Project update: meshes complete; common repository established

A brief project update. Now that we are starting to get our data in usable shape, we hope to report more regularly here about what we are doing.

Last week, Matteo, Marco, and their students at ISTI finished processing the main meshes of the cross, minus the textures. This means, in essence, that we have complete abstract models of the cross based on the millions of measurement points we captured during our time in Ruthwell (If you are interested in reading more about the process of 3D modelling, there is a decent series on 3D Computer Graphics in the Wikipedia that can serve as a starting point). These are representations of the pure form of the cross’s surface–there is no colour information, only the positioning of these points on the cross’s surface in relation to each other. I posted some screen shots from earlier drafts of this work in July.

The scanning process allows us to take sub-millimetre accurate measurements of height, width, and depth of all physical features. By connecting the dots, you can also in essence draw in the surface of the cross to do detailed research on it. The cloud of points all presented in relation to each other become a model of the cross itself.

I hope to write more about this in a little, but in my view, the result is a quantitatively revolutionary new way of conducting research on the cross. While a lot of what we are doing could have been done in the pre-digital era: people have scaffolded, measured, drawn, sketched, and 3D modelled the cross before (this last using plaster casts), but they have not been able to model to such a level of precision and, more importantly, combine this precision with the ability to view the cross from an essentially arbitrary number of positions. With our 3D models, for example, it is possible to expand an individual rune until it is several centimetres across on the screen, and then turn it around to allow you to look at it from every possible angle, including cross-section. While some of this could be done with the plaster cast, the plaster casts are not accurate to the submillimetre, and some views would destroy the cast. No other analogue method of capturing the cross allows this same arbitrary access to the data. In each case, your sample will necessarily exclude some potentially interesting angles. In other words, with this data we have a level of access and flexibility that, while not theoretically different from what was possible in the pre-digital age, was impossible to implement in practice. How this will change our research remains to be seen, but I find it hard to believe it won’t.

We are also in the process right now of getting a grip on our data management. The University of Lethbridge’s IT department set up a GIT server for us this past week. As I write this, I am adding the 70GB of raw data we captured in April to the repository. I will be putting it on the server later this evening. (A couple of weeks ago, we needed to name the server. In keeping with my local practice of naming public computers after figures from Bede, we decided to call the server coifi–the person I think is probably the biggest git in the Historia ecclesiastica, even if Bede would shocked at the idea).

Currently, the server can only be accessed on campus. The next step is to open it up to the project participants in order to begin the first humanities work with the cross. And after that to work out the best way of sharing the material with the community of Anglo-Saxonists as a whole. On initial idea we are working on is a classroom-focussed teaching site that will allow users to access models of the cross and basic background and information about it. Releasing a critical facsimile/edition is going to require additional work: our experience so far suggests that we need to develop some intellectual infrastructure for it first–for example, a system of citation that allow for referencing individual views and angles; and also more generally decisions about platforms and sustainability.

This coming week Dot, Wendy, and I will be meeting with Lyn Wilson of Historic Scotland to discuss the deposit of our raw material we are required to make. And the project team as a whole is meeting later in the week to discuss progress and protocols. We have also just set a date for a meeting on referencing systems (the kind of infrastructure we need for a critical publication) in Pisa at ISTI on November 26th.

I’m hoping we might be able to post more screenshots in the coming weeks. A major humanities project that we must get started on involves writing up our surface observations from our time in Ruthwell (including some pencil graffiti and other evidence of modern interaction with the cross) and beginning a process of reviewing the models to see what outstanding questions about individual readings and panels, particularly at the top of the cross, can be answered. One of the things we are discussing in our project meetings is the best way of publishing this material: as blogs, as notes (e.g. in a journal like Notes and Queries, or perhaps for the more technical ones, Digital Medievalist), or as a combination of blog postings and published notes.

As with so many other aspects of our work with this material, it is forcing us here too to look at traditional approaches to scholarship with a fresh eye.

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