Queen Mary academics read the unreadable with new technology

Dr Graham Davis, reader in 3D X-Ray imaging at Queen Mary University

Dr Graham Davis, reader in 3D X-Ray imaging at Queen Mary University - Credit: Archant

Pioneering technology is giving historians a glimpse into the past by allowing them to read ancient documents for the first time.

The X-Ray equipment developed by researchers at Queen Mary University is enabling academics to read previously illegible historical scrolls.

Old parchment is usually too fragile to be unravelled, meaning historians are often left in the dark as to what it may reveal. But the new technology means the scrolls can be opened out ‘virtually’, with the contents visible on a computer screen.

Academics from Queen Mary’s campus in Mile End worked with professors from other institutions to develop the programme.

Cardiff University’s professor Tim Wess described it as a “milestone in historical information recovery”.

“The conservation community is rightly very protective of old documents and isn’t prepared to risk damaging them by opening them”, he 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.

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“It really will be possible to read the unreadable”, he added.

The innovative technique involves scanning parchment with X-Rays to detect the ‘iron gall ink’ used for documents between the 12th and 19th centuries.

The ‘microtomography’, shows a three-dimensional map detailing the ink’s location. The software combines the information from the scan with measurements of how the parchment is rolled to calculate where the ink sits, allowing an image of what the parchment would look like if unravelled to be created.

Previous technologies have not produced clear enough images for the text to be deciphered – but the new technology developed at the university’s Mike End campus produces an unprecedented level of clarity.

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