April 30, 2015 | by Clara Turnage
Courtesy of The Daily Mississippian
Beneath a mass of lights and equipment sits a small, round jewelry box painted around 460 B.C. The paint is chipped and faded, but it was never meant to last. This object, a pyxis, was painted white — a color reserved for tombs because of its rapid decay— making the box both a symbol of life and a gift to the dead.
Collected in 1930 by David Robinson as a part of his Greek and Roman antiquities collection, the Baltimore pyxis is internationally recognized as the single existing depiction of an Amazon warrior using a lasso.
“The Baltimore pyxis is remarkable not only because it has great artistic beauty to which the photographs do scant justice, but because of the unique and important scene painted on the cover,” Robinson said in the 1930 edition of the American Journal of Archaeology in his article “The Lasso on a Pyxis in the Style of the Penthesilea Painter.”
The photos Robinson described could not restore the beauty the pyxis once had, nor the process by which it was made and painted. The ephemerality the Greek painters intended was achieved even 2,400 years later – until now.
What is invisible to the naked eye is visible to the multispectral imager. For the first time since it was laid in the grave, the image is being revealed.
The Baltimore Pyxis is just one of many objects being photographed under the umbrella non-profit, the Lazarus Project.
“The Lazarus Project images cultural heritage treasures and involves students in the imaging to give them the experience that is invaluable for people who might be considering this field or for people who just can appreciate what is done,” said Ken Boydston, president of Megavision and the man behind the camera.
The Lazarus Project began working last week with the pyxis in the Robinson Collection at the University of Mississippi Museum and put in nearly 50 hours of labor, special project manager at the museum, Melanie Munns said. The lens used to image the objects is one of only four in the world and the equipment that surrounds it was custom-made by program director Gregory Heyworth, associate professor of English, and Boydston, Munns said.
The purpose of such imaging is to reveal what time and misuse have degraded, according to Boydston.
“Among the things that are important are what people wrote a while ago,” Boydston said. “There are many things in the world that have been written that are no longer legible. We know the writings are there but we’d dearly like to read them.”
Before Boydston became involved in the Lazarus Project in 2012, he imaged items such as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Dead Sea Scrolls. When he met Gregory Heyworth, however, he agreed to begin assisting with the project.
The Lazarus Project holds a strong emphasis on student involvement.
“The pictures that are coming out this week are better than they’ve ever been,” said Hilary Becker, assistant professor of classics and archeology. “(The pyxis) is one of the objects that is most frequently studied in our collection. If you’re writing on Amazons anywhere in the world, this is one of the objects that you can study. Now we’re all going to be able to see it with greater clarity than ever before since the moment it was created.”
Though Robinson believes photos cannot do the piece justice, Becker said she believes these images almost certainly will.
Becker uses some of the pieces in the Robinson collection in her many classes. One lower-level Latin class observed coins in the collection and wrote profiles for each. Becker said this hands-on experience brought a reality to the project that theoretical discussion could not.
“These are coins that have never been studied before, and now each of the students will have their profile of the coin on the museum website,” Becker said. “They’re getting to use these artifacts, and they’re getting to use their Latin in a practical application. That’s what a university museum ideally should be about. It’s just a question of figuring out how to bring these things into the classroom, how to make it relevant, how to make it exciting.”
One of the students in this class, Coulter Ward, cataloged a coin somewhat more difficult than the rest. His coin, from the Constantinian era, around 300 A.D., had an illegible mintmark. Becker recommended the coin be examined in this installation of the Lazarus Project.
“Having your hands on things, getting to see things that actually exists – it really helps you appreciate that this was a material culture and it did exist,” Ward said. “I think that’s something important to remember.”
After working with the single coin, Becker said Ward adopted almost the entire Constantinian collection to profile. When the small, gold coin was returned to its case, a plaque replaced it beneath the imager.
The golden plaque represents a treaty between two nations in around 200 B.C. Philip V, king of Macedon, was well on his way to controlling the Black Sea when he made a treaty with the Lysimachians.
“Even though this plaque is really small, its significance is quite large,” said Brad Cook, assistant professor of classics who took great interest in the plaque.
Though the plaque dates back to the first or second century, it is easily read. Its legibility, Cook said, was not the object of its imaging – to understand the creation of the piece is just as important as what it says.
Becker said this was the first time that the Lazarus Project has reached across so many lines of interest and had applied the technique to three-dimensional objects.
“It’s a very interdisciplinary project where he’s reaching out to different departments,” Becker said. “Students and scholars can see these objects for the first time in a high resolution, quality image. So, people who don’t live in Oxford can notice these objects and realize that this is yet another thing the university should be noticed for.”
The Lazarus Project was created with the intentions of involving students in up-to-date technological opportunities and extending the knowledge of relics both available at the university and elsewhere.
“We’re using different modern techniques not available 30 years ago, not available 10 years ago, to find out more about these objects. We’ve got to bring these things out and help people make new connections to the past,” Becker said. “I think having objects languishing in the shelves not being studied – that’s a waste. We’ve got to bring these things out and help people make new connections to the past.”