Making the Invisible Visible

Katie Cook

Archaeological objects can be fascinating and beautiful artworks all on their own. Think of the Venus de Milo or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, renowned for their beauty despite the fact that both are incomplete. The really important bits of archaeology, however, are the small everyday objects that inform us about the lives of people: the pottery, the remnants of meals, the waste from the production of various crafts. These objects are valuable when they have context, that is information about precisely where they came from within the geography and time line of a site.

Recently, I was working on an archaeological ceramic, a large body sherd from a storage jar found at Tell Jemmeh in Palestine (EXXXVI.49/75), which had lost its context. Without context, this piece of pottery had lost its ability to inform archaeologists about production, decoration, vessel shape and origins of the object within its site, as it could have come from any place within it and any time period.

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The whole (section) of the storage jar EXXXVI.49/75, pre-treatment

While cleaning, though, I noticed traces of blue writing, which is readily observable on many other Petrie objects which were marked in the field with their context information. Doesn’t look like much to start with, though, does it?

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Having the context information would be very helpful, though! So I undertook a series of imaging tests in order to try and make the faint traces visible enough to read. My first attempt was to examine the object under ultraviolet (UV) light. If it fluoresced, that would make it much more apparent. Unfortunately, it didn’t. While the traces did darken under infrared (IR) light, that wasn’t enough to make it readable, either.

My next attempt was to delve into photoshopping high quality images to manipulate the writing into visibility. And that worked! To one extent or another. I came up with a few final images using a variety of techniques:

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Stuart Laidlaw, one of the photographers at the IoA, kindly tried his hand at bringing the writing up as well, and had a bit more success in keeping the colour visible than I did:

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Luckily, though faint, it is just enough to make out what looks like HK 180, a context number that Rachael Sparks, the Keeper of Collections at UCL for the Petrie Palestinian Collection, was able to confirm as a viable context number for the site of Tell Jemmeh. It looks like the pot has a context after all, which makes it a far more valuable research tool!

All images are provided courtesy of the UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections (https://www.ucl.ac.uk./museums/archaeology).

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