends persist today, particularly that of the Trojan horse sculpture within which the Greeks hid to gain entry to the fortified city.

The ancient cities of Troy were first unearthed in the 1860s and studied again in expeditions over the next 20 years before UC’s Blegen arrived on the site in the early 1930s. Today, it’s a world heritage site “of outstanding universal value,” according to UNESCO.

Blegen’s team kept meticulous notes on everything from employee hours to grocery bills, Kramer said.

“The records are so extensive you can find out how much they spent on eggs each week,” he said. “You could reconstruct the economy of a very young Turkey, which had existed for less than 10 years when they started excavating.”

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/whpnYnSxK1M?rel=0

Archaeologist Wilhelm Dorpfeld, who excavated Troy in the 1880s, returned to help UC plan its 1930s excavations. Here he leads a tour of the site. Video/UC Classics

Archaeology during the Great Depression

UC’s ambitious Troy expedition was launched at the behest of former UC Classics Head William Semple and his wife, Louise Taft Semple, niece to U.S. President William Howard Taft who served as dean of UC’s College of Law.

“In 1931, William Semple and Louise Taft Semple decided that UC was ready for an ambitious archaeological project. [The University of] Chicago was digging at Israel’s Tel Megiddo. The University of Pennsylvania was digging at Ur in Mesopotamia,” Kramer said. “So a confluence of events led to working at Troy.”

Blegen embarked on his expedition during the Great Depression, the debilitating effects of which were felt across the Mediterranean.

“The Depression spread worldwide to the point where people were lining up at the excavation because there was no other work,” Kramer said. “Even a small wage was better than nothing.”

Archaeology is destruction. You can’t excavate something again. So the fact that Blegen documented his excavation in photos is a big deal.

John Wallrodt, UC senior research associate

Despite the economic turmoil, UC’s Classics Department supported the excavation because of its importance to archaeology, Kramer said.

Troy represented the most audacious archaeological project at the time for UC’s Classics Department, which met with government officials in Ankara, Turkey, to arrange a permit consisting of two typewritten sentences on a single sheet of paper. Roughly translated, they read: The American professor from Cincinnati, Semple, will make excavations at Hisarlik. I extend him legal authority.

“These days, archaeological permits are not just a few lines on a paper,” Kramer said. “But in 1932, that’s all that was needed.”

Blegen was a natural photographer. In 19 photo albums, Blegen and Rawson, his longtime research partner, captured the excavations along with daily life in rural Turkey. 

Since the site was far from the nearest large town, they brought their home with them – a prefabricated house shipped over the Atlantic Ocean in pieces and carried inland by oxen and camel. The team dug a well and septic system and built a water tower that provided indoor plumbing, a luxury for rural Turkey in the 1930s.

The photos also put a human face on the archaeologists, who adored the baby camels they saw and took an interest in curious visitors who would stop by the site.

UC's Classics Department has shared some of these images on its Instagram feed called #FridaysintheArchives

Three field journals sit on a table.

UC archaeologists kept meticulous records of their 1930s excavations in field journals. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Chronicling history in photos

A colorized black and white photo of Carl Blegen smoking a pipe with a camera around his neck.

A colorized photo of the late Carl Blegen.

“The completeness of the Troy collection is unparalleled,” Kramer said. “We have almost everything, beginning with the first letters discussing the project to ledgers closing out the accounts.”

UC archaeologist and senior research associate John Wallrodt worked at Troy in the 1990s. A photographic record of an excavation in progress is invaluable to future researchers, he said.

“Archaeology is destruction. You can’t excavate something again. So the fact that Blegen documented his excavation in photos is a big deal,” Wallrodt said.

Today, UC uses a variety of cutting-edge tools to document excavations. Photogrammetry uses computers to stitch together two-dimensional photos into three-dimensional images to document an excavation. 

“We tend to backfill trenches so photogrammetry can record what your excavation looked like after it’s filled in,” he said. “It’s really changed our work process. We used to have a trench supervisor doing nothing but drawings in the field.”

UC also uses laser scanners, drones and geospatial tools. At recent excavations in Greece, UC archaeologists such as Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker took X-rays of artifacts, both to document the pieces as well as to help conservators responsible for cleaning and restoring them.

“Some conservators don’t want to work on an artifact until it’s been X-rayed,” Wallrodt said.

Jeff Kramer holds an old camera over a stack of Troy archaeology volumes.

UC Classics archivist Jeff Kramer holds the camera that UC archaeologist Carl Blegen used to document his 1930s excavations in Troy. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Besides the obvious stories captured in the photos, Kramer suspects the images might contain other secrets. He enlisted the help of James Lee, associate dean and academic director of UC’s Digital Scholarship Center.

Lee is an expert in artificial intelligence, machine learning and data visualization. He plans to train artificial intelligence to scan the images for evidence of archaeological features the human eye might miss.

“AI is just pattern recognition at a fine level of detail,” Lee said.

“It can say, ‘There’s a high probability this is a clay pot. This is a wall. This is a doorway,’” Lee said.

For an individual photo, that might not mean much. But in analyzing UC’s entire Troy catalog or even repositories of archaeological photos from other universities, the tool could be very helpful, Lee said.

“Computers could identify trends we might miss – disturbed earth patterns, pottery, building foundations,” Lee said. “We hope we can train future generations of archaeologists about what these patterns look like.

“It sounds like a paradox but AI can help us understand history better,” Lee said.

Featured image at top: UC Classics archivest Jeff Kramer holds an original painting of fresco fragments by archaeology artist Piet de Jong. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Jeff Kramer gestures in a room surrounded by shelves and boxes.

UC Classics archivist Jeff Kramer talks about the collection of historic photos, journals, financial records and government documents chronicling the 1930s excavation of Troy. Kramer said the records tell stories about the impact of the Great Depression and daily life in Turkey in the 1930s. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Four photos show a visit by Turkish bedouin on camels.

UC Classics is creating a public gallery of more than 5,700 photographs from UC's 1930s excavation of Troy. Archaelogists documented the excavation along with daily life in rural Turkey like this visit by Turkish bedouin on camel. Photo/UC Classics

An album shows three pictures of ruins, including an archway and a wall.

UC archaeologist Carl Blegen and his research partner Marion Rawson documented the 1934 excavation of Troy. Now UC is building a digital library of photos for the public and other researchers. Photos/UC Classics

A telegram reads:

A 1931 Western Union telegram from UC Classics Department Head William Semple in Cairo, Egypt, delivers the good news to UC. They could proceed with the Troy expedition.

Photos from Turkey show archaeologists at work and posing for photos.

UC archaeologist Carl Blegen kept extensive records of his 1930s excavation of Troy. UC will release 5,700 photos to the public in a new digital library. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services.

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