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

Photographs into Models: Documenting the World Trade Center Ship

By Carrie Fulton

If you attend any archaeology conference or glance through recent issues of journals, you will quickly see the extent to which photogrammetric documentation has become a part of an archaeologist’s toolkit. Take a few photos, import them to software, and hit go. Violà! You now have digital models of your site or object. Ok, so the steps are slightly more detailed, but with new technology, the interfaces and steps to producing accurate models are getting easier and less technical.

The benefits of digital recording are massive: increased speed of recording, preservation of three-dimensional information, geo-referenced data, digital preservation of contexts that are destroyed through the process of excavation, and easy dissemination of information. How can this technology be used effectively? And are there drawbacks? If so, how can they be mitigated?

Let’s look at the excavation and documentation of the remains of a late 18th-century ship discovered during the construction at the World Trade Center site in July 2010.

Figure 1: Remains of the World Trade Center Ship looking from the stern towards the retention wall. (Photo: K. Galligan)

Since the ship was found in one section of an active construction site, we had to move quickly so the timbers could be removed and construction could continue. Approximately 32 feet of the ship’s stern (back end) remained. However, a modern retention wall bisected the ship and destroyed evidence for much of the forward half of the ship except for a very small section of the bow (forward end) of the ship that was uncovered in August 2011 when the other side of the wall was cleared.

To capture the relationship between timbers we used laser scanning, photographs, videography, and sketches. This enabled us to give each timber a unique identification so that upon disassembly we could keep track of each piece and reconstruct the in situ relationship. Once removed from the site, we had more time to analyze the timbers, but the next step in the preservation of the ship hadn’t been determined. We were faced with the question: How do we record each timber accurately and quickly? We settled on an approach that combined traditional methods for documenting timbers with recent advances in photogrammetry to create three-dimensional digital recordings of the timbers.

Figure 2: Making a 1:1 tracing of a frame. (Photo: D. Fulton)

Traditionally, nautical archaeologists record the dimensions by tracing the timbers in 1:1 reproductions or making scaled drawings of each face (Figure 2). The advantage of this approach is the close examination and documentation of each face, noting patterns in fasteners, tool patterns, and any biological growth that might be indicative of post-depositional processes. However, this method is extremely time consuming, and there is the possibility for dimensions to be distorted in tracing (due to parallax) or in condensing information into a scaled drawing.

For the best use of resources and time, we made 1:1 tracings of the two sides of the frames where the ceiling planking and the outer planking were attached. This allowed us to record the arrangement in nail patterns, which is crucial to answering questions about whether the ship timbers had been repaired. To document the curves of the frames that are difficult to render in two dimensions, we used photogrammetry to generate three-dimensional models. For all other timbers of the ship, we also used photogrammetry rather than tracings.

Each timber still had its own data sheet with notations for tool marks, measurements, marine growth, and any other information that might aid in the reconstruction of the ship and its life history. However, the timber is now preserved in a digital record as a three-dimensional model. Creating a model involved a three-step procedure:

Figure 3: Drew Fulton photographs a frame which was imported into PhotoModeler Scanner.

STEP 1: Photograph the timber. For the version of PhotoModeler Scanner in 2010, stereo pairs of photographs were taken from each side of the object, with the photographer maintaining a 45-degree angle between the object and the camera. To aid in linking the photographs together, computer generated and coded dots were placed around the timber. We used push-pins to mark nails and other features so that they could be easily spotted in photographs. This allowed us to maintain the high degree of detail afforded by the tracing method while decreasing recording time.

Figure 4: 3D model of a timber created in PhotoModeler Scanner.

STEP 2: Generate 3D data. The photographs were then used to create a 3D model in PhotoModeler Scanner by first creating cloud data of the timber and then transforming the cloud data into a triangulated mesh. This mesh recorded the curves of the timbers and was exported into the NURBS modeling software Rhinoceros.

Figure 5: Reconstruction of the small deck.

STEP 3: Render into a model. Using Rhinoceros, a 3D image was created and nails were added following the locations of preserved nails. From this model, individual drawings can be produced to link the timber to information from field notes and examination in the lab. Additionally, these individual pieces were combined digitally in Rhinoceros to reconstruct the ship, using the aid of data from the laser scan.

Figure 6: Reconstruction of a frame in Rhinoceros.

The emphasis for us was integrating three-dimensional recording techniques with traditional measuring and documentation techniques to quickly and accurately record the ship and enable analysis when access to the actual timbers may not be possible. On the one hand, it is easy to see the benefits: it’s a fast process in the field, it preserves and records curves very well, it facilitates collaboration and dissemination of information with digital files that can be easily shared. On the other hand, we tend not to think about the costs associated with it: digital cameras with high resolution files requiring terabytes of storage, the possibility of having corrupt hard drives, and long hours and tedious manual work to render the digital data into final forms. Most significantly, while advances in digital technology enable better documentation, will these advances make our early attempts obsolete? For example, the version of PhotoModeler Scanner that we used has already been updated, no longer requiring stereo-photographs. Using the photographs from the World Trade Center Ship, I am eager to try rendering models using newer versions of software to see what these changes might mean for our data. However, what would happen if I could no longer open the software used to access the data?

The power of photogrammetric techniques lies in their integration with traditional techniques, using them alongside measurements and drawings to record the archaeological data. While it’s a helpful tool, we still need to future-proof our data. From the 3D models, we can still produce standard drawings and take measurements. By supplementing recordings in the field and tape measurements, this redundancy can help catch errors in recording while producing a complete visual record of the object.

While moving forward with new technologies and digital recording procedures, are we at risk of advancing too quickly? Is there a risk that we will no longer have the computer programs or software to open these files and thus render our documentation obsolete? Or, is this a way of ‘future-proofing’ our data?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Archaeologists at AKRF, INC., Diane Dallal, Michael Pappalardo, Elizabeth Meade, and Molly McDonald, managed the excavation of the site for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). The principle investigation of the ship was led by Warren Riess (University of Maine) and Carrie Fulton (Cornell University). Drawings were made by Kathleen Galligan. Drew Fulton (Drew Fulton Photography) photographed onsite panoramas and the timbers for photogrammetry. Timbers were initially stored at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and are now held in the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University. The LMDC and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey provided funding for this project.

Check out the other #TechWeek Posts:

Tech Week: Photography in Archaeology by Jonathan Libbon
Going Interactive Underwater by Drew Fulton
Preservation Photography: Roles and Rules by Karen Price

SHA 2015 Seattle Preliminary Program Part 2: Roundtable Luncheons and Public Archaeology Session

A continuation of the events at the 2015 SHA conference in Seattle:

ROUNDTABLE LUNCHEONS

The roundtable luncheons are scheduled from 12:00 noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Sheraton Hotel on Thursday and Friday. A minimum of six participants per table applies to all roundtables. Maximum of 10 participants for each roundtable. All roundtable luncheons will cost $30.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

RL-1 Jobs in Nautical Archaeology

Leader: Paul Johnston (Smithsonian Institution)

What are the different job types and career tracks in nautical archaeology? This discussion will examine public archaeology (NOAA, National Park Service, MMS, Parks Canada, state programs, etc.), private-sector cultural resource management (contract archaeology, consulting), private foundations, academic positions and museum work (public and private), and treasure hunting. We’ll talk about the advantages and disadvantages of these various enterprises, as well as prospects in these fields.

RL-2 Public Archaeology in the Pacific Northwest

Leader: Doug Wilson (Northwest Cultural Resources Institute and Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site)

Participants will discuss public archaeology programs in the Pacific Northwest, including the use of field schools, public engagement events, and archaeology month programs. Participants will explore ways of engaging the public and descendant communities and means to evaluate programs for effectiveness.

RL-3 The Archaeology of World War II

Leaders: Stacey Camp (University of Idaho) and Jodi Barnes (University of Arkansas, Arkansas Archeological Survey)

This session will explore the historical archaeology of World War II. Potential discussion topics will include artifact identification, methodological challenges, useful theoretical models for interpreting World War II archaeological sites, and artifact patterning across different types of sites.

RL-4 Numismatic Archaeology  

Leader: James C. Bard (Cardno ENTRIX)

The intent of the luncheon is to bring together professionals interested in the recovery and interpretation of coins and tokens from archaeological sites. The roundtable hopes to promote greater understanding of the interpretive potential of coins and tokens, as there is more to these artifacts than simple description and dating. The luncheon is an opportunity to explore the many interpretive possibilities of coins and to connect with others who are working with this common, yet under analyzed, class of material culture.

Friday, January 9, 2015

RL-5 How to Get Published in Historical Archaeology

Leader: Meredith Morris-Babb (University Press of Florida)

This roundtable luncheon will offer some practical advice to prospective authors on navigating the publication process from submission to publication. The format is flexible and participants should feel free to come with questions or concerns. Possible topics can include the peer review process, publication ethics, marketing and social media, and the logistics of digital publishing.

RL-6 Exploring Chinese Healthcare Practices through an Archaeological Lens

Leader: Sarah Heffner (PAR Environmental Services)

Small, aqua Chinese medicine vials are ubiquitous on Asian American archaeological sites and are frequently viewed as the most representative type of material culture associated with Chinese medicinal practices. Interpretation of these vials in the archaeological literature is often limited, and they receive little mention other than as entries in an artifact catalog as “Chinese medicine bottle,” or “Chinese medicine vial.” In reality, Chinese medical practitioners utilized a wide range of medical devices and ingredients (plant, animal, mineral) for both internal and external applications. Only fairly recently have historical archaeologists begun to include discussions of other forms of material culture and faunal/floral remains that may.

RL-7 Tips for Finding a Job in Archaeology

Leader: William A. White, III (University of Arizona)

What do you need to do to land your dream job in archaeology? That is a question most archaeologists spend their entire careers answering. From the entry-level archaeological technician to the most venerated professor, we all need to learn how to find and successfully land a job in our chosen career field. In this luncheon, we will discuss the three most important things you need in order to land an archaeology job: deciphering job postings, writing a killer resume and cover letter, and building your professional network. Attendees should bring a copy of their resume and an example of a job posting for a position that they would like to have. Be prepared to build a strategy for career success.

RL-8 Historical Archaeology and CRM in the Pacific Northwest: Challenges and Opportunities

Leader: Lorelea Hudson (SWCA Environment Consultants) and Robert Weaver (Environmental History Co.)

Historical archaeologists working in the Pacific Northwest face challenges that are somewhat unique to the region. We have few people working in CRM who were directly trained in an academic historical program. In addition, politicians and bureaucrats focus almost exclusively on prehistory as archaeology. Even among practicing professionals, there is a bias against historical sites, in part due to the fact that our sites are “too recent”-mostly from the 1850s onward. Compliance review processes are inconsistent, and the laws are antiquated. The intent of this luncheon is to bring together professionals working in CRM from various parts of the country to discuss how we might begin to address some of these problems and work towards raising consciousness and improving standards for historic sites in the Northwest Plenary Session.

 

PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY SESSION

The Public Archaeology Session will be held on Saturday, January 10, 2015 at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, in conjunction with its annual Public Archaeology Day.

Archaeology Day is a family-friendly event featuring Northwest archaeologists, educational displays, and activities geared toward a general audience.  The Burke has produced this event annually for over 12 years and it regularly draws more than 600 visitors to the museum. SHA- registered guests are admitted free to the Burke Museum, with their conference credentials, anytime during the week of the conference. This event will open at 10:00 a.m. and conclude at 4:00 p.m.

Bus service will be provided between the Sheraton Seattle and the Burke Museum. A bus will depart the Seattle Sheraton on the hour between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. for the Burke and will depart the Burke Museum on the half hour between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for return to the Sheraton.