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.
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
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.”
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.
Chronicling history in photos
“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.
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
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