UK receives $ 14million NSF grant to launch world-class cultural heritage lab

Kentucky’s history begins in prehistoric times, when mammoths roamed the Ohio River Valley at Big Bone Lick.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (UK Public Relations) This is the signature on a bourbon barrel – these are the ancient footprints of Mammoth Cave.

Heritage science is all around us and has deep roots in the Commonwealth.

Kentucky’s history begins in prehistoric times, when mammoths roamed the Ohio River Valley at Big Bone Lick.

Now, thanks to a $ 14 million infrastructure grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Kentucky is about to tell this story in a new and revolutionary way through the prism of heritage science (Click here to see more).

“We are at a crossroads”, Brent Seales, professor in the United Kingdom Computer Science department, noted. “Science and technology offer a host of exciting opportunities for the heritage sector. They should not be wasted.

For over 20 years, Seales has strived to create and use high-tech, non-invasive tools to rescue hidden texts and return them to humanity. Dubbed “the man who can read the illegible,” he gained international recognition for his work of “virtual unpacking” to read damaged ancient artifacts – such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Herculaneum papyrus scrolls. – without ever opening them physically.

Now Seales is expanding his research.

With infrastructure funding from the NSF, he assembled a team of experts from the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences to build EduceLab – the UK’s vision for next-generation heritage science. The collaborative installation will focus on the development of innovative artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for the unique challenges presented by cultural heritage objects.

Heritage science draws on engineering, humanities, and the sciences to improve understanding of our past, inform the present, and guide our future. Ultimately, the goal is to enrich people’s lives and celebrate both the commonality and the diversity of human experience.

“The word educate means ‘to bring out data’ or ‘to develop something that is latent but not in itself explicit.’ This is what we did with our virtual unboxing job. And this context created an opportunity to expand on the very focused question of “can we read what is inside a parchment?” To a larger question of “what heritage science questions can we answer right here in Kentucky,” Seales explained. “My goal is to rally some of the best researchers here around this theme and build a world-class lab that allows us to ask and then answer some of these questions. “

And the search for answers has already begun.

“Here in the UK, we are extremely well positioned to provide collaborations, as we have all the major colleges on an adjoining campus,” Hugo Reyes-Centeno, assistant professor at Department of Anthropology, added. “I see enormous potential to integrate quantitative analysis and new methodologies that will inform the theoretical perspectives that characterize the social sciences. “

Multi-million dollar renovation to improve the William S. Webb Museum

EduceLab will operate as a user facility for the heritage community and will be based in the UK William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, located on Export Street in Lexington, adjacent to the main campus.

Founded in 1931, the museum remains dedicated to improving knowledge and preserving the nation’s cultural heritage.

The Webb Museum houses a world-renowned archaeological collection of over 250 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places – including sites from the time of the Amerindians, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

The collections provide a link to the roots of the Commonwealth and its people. Additionally, the huge research archive provides educational services, hands-on training, and research opportunities for the campus community and beyond, making it the perfect location for EduceLab.

“In Kentucky, it’s probably a well-kept secret that we have some of the best collections that relate to this issue of early agricultural populations in eastern North America. First and foremost a research center, the Webb Museum is not your classic brick and mortar exhibit. We hold the Kentucky State collections for research purposes, ”Crothers said. “It’s going to have a significant impact on what we do in the museum and in archeology in general, because it gives us access to the most sophisticated and top-of-the-line equipment, which we didn’t have before. ”

EduceLab has four parts: FLEX, BENCH, MOBILE and CYBER.


Modern technology is essential for understanding how relics from our past were made.

BENCH will strive to acquire the necessary instruments to conduct cutting-edge materials science, which will help establish a complete workflow.

“My role is to bring the perspective of material characterization. As a materials engineer, I watch what materials are made of. It helps us understand how a specimen was made in the first place and the technology that was used to create it. And I apply this to metals and alloys or ceramics that are used in industry, but we can also apply it to cultural heritage artefacts ”, John Balk, Professor William T. Bryan of Materials engineering and associate dean for research and graduate studies in British engineering, said. “It’s definitely a new application space for me, but we can apply these scientific techniques and really learn more about the material – the artefact – and place it in the right context of cultural heritage.”


In 2016, the Seales team developed the Volume Cartographer, a revolutionary computer program for locating and mapping 2D surfaces in a 3D object. The software pipeline is used with the micro-CT to generate very high resolution images, making it possible to read a document without ever needing to physically open it. En Gedi’s charred scroll was the first full text to be revealed using the software.

While the one-of-a-kind software has made a deep impact on history and literature, not all damaged artifacts are created equal.

Seales and his team often struggled with misfitting equipment with odd shapes and sizes – so they decided to build their own.

“With the FLEX cluster, we will have a prototype environment where we can imagine, create and test custom instrument configurations built around the heritage object under study,” Seales said. “It’s really a new approach that you don’t see anywhere else at an intermediate level. “


It’s one thing to bring an object into the lab. It is another to go to the object on the ground.

By setting up in the parking lot of a museum or collecting data on an archaeological site, the MOBILE team will take EduceLab on the road.

Suzanne Smith, along with faculty members Sean Bailey and Mike Sama, will deploy the use of unmanned aerial systems for field campaigns. “And in this field campaign, we are doing all kinds of aerial measurements over a larger area,” said Smith, director of UK Unmanned Systems Research Consortium, Explain. “It uses different types of sensors that can give different perspectives on the shapes being measured, and we can even see through some of the materials, giving us the historical context of this whole region. It’s just such a bigger scale of where this story happened.

In addition, the MOBILE team will use external screens for community participation. “They can actually see this information coming in,” Smith said. “There are going to be some exciting discoveries happening right now, and the audience can be there. “


While MOBILE oversees the data collection, CYBER will be responsible for generating and sharing the data.

As a link between MOBILE and CYBER, this is where Corey Baker’s expertise in wireless communications comes in. CYBER will be essential in helping to advance drone fleets.

“There are a lot of devices used in the unmanned vehicle component. They will retrieve data and transfer data. But often they may not have Internet connectivity, ”said Baker, assistant professor of computer science. “My research focuses on the question, when the Internet is limited or nonexistent, how do you build applications and systems to disseminate information?

Additionally, Baker believes the technology should be a catalyst not just for researchers, but for the community as a whole. “These types of projects aren’t just designed to produce something that looks fancy. But it’s designed to make a difference.

Students remain the key to unlocking the sealed secrets

Over the years, this team of British professors have been committed to developing the talents of students. By engaging in hands-on research, they are able to determine an area of ​​interest and launch their careers.

“I never imagined that I would go into academia to pursue some of the issues that have always interested me. But if it weren’t for this undergraduate research experience that ultimately led me to Europe and to discover this area of ​​heritage science, I probably wouldn’t be here now, ”Reyes-Centeno said. “The undergraduate research component is definitely something that we will continue to develop for our students. Our students must have these opportunities.

The promise to move forward

Seales is considered the foremost expert in the digital restoration of cultural antiquities. To this day, his quest to uncover ancient wisdom is constantly evolving.

Overcoming the damage over time is no small challenge. But Seales and his dedicated team are determined to conquer the impossible.

“We are at a time when our cultural heritage is the key to understanding and embracing our diversity,” he said. “Focusing on the science of heritage can be key to discovering, in a positive way, how this heritage can help us understand each other, collaborate and shape our future. We plan to continue showing the world what can be done, right here in the UK. ”

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