Tech Week: Photography in Archaeology

Here is a riddle, what technology is used by an archaeologist working on a 19th century farmstead, an archaeologist recording a wreck in the Mediterranean, and an archaeologist explaining a site to a group of fourth graders? The Answer – Photography. This week the SHA Technology Committee is excited to present the fourth installment of Tech Week on the SHA blog. This tech week focuses on the many uses of photography in archaeology. All three bloggers discuss how they use photography to not only record the past, but how they use it to better understand it too.

The week begins with a post by Drew Fulton. Drew’s work as a conservation photographer and filmmaker took him to the Kızılburun wreck in the Aegean Sea. The logistics of photographing a wreck 150 feet below the surface of the ocean can be staggering, but Drew was able to capture the wreck in breathtaking 360 degree interactive panoramic images.

Following Drew’s post, Karen Price discusses the use of photography in preservation at Mount Vernon. Karen provides tips and tricks for both the amateur artifact photographer and the professional archaeologist, while making a call for all archaeologists to reconsider their approach to field and lab photography. She also provides some stunning examples of her work.

The final blogger for Tech week is Carrie Fulton. Carrie discusses her work on the ship that was discovered at the World Trade Center site in New York City. Typically, archaeologist painstakingly record each timber of a ship, but because of the nature of the site and the heavy push for construction, Carrie and the team of archaeologists working at the site, didn’t have time to record the ship in such detail. Utilizing a wide range of technology they created a detailed digital record that allowed them to create a 3d model of the ship that recorded the exact spatial layout of each timber.

Check out the #TechWeek Posts:

Going Interactive Underwater by Drew Fulton
Preservation Photography: Roles and Rules by Karen Price
Photographs into Models: Documenting the World Trade Center Ship by Carrie Fulton

Going Interactive Underwater

By Drew Fulton

When you first tell people that you are going to spend a couple weeks during the summer diving on a 2,000 year old shipwreck in 150 feet of water in the Aegean Sea, people start asking a lot of questions. It is such a unique experience and the logistics of excavating underwater are so specialized that I wanted to take the opportunity share that experience with others.

Now, let me put this out there before we get started. I am not an archaeologist or researcher. I am married to one. I work as a conservation photographer and filmmaker, but on occasion I get to tag along on my wife’s projects to help with the media side of things. That is how I ended up diving on the Kızılburun shipwreck about five years ago. As a photographer, I was using 360° interactive panoramic images to transport viewers to hard to access places. Most notably, I had been using this technology to immerse students in the forest canopy in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. So why not try to use the same technology to transport viewers to the sea floor to experience the excavation of the Kızılburun wreck?

The Kızılburun wreck was a first-century BCE marble carrier that was probably headed to the temple at Claros, transporting a monumental marble column and several other unfinished pieces of marble. This column was nearly 2 meters in diameter and was broken up into 8 separate drums that were almost 1.5 meter tall each and a capital. Each of these marble drums weighed in excess of 8 tons. When the marble had reached Claros, the column would have been assembled by stacking all of the drums on top of each other with the capital on top, and then the flutes would have been cut into the column once it was assembled.

By the time I came to the project, in the third and final major season of excavation, the drums had been moved from their location in the wreck and placed on a flat piece of bottom about 25 meters from the site. This gave researches access to the fragile remains of the wooden hull and other small artifacts. Throughout the field season, the archaeologists carefully removed the sand, exposing nails and wood that were evidence for the hull.

Prior to the field season I spent a lot of time researching the technical aspects of 360° panorama. At the time, the most common use for this technology was in the real estate business to showcase homes that were for sale. My previous project, Canopy in the Clouds, took this idea and used it to virtually immerse students in the canopy of Costa Rica’s clouds forests. So while I had created these images while hanging on a rope 100 feet high in a tree, capturing these images underwater was totally new for me. After some research I found there were very few underwater examples available and none that were captured at high resolutions. For the work I had done in the cloud forests, I had utilized a specialized tripod head that helped me to position the camera correctly with a very high precision, something necessary for stitching together the high resolution images. However, since it was an expensive piece of equipment, I had no interest in submerging it in the salt water of the Aegean. This meant I had to basically fabricate my own.

To create these panoramic images doesn’t require a specialized camera or lens, it just requires taking a bunch of images and stitching them together after the fact. I utilize a fisheye lens and take about 6-8 images while rotating the camera horizontally to capture the entire horizon and then take a few images to capture straight up and straight down. It sounds pretty easy but to make a seamless image, the camera has to rotate precisely—that’s where the specialized tripod head comes in to play. Since I didn’t have access to the underwater housing until I was on site and the site was very remote, I had to basically show up with a diverse range of options to fabricate a head on site. It took about three dives of testing and some help from the ship’s captain and his welder, but we fabricated something that resembled a tripod head and worked well enough to get the job done.

Over the course of 2-3 dives over several days, I started photographing the site and the archaeologists at work. After my dives, I’d quickly download the images and start stitching them to be sure that everything had worked and I could move on to the next image. My goal was to shoot several panoramas to showcase the different areas of the site including the bow, stern, and drum garden. I also spent some time creating panoramas in camp to showcase the place and the work we were doing.

Now, five years later, technology has come a long way and improved a lot. Today, you can purchase a simple 3D printed holder that will hold six GoPro cameras and not only create panoramas like this but do it in 360° video! This gives the viewer a chance to pan around as the camera moves through the environment!

Overall, I really enjoyed my time working on the Kızılburun wreck and the challenge of transporting viewers to this unique site. Not being an archaeologist myself, I really enjoyed having an opportunity to experience an excavation and see how things worked. It was my hope that these images will give other viewers the same sneak peak. How have you tried to show others a window into your own work? Do you feel like it has brought attention to you research and opened doors to talking about the work you do?

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thanks Dr. Deborah Carlson for including me on the excavation, Eric Kemp for the use of his camera and housing, Feyyaz Subay for his help welding the improvised tripod head, and my wife, Carrie Fulton, for letting me tag along on the excavation.

Check out the other #TechWeek Posts:

Tech Week: Photography in Archaeology by Jonathan Libbon
Preservation Photography: Roles and Rules by Karen Price
Photographs into Models: Documenting the World Trade Center Ship by Carrie Fulton

Preservation Photography: Roles and Rules

By Karen Price

There’s something about a photograph. Humans are visual and I think pictures can sometimes reach broader audiences than can words. 21st century technology has only helped our addiction to the visual with the advent of digital technology and social media platforms. Digital cameras have now made the photographic process quicker. Yet, their user-friendly, high-quality format as well as their instantaneous outcome has, on the downside, introduced a cult of point-and-shoot photography.

Figure 1: Nine grave shafts exposed during the Mount Vernon Slave Cemetery Survey. Karen. E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

This is where I was at until around three years ago when I came to Mount Vernon for an archaeology internship. After having a lecture on artifact photography and a project that involved a digital portfolio, I attempted through trial and error to become an artifact photographer for the Archaeological Collections Online project, a two-year endeavor to digitize important finds from the Washington households’ 18thcentury midden. This necessitated taking the camera off automatic, learning about aperture, ISO, shutter speeds and white balance in order to get the best possible shot for the database.

Figure 2: Caption: A standard record shot. Rim and body sherds of a burnished Colonoware vessel with scale, object 2669. Karen E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

I have now expanded my role from photography intern to Preservation Photographer. There are generally two types of photographs that I take both in the field and in the studio: record shots (figure 2) and creative or candid shots (figure 3). These are not mutually exclusive and all follow the same basic compositional guidelines. I always photograph in RAW format (as opposed to, say, JPG), constantly assess the light, and ask myself if the picture makes sense to the viewer.

Figure 3: A candid, creative shot. Volunteers hold lithics excavated from the Slave Cemetery Survey. Karen E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

At work my general tasks are to document our current excavations and pre/post/ongoing restoration projects around the Mount Vernon Estate. I also do a bit of landscape photography to aid in the preservation of Mount Vernon’s Viewshed looking east across the Potomac River and I’m starting to assist our Collections staff with in-house photography. My favorite, however, is artifact photography, which is where I feel most comfortable creatively. This not only involves standard record photographs, but dramatic detail shots (figure 4), 360 degree spinning GIFs, and thematic pictures (figure 5). I love how sometimes, with just the right lighting and depth of field, a picture can bring out qualities in an artifact that aren’t as visible with the naked eye (figure 6).

Figure 4: A detail shot. By using raking light coming in from only the left side I was able to bring out the C and sunburst design on this tobacco pipe heel. Object 2906. Karen E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

I’ve got a couple of projects (experiments) lined up for 2015 that will take me out of my comfort zone and hopefully enhance my photographic skills. For starters, a new photographic technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) that synthesizes multiple photos of an object, each using a different angle of lighting, to bring out 3D details in a 2D format. I’m also going to try and create actual 3D files through digital images using Agisoft Photoscan.

Figure 5: A thematic shot. Buttons excavated from the South Grove Midden. Karen E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

My main goal in this job, however, is to create a standard protocol for field and artifact photography that anyone can follow. This ensures that archaeologists do not have to simply “point-and-shoot”, but can follow guidelines for setting up a shot. And really, taking a second to think about the composition of a shot will do wonders for the quality of our photographs. In the studio these include photographing in RAW format so that you can correctly adjust gray balance, orienting the object correctly (figure 7) and blocking reflective glare from ceramics. Forget RTI and 3D imaging- basic, high-quality archaeological photography can be done in-house, on a fairly low budget, and by non-photographers.

Figure 6: An hua on porcelain can be difficult to see. By limiting the amount of light the porcelain received I was able to bring out the design a bit more. Chinese Export Porcelain plate, object 2645. Karen E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

There are a few things you may want to invest in if you’d like to up your photographic game. I’m a big proponent of photographing in RAW format so you’ll need a digital camera capable of this, which will be your biggest investment. You’ll also need a computer software capable of opening RAW files (I use Adobe Photoshop but RawTherapee is a budget-friendly option). In the studio I recommend having an X-rite color checker (this will help correctly color balance your photo), two photographic strobe lights, a tripod, small scales, and a suitable background for your artifacts (black velvet works well with most objects). If I had to pick the bare necessities? The camera, the software, and a color checker.

Figure 7: It can be difficult to arrange multiple non-mending sherds for a photograph. I do my best to line up the decoration and mimic the original curvature of the artifact. Delftware plate, object 2589. Karen E. Price, Mount Vernon Archaeology.

I think that with the current technology we can, and should, expect a change in the discipline in regard to how it treats photographic documentation. I’m all for a great iPhone photo, but I’d love to see archaeologists taking the camera off automatic and experimenting with what today’s digital cameras can do. Our pictures may not speak a thousand words, maybe only a handful. But, if they open up dialog about archaeological research and material culture, or even just get the general public excited about our discipline, then I think they’re worth the effort.

I’d love to hear your tips, thoughts, or questions on archaeological photography!

You can see some of Karen’s preservation photographs on the Mount Vernon Midden database, the Digital Archive of Comparative Slavery, COVA’s Culture Embossed, on Facebook, and on the cover of American Archaeology, fall 2013, volume 17, number 3.

Check out the other #TechWeek Posts:

Tech Week: Photography in Archaeology by Jonathan Libbon
Going Interactive Underwater by Drew Fulton
Photographs into Models: Documenting the World Trade Center Ship by Carrie Fulton