How modern technology is bringing ancient writings
to light

By FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA

Powerful imaging tools are enabling researchers to see inside scrolls too fragile to unroll and recover texts too faint to see, making thousands of illegible manuscripts readable again.

READING THE ASHES

Computer scientist Brent Seales devised software to virtually unfurl a charred scroll discovered decades ago at the site of En Gedi in Israel.

A CT scanner reveals the scroll’s internal structure in thin slices. Bright spots are denser points, such as ink containing metals.

Using the CT data, software creates a 3D model of a single wrap of the scroll and assigns density values to each point.

One of the five wraps (blue)

Software sorts the density values to produce a sharper rendering of the text.

The 3D model and text data are mapped to a plane to create a flattened, 2D image.

Repeating the process for all five wraps reveals 35 lines from the Book of Leviticus. Dated to the third or fourth century, this is the oldest Hebrew text outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

5 pieces

THE BIG REVEAL

Digital archaeologist Todd Hanneken combined two imaging technologies that detect traces of color and texture to dramatically enhance faded texts.

Spectral

Imaging

Color light panels

Diffuser

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

White lights

Swinging arc

Natural color

Spectral

Ink reflects some wavelengths of light better than others, depending on its composition. Spectral imaging uses 16 colored lights to sharpen contrasts.

RTI

RTI lights a manuscript from several angles to show highlights, shadows, and texture, even

if ink is entirely absent.

Spectral RTI

Spectral RTI merges the images, blending texture and color in a single amplified view.

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, EVE CONANT, and TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, NGM STAFF;

AMANDA HOBBS; LAWSON PARKER

PHOTOS AND SOURCES: SETH PARKER (IMAGES); BRENT SEALES; COURTESY THE DIGITAL RESTORATION INITIATIVE, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY ("READING THE ASHES").

TODD R. HANNEKEN, ST. MARY’S UNIVERSITY

("THE BIG REVEAL")

READING THE ASHES

THE BIG REVEAL

Computer scientist Brent Seales devised software to virtually unfurl a charred scroll discovered decades ago at the site of En Gedi in Israel.

Digital archaeologist Todd Hanneken combined two imaging technologies that detect traces of color and texture to dramatically enhance faded texts.

Spectral

Imaging

A CT scanner reveals the scroll’s internal structure in thin slices. Bright spots are denser points, such as ink containing metals.

Color light panels

Diffuser

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

Using the CT data, software creates a 3D model of a single wrap of the scroll and assigns density values to each point.

White lights

Swinging arc

Natural color

One of the five wraps (blue)

Software sorts the density values to produce a sharper rendering of the text.

Spectral

Ink reflects some wavelengths of light better than others, depending on its composition. Spectral imaging uses 16 colored lights to sharpen contrasts.

The 3D model and text data are mapped to a plane to create a flattened, 2D image.

Repeating the process for all five wraps reveals 35 lines from the Book of Leviticus. Dated to the third or fourth century, this is the oldest Hebrew text outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

RTI

RTI lights a manuscript from several angles to show highlights, shadows, and texture, even

if ink is entirely absent.

5 pieces

Spectral RTI

Spectral RTI merges the images, blending texture and color in a single amplified view.

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, EVE CONANT, and TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, NGM STAFF; AMANDA HOBBS; LAWSON PARKER

photos and sources: seth parker (images); Brent Seales; courtesy The Digital Restoration Initiative, University of Kentucky (left column, four). TODD R. HANNEKEN, ST. MARY’S UNIVERSITY (bottom right, four)

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