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Get Ready For Digitalized Medieval Parchments

Thanks to British researchers, too-fragile-to-touch no longer means too-fragile-to-read.
Image via Youtube.

If you’re a horrible hell-demon who is summoned when someone reads an ancient parchment aloud, it must be devastating to see your grimoire become old, fragile and illegible. That’s the end of your haunting career, isn’t it? Maybe not anymore! Developers at Cardiff University and Queen Mary, University of London, have developed a technique they call “microtomography,” that can read the text of rolled scrolls or folded documents without the potential for distress that opening them allows. “The conservation community is rightly very protective of old documents and isn’t prepared to risk damaging them by opening them,” Tim Wess, professor at Cardiff University said. “Our breakthrough means they won’t have to. Across the world, literally thousands of previously unusable documents up to around a thousand years old could now become available for historical research. It really will be possible to read the unreadable.” Parchment scrolls are especially susceptible to drying, cracking when they’re unrolled, as they’re literally made of skin. Being able to read a document without having to flatten it out opens documents to research that was heretofore impossible. Microtomography works by taking an X-Ray of the document. The standard ink on medieval parchments was iron gall ink, made from tannins and iron, and it shows up on well in the series of “X-ray slices” taken by a tomography scanner that the researchers used at the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London, presumably because it was in England and therefore always available.   And while tomography isn’t exactly new—CT and CAT scans operate via this principle—its combination with the software produces extremely legible and detailed page, which excites the developers. “What makes the technique stand out from other methods is the unprecedented high-contrast resolution it provides to clearly distinguish between text and parchment, meaning the text is much clearer and much more readable,” the audio slideshow voice over explains. As a test case, the developers successfully scanned a medieval legal scroll provided by the Norfolk Record Office, but they also claim the technique has potential outside of discovering long lost, 12th century lamb recipes  and the like. “High-contrast microtomography has the potential to help opthamologists investigate problems relating to glaucoma,” the video says.

The developers next goal is making it faster and maybe even portable. My only request is that they read what they find silently to themselves at least once before saying it aloud and ruining a perfectly nice weekend in the woods.