More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript | Bill Endres, University of Kentucky

Whilst doing some basic housekeeping of files and blog posts today I stumbled across the notes I took attending the Digital Humanities Congress in Sheffield last September, which I’d like to post here today.  

I recall finding it awkward having to leave rooms, often whilst the lecture was still in progress, to get myself to the next session, but once I’d gotten over the problems of navigating around each lecture room I managed to attend Professor Bill Endres’ wonderful talk on the use of 3D imaging when dealing with manuscripts, in particular the St Chad Gospels (an 8th century illuminated manuscript and one of the oldest and most important illuminated manuscripts in England). It also has a wonderful link to Wales, in that at some point during its history the Gospel found itself in the hands of a Welshman named Gelhi – who had traded his best horse for it! – and in fact in its margins contains the earliest examples of written Old Welsh. 

Professor Endres was interested particularly in “the ways that uses of visuals affect our epistemologies” – the relationship between what we see, and what we know. In his talk at Sheffield he suggested that the justification for the use of 3D imaging was to to return the manuscript to its original state, and thus enhance our knowledge of the item and to generate new information about it. He described how our vision is construction from a combination of 2D and 3D, and that if we see an upper portion of text our mind fills in the bottom. We fill in the gaps ourselves. Therefore, posited Professor Endres, would using 3D change our ways of seeing? Would we then create knowledge in slightly different ways?

3D, he said, was not simply there to assist in our understanding of the 2D image. It allows us, for example, to create infrared images as well as a normal image, which helps in showing bleed throughs on manuscript pages. Once the 3D is there different textures can be applied (by stacking multi-spectral bands), and thus the 3D image can show every lump and bump in the page – creating a dynamic experience for the user without the user having to access the original document. 

Professor Endres then went on to discuss the nuts and bolts of the project generally – that it began in 2010, and that the 3D required a lot of plug-ins and applications. They began the project using Web GL but the timescale “wasn’t working”, and so he attempted to use Adobe for 3D which, he said, “worked quite well”. 

They took 22 images of a page, quickly, and once they had the files they could use Adobe, “but it only work[ed] on a PC”, so that was obviously a limitation. However, the benefits of using 3D were multiple: the ability to measure defects on the manuscript page, for example, like areas of flaking paint. 

Professor Endres said that from a preservation perspective, the work in 3D was “valuable…but from a scholarly perspective, who knows?”

During the Q&A session afterwards, Endres addressed the potential pitfalls of using 3D imaging. The images “still have a computer generated look”. They had been forced to use a flat frame to get rid of shadowing on the page, “and because a manuscript is so dynamic and that’s lost somewhat in the image”. Melissa Terras, who was also in attendance, brought up the issues of truth and representation: the importance of maintaining a “digital truth on a pixel basis”, so that the user can go back to the original if necessary, but also navigating the basic fear a user might have of trusting what the computer image is telling you is correct.

I’m very interested, from my own research perspective, in how we can communicate the intellectual content of a manuscript, and how we can do so in a way which engages, and certainly the use of 3D imaging appears to be one method of doing that. But what of these issues of truth, and the practical problems of the user not being quite able to escape from the computer generated shine of a 3D image? Whilst some of these issues are technical and will no doubt be solved over time, the other is not so easy to shake off: whilst an enthusiastic amateur might be content to access a 3D image of a manuscript, would a scholar be happy to take what the 3D image is telling them at face value, and base their research upon it? This distrust is something which is not so easily solvable. 

The link to the Lichfield University’s web page for the St Chad Gospels can be found here

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2 thoughts on “More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript | Bill Endres, University of Kentucky

  1. I want to thank you for coming to my session, your thoughtful post, and thinking about these issues related to 3D, manuscript study and beyond.

    Since the Digital Humanities Congress, I have been able to bring online sixteen 3D renderings of the St Chad Gospels ( http://lichfield.as.uky.edu ). I’ve included a measurement tool, the ability to annotate any feature and save it to the server, and generate a URL that contains the exact position of the page that you have manipulated an image into, to send a colleague or for citation. My favorite rotation function is holding down the Alt key and left clicking the mouse, causing the placement of the cursor to become the point around which the image rotates.

    I hope you will visit the 3D Gallery and let know what you think.

    Best,
    Bill

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