RIT Photography Professor Documents Ancient European Civilization

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Time travel remains nothing more than a fantasy for most of us. But a faculty member from Rochester Institute of Technology spent much of this past summer immersed in a civilization dating back 1,800 years and more.

Steve Diehl, associate professor of imaging and photographic technology in RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, played a vital role in documenting excavations at three historical sites in Albania, along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.

At the invitation of the Institute of World Archaeology, Diehl provided an important visual record of the sites, which included a Roman amphitheater, two Byzantine chapels and an early Christian basilica. He also photographed excavations at the ancient city of Butrint, a United Nations World Heritage Site-designated as an area for preservation and conservation. That location was last occupied in the 13th century and is now a hotbed for archaeological activity.

"They hadn’t had a professional photographer at these sites in a number of years," explains Diehl. "Many of the artifacts are deteriorating and required immediate documentation, so my job was to shoot anything and everything."

Diehl says his knowledge and expertise in both film and digital imaging were key to landing these assignments. As a result of digital enhancement techniques he created, art historians were able to view faint traces of pigments from Byzantine frescoes that would otherwise remain invisible to the naked eye.

Perhaps the most notable of Diehl’s images came with the discovery of something quite unexpected. While in Butrint, archaeologists unearthed an ivory chess piece. Experts had previously thought the game of chess hadn’t arrived in Europe until the 10th or 11th century.

"Our find indicates that chess was already being played in the central Mediterranean over five centuries earlier," says John Mitchell, one of the archaeologists who made the discovery.

For Diehl, it was simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time. "I happened to be on site, so we were able to have a digital image available within 24 hours. It was a major find, and it created a huge amount of publicity for everyone involved."

In total, Diehl spent three weeks in Albania participating in the excavations. His efforts often resulted in 18-hour workdays, leading him to describe the experience as "wonderfully insane."

To interview Steve Diehl about his photographic project in Albania, contact Paul Stella, RIT University News Services, at (585) 475-4950 or pbscom@rit.edu.