Imaging and Marking Up the Papyri
The papyrus imaging project began in October 1997.
If you would like us to move a particular papyrus to the front of the queue, READ THIS.
We use a stand-mounted digital camera to capture images of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
The camera setup consists of a high-quality studio camera body with Phase One
imaging gear fitted to the back, taking the place of the film holder. The Phase
One gear is run via software on the Mac G4 we also use for web design.
lighting setup for the images taken so far has consisted of fluorescent tube
units mounted on adjustable rails above and to the sides of the stand base.
The papyri housed in the Ashmolean are kept sandwiched between sheets of
glass, secured together with masking tape, and we do not tamper with this
protection during photography. This glass can lead to a number of problems:
The best compromise we have been able to come up with is this: the glass frame
is placed on a lightbox offering muted backlighting:
this shows up holes and edges sharply, minimises shadow effects, and can help
distinguish between ink traces and material flaws in the papyrus. The proposed
new lighting rig should help cut shadows further.
- Glare -
light reflects off the glass: this sets limits on how we can light the
- Shadows -
the papyrus is several millimeters above the base of the camera stand:
the shadows it casts on the base can be highly distracting.
- Focus -
the glass varies in thickness, the frames more so (depending on how many
thicknesses of masking tape hold them together), so the camera focus must
be frequently adjusted.
- Dirt -
papyrologists have grubby fingers. We often have to scrub the glass before
we can acquire an acceptable image. Some of the glass was formerly part
of Revel Coless greenhouse.
we trying to achieve?
This project is in many ways inspired by the striking success of American APIS imaging
projects. APIS participants have committed themselves to a closely reasoned and
interconnecting set of goals:
Acquiring high-quality images is the first priority and a time-consuming
process. Securely archived TIFF images future-proof the actual collection
(fingers crossed it wont go up in smoke, but it could).
Made available to individual scholars, they reduce wear on fragile originals.
high-quality digital images for archiving
useful images over the Internet
every image with the data users need, in searchable form: eg
databases, searchable by CGI engines
images take all day to download: the files we are archiving routinely hit
around 90 mB. A single image is bigger than the entire hard drive on some
older machines still in use! And the highest resolutions (thousands of dpi)
are better than we need even for archiving. This makes them overkill for
most useful purposes even for quite detailed consultation. So were
following the APIS sites in archiving sharp 600dpi TIFF images, and putting
lower resolutions images online in JPEG format. 600dpi refers to an actual
inch of papyus, as measured with a scale.
alone are pretty useless: pretty, because papyrus is a beautiful medium,
but useless, because an isolated image tells us nothing. It lacks interpretative
context. So we have to work on ways of associating images with data,
and making the data accessible in ways that are useful to working papyrologists.
We are fortunate that the papyri we are working with have all been published
in a form that is readily available to serious researchers. Nonetheless,
we have to meet the online user halfway in finding a path through this mass
of data to a particular item.
we trying to show?
The issues leading to our worries about backlighting in
archive images raise the question: what is it we are trying to show? That is
to say: what information do we prioritise? Conversely, what information would
we happily lose, or even discard as noise? Questions of this sort
can arise at a number of stages:
A picture is worth a thousand words; but that is also to say that every picture
tells a particular story. Each image is arguably an interpretation of
the original artifact, which contains any number of stories. These
we pick a particular exposure time or f-stop (affecting depth of field)
we image a papyrus (and tell the camera what its parameters will be)
we resize or crop or (for online provision) filter that image
we choose a resolution for delivery
we choose a graphics file format (different formats produce very different
The setup(s) we choose are determined by the kind of reading of the
original we are aiming to produce. In general, academics look at papyri for texts,
meaning its the ink traces that really count: the colour of the material,
for instance, is regarded as less important. So Duke, for instance, routinely
(and quite sensibly) run their images through Photoshops Unsharp
Mask filter, increasing the contrast to bring out the ink. We have
done the same for our Web images. But colour can be important in deciding which
fragments might belong together. So too can alignment of the fibres, worm holes,
wear and tear. Any choice of what information to prioritise at all costs is going
to be a compromise.
- ink traces
structure (often very important in placing fragments)
texture and general condition of papyrus
qualities of papyrus
qualities of papyrus
- the traces
of the materials passage through time:
mummy cartonnage, for one
of damage (natural history of papyrovore invertebrates?)
of accretion (taxonomy of Egyptian dirt?)
user has every right to know what choices weve made (or at least be
given the information to make an educated guess). So we include scales in
our images. This is particularly important for archiving purposes, but is
pretty handy in a wider context: just how big is that papyrus? More specialised
users may wish to know: how concerned have we been to reproduce colour balance
accurately? (How close to natural is our lighting rig?) Have
we even focused the camera? Colour and grey scales act as a control on our
images. In general, only a centimeter/inch rule is left in the cropped, resized
images we put online at 150dpi, but the archived versions contain all the
information for future reference.
One unit, by PowerPhase
One proprietary software
||Power Macintosh G4
Colour Control Patches, Kodak Gray Scale
By markup I mean the association with an image of relevant sets of
information. This information must address some or all of these requirements:
There are also more specialised sorts of information that papyrologists need
for serious work on an image. In the case of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, this information
is already in the public domain with the published volumes. These contain exhaustive
information on all the papyri appearing on this site (and many, many more). But
it would be handy to be able to search subsets
of this information. The sample volume weve put online just has papyrus
numbers, and the headings they were given at original publication in the tables
of contents: thus far, a stark minimum.
the papyrus must be uniquely identifiable
the markup can convey information that is not obvious from the image
alone (eg traces hidden by folds)
the markup might contain (eg) a translation of the papyrus text
people working with papyri need to ask or answer a number of basic questions.
Of course, it doesnt stop there. Papyrologists wanting to check a reading
will want to know where the papyrus physically is: not all of them end up with
the main body of a particular collection. Lots of the early Oxyrhynchus Papyri
were distributed by a cartel, and have ended up at literally hundreds of separate
institutions: see the Location-Lists on
this site for the bewildering details. (Regrettably, not every papyrus that gets
found has stayed found.) And papyrologists could also do with knowing whether
plates of the papyrus have been published; or articles written about it; or whether
their alternative reading has in fact already been proposed elsewhere. (Theres
no sense in reinventing the wheel.)
the text is: a specific kind of document? part of a known literary
the papyrus can be located within the collection that contains
it (essential for referring to it in scholarly literature, or to check
readings): what is its index number?
it is physically like: width, height, how many bits its
in. You can often guess at the physical condition even without
an image: square brackets [ ] indicate a lacuna in the text, which
tends to mean a hole or rip in the papyrus.
it was produced: the editors best guess on dating,
based on comparison against a range of dateable handwriting
samples. A good stylistic match can give a pretty reliable
rough dating along the lines of early second century
AD. If the text is a document, it may well contain
a precise date.
little I could say about APIS that its originators havent said better
and more boldly elsewhere.
POxys links page
offers some further pointers. Its big, its clever, its
expertly organised and grandiose in scope. APIS is the inspiration for a
lot of what were about here. Collectively,
the APIS sites represent a great deal of work and frightening levels of expertise.