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Researching Roman Treasure

Researching Roman Treasure

Main image courtesy Alex W. Barker, director, University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology

Why are University of Arkansas researchers studying ancient Roman ceramics at the University of Missouri?

The answer involves one of the most important museums in Rome, a power company, a research reactor, and Rachel Opitz, a research associate at the University of Arkansas’ Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies who specializes in high-resolution 3-D imaging.

Hidden Treasure of Rome, a collaboration of the Capitoline Museum and the University of Missouri, is providing information about 2,000- to 2,400-year-old artifacts in the Capitoline’s collection.

Ancient Roman ceramics in the Hidden Treasure of Rome project. | Rachel Opitz, CAST

Some examples of ancient Roman ceramics being studied in the Hidden Treasure of Rome project. | Rachel Opitz, CAST

These objects, stored in the museum for more than a century, are from unknown locations. Crucial to the project is neutron activation analysis, a technique that provides information on the clay material used to make the ceramic vessels. The Missouri University Research Reactor is a world leader in this method as applied in archaeology, so it was essential to transport the ceramics to the university’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.

ENEL Green Power, the U.S. branch of an Italian company, ENEL Power, provided the funding for the packing, shipping and insurance of the valuable materials. When the ceramics arrived in Missouri last year, Marcello Mogetta, assistant professor in Roman Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri, and Laura Banducci, assistant professor in Greek and Roman Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa wanted to take their study further, adding research on the how the ceramics were used to the study of their production.

They reached out to Opitz at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) and visiting associate professor of anthropology at the U of A. Mogetta, Banducci and Opitz – an expert in 3-D capture for archaeology – assembled a team of researchers from the U of A and University of Bourgogne-Franche-Comte (UBFC) to expand the Hidden Treasure of Rome project.

They created a spin-off project: Capturing the Lifecycle of Roman Pottery. The team is using high-resolution structured-light scanning technology to produce 3-D images of the black gloss vessels, dating to 400-100 B.C. Scanning the vessels allows researchers to see details of traces of wear that are often invisible to the naked eye, Opitz said.

“The production of a bowl or plate is interesting, but how it is used day to day, how it is lifted, washed, cooked in, chipped, and eventually thrown out is just as important,” Opitz said. “To study the use of the ceramics, we needed a detailed study of all the tiny scratches and abrasions on the surface of the ceramics.”

Kyle Urquhart

U of A graduate student Kyle Urquhart with scans of an artifact on his computer screen. | Rachel Opitz, CAST

Kyle Urquhart, a doctoral student of anthropology at the U of A, and Damien Vurpillot and Valerie Taillandier, doctoral students at the UBFC, are scanning the vessels to detect and study the subtle traces of wear that can provide clues to their past use. Urquhart is using CAST’s Breuckmann scanner, which uses projected patterns of white light captured by calibrated cameras to create 3-D representations of an object, while the French team is working with a set of blue-light ATOS GOM scanners.

“We can virtually strip off the color, mostly shiny black in this case, from the surface of the vessels, manipulate the light in the digital scene, and enhance the visualization of the model, all to get a better look at the traces,” Opitz said. “We don’t know if a scratch or abrasion we see is due to the use of the object and not something later – a scratch incurred while it was being excavated – but we’re looking for consistent patterns: similar types of wear on similar parts of the vessel seen across multiple vessels. We need to be able to take precise measurements to characterize the wear and its location on each vessel. The depth of the wear matters.”

Urquhart operates the Brueckmann scanner. | Rachel Opitz, CAST

Urquhart operates the Breuckmann scanner. | Rachel Opitz, CAST

There’s a second important reason for scanning these objects: accessibility to the public.

“Like many museums, the Capitoline’s collection includes more objects than they could possibly display at one time,” she said. “These particular vessels are usually in storage and not available to the public or to researchers. By digitally scanning them in 3-D we can make them available to a wide audience through a web portal – work we hope to undertake in a later stage of this project.”

The team hopes to bring this collection of little known but fascinating materials from the Capitoline’s collection to broader public attention.

“I often think about how old the objects are, where they’re from, who else has touched them,” Opitz said. “We’re looking for slight abrasions and patterns of wear that might tell us how and how often these vessels were used. The human connection is part of what makes this study so exciting, because we’re seeing the result of how someone in the past scraped a spoon around the bottom of the bowl.”

About The Author

Chris Branam writes about research and economic development at the University of Arkansas. His beats include the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History.

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