RIT students discovered hidden text on ancient manuscript

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HENRIETTA, N.Y. (WROC) — An ancient text. It looks unassuming; a small piece of parchment, with ornate Latin lettering. It’s a French book of songs and prayers, called a “book of hours.” But under just the right kind of light, with a certain kind of colored lens, hidden text appears and is visible to the naked eye, and its discoverer gasped.

No, this is not “National Treasure,” and this is not Nicolas Cage making the discovery.

Instead, its three RIT students: Zoë LaLena, a second-year imaging science student (which she casually describes as “combin(ing) computer science, light physics, math, and engineering), Malcom Zale, a second-year motion picture science student, and Lisa Enochs, a second-year student double majoring in motion picture science and imaging science.

The project: create a cheap, automated, easy to use system that shines ultra-violet light on parchment to see if the manuscript has different writing underneath it. This one page, from RIT’s Cary Graphics Art Collection did, making it a palimpsest.

This was initially tasked to them as freshmen, when they were in a group of 19 people.

“It seemed really overwhelming at first,” Zale said. “It’s a much more fun experience now, than it was with 19 people. That added a lot of confusion.”

But they needed more time to work on it, so the project was extended (also with delays due to the pandemic), with fewer people working on it. Soon it was a paid gig, and those 19 classmates were whittled down to just our three intrepid heroes.

The team built a rig that flooded the parchment with UV light. LeLena says that all parchment fluoresces, so when something on it *doesn’t* fluoresce, it’s unusual.

“We picked up half of the Ege collection, put them all under the UV light, and you can immediately see if there’s text,” LaLena said.

“The reason the writing doesn’t fluoresce is because the ink they used to use is called iron gall ink,” Enochs said. “So when they used that ink, it corrodes the natural structure of the ink… So when it deteriorates, that hidden text doesn’t fluoresce.”

Enochs also adds that parchment used to be incredibly expensive, so it was common for people to scrape off the ink and resell the parchment.

Through trial and error, using both a color and a black and white camera with different colored pieces of glass, they were able to determine that the non-fluorescent parts were Medieval French.

The process is rather like a digital version of a dark room and film photography. Someone take a photo, and they process the negative using chemicals to get the right exposure, color, and contrast to make something visible.

But in this case, the trio not only devised a system to capture the photos, but LaLena wrote code for this system to automatically process the photos to make the palimpsest text come to life.

As for the implications of this discovery of the hidden text?

“It’s important because we don’t know what it tells us,” Zale said. “There is information there that historians might want to know. It might be useless, it might be someone’s grocery shopping list… We don’t know the nature of it, so it is important.”

But it doesn’t make the thrill of discovery any less.

“I was really excited, I ran down to my boss’s office and said ‘you have to look at this right now,'” LaLena said. “It’s so cool. I love finding palimpsests; it’s like finding gold.”

But they are still trying to find more palimpsests — pages from this same book are in dozens of other collections — and maybe even pass along what they learned, by commercializing this easy to use system for anyone.

Enochs also says that they’re writing an academic paper on their project, and says they have a presentation at a conference called “The Medieval Congress.”

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