Reading Once Unreadable Ancient Scrolls

This is groundbreaking news for science and most of all for future rewriting, reexamining, and changing historical “traditions” into historical facts and more compelling plausibilities. What is remarkably ironic is that this technology has been introduced by an American computer scientist named Brent Seales, who is also an evangelical Christian. I wonder if he fully realizes what he has ushered in?

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In the 1730’s Italian well-diggers hit and stumbled across an ancient Roman villa. Over the next three decades as commissioned by the King of France, two engineers headed up the excavations of the villa and its contents. They eventually uncovered over 1,800 papyri scrolls from 1st century CE Roman life prior to the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius just a few kilometers away. Like all the inhabitants of Herculaneum, items such as papyri scrolls were either vaporized or incinerated under the 300+ degree Celsius (≅ 600 Fahrenheit) heat blast. These scrolls managed to be only charred due to various storing techniques that the Villa’s owner (probably the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus) maintained for his large library. Nevertheless, for the next 250-years after their discovery scientists assumed their words would be impossible to ever read. They had attempted to carefully unravel some, but only turned them into fragments and dust; certainly more undecipherable.

Vesuvius-79 CE eruption

Fast forward to the computer age…

Later, while earning his doctorate, at the University of Wisconsin, [Seales] became fascinated with “computer vision,” and began writing algorithms to convert two-dimensional photographs into 3-D models—a technique that later enabled vehicles such as Mars rovers, for example, to navigate terrain on their own. Seales went to work at the University of Kentucky in 1991, and when a colleague took him along to the British Library to photograph fragile manuscripts, Seales, captivated by the idea of seeing the unseeable, found the challenge thrilling.

From there Seales continued improving upon the improvements of computed tomography (CT).

He began to experiment with a medical-grade computed tomography (or CT) scanner, which uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional image of an object’s internal structure. First, he tried imaging the paint on a modern rolled-up canvas. Then he scanned his first authentic object—a 15th-century bookbinding thought to contain a fragment of Ecclesiastes hidden inside. It worked.

…to read the full Smithsonian article click here

Fast forward thirteen more years. Once pulling out or highlighting the metal-laden letters within the scrolls, how does one go about unwrapping them on their proper page in correct order? Seales admitted that at the time that process was just simply beyond their algorithms.

What makes virtual unwrapping such a complex challenge is that, even if you imaged the inside of a rolled-up scroll written in ink that glowed brightly in scans, you would still only see a dizzying mess of tightly packed letters floating in space, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle—but without a final picture to use as a guide. To decipher that jumble of letters, Seales’ key innovation was to develop software to locate and model the surface layer within a wound-up scroll, which analyzes each point in as many as 12,000 cross-sections. Then he looks for density changes that correspond to the ink, and applies filters or other techniques to increase the contrast of the letters as much as possible. The final step is to figuratively “unroll” the image for reading.

multi-spectral imagingNow today with phase-contrast tomography in combination with X-ray phase-contrast tomography (for carbons), then mapping all the images the scrolls are virtually unfurled to read the full texts:

After Seales returned to Kentucky, he and his colleagues spent months mapping all of the available 2-D images onto the 3-D template produced by the Artec Space Spider. This past March, they returned to Oxford to present the results on a big screen to a packed conference room. At such a high-resolution, the charred papyrus resembled a dark-brown mountain range as seen from above, with lines of text snaking over the ridges and peaks. There was a gasp from the audience as Seales’ student Hannah Hatch rotated the image, then zoomed into creases and peeked over folds, flipping seamlessly between high-resolution photographs, infrared images and even the disegni drawings—all matched up to the 3-D template.

Now that this proven scientific method, via subatomic physics to be exact, for reading once unreadable brittle ancient scrolls has been established, it has unsurprisingly caused a frenzy in scholarly paleographical circles.

Successfully reading Herculaneum scrolls could trigger a new “renaissance of classical antiquity,” says Gregory Heyworth, a medievalist at the University of Rochester in New York. He points out that virtual unwrapping could be applied to countless other texts. In Western Europe alone, he estimates, there are tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from before A.D. 1500—from carbonized scrolls to book covers made from older, glued-together pages—that could benefit from such imaging.

“We’d change the canon,” Heyworth says. “I think the next generation is going to have a very different picture of antiquity.”

A very different picture of antiquity“? Hah! True, but an interesting way of putting it. I’d say not necessarily different, but more importantly accurate rather than on biased pseudo-traditions. This is why science works better for the benefit of humanity. It need not be feared, unless there is something(s) shameful to hide.


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