Medieval Spies: UV Imaging Reveals Hidden Text in 15th Century Manuscripts

The text is a result of ancient writing being erased to allow for new works to be written.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisRIT

In medieval times, parchments were expensive, and often writers erased their initial text only to write all over the page again. This means that many writings were lost to this process until now.

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Rochester Institute of Technology students have succeeded in deciphering the lost text on 15th-century manuscript sheets through the use of an imaging system they developed as freshmen. The novel system uses ultraviolet-fluorescence to bring to the surface the old layer of writing that was previously wiped out.

“Using our system, we borrowed several parchments from the Cary Collection here at RIT and when we put one of them under the UV light, it showed this amazing dark French cursive underneath,” said Zoë LaLena, a second-year imaging science student who worked on the project.

“This was amazing because this document has been in the Cary Collection for about a decade now and no one noticed. And because it’s also from the Ege Collection, in which there are 30 other known pages from this book, it’s really fascinating that the 29 other pages we know the location of have the potential to also be palimpsests.”

Almost on hold

The imaging system has an interesting story behind it as it was almost put on hold due to the lockdown. Initially engineered by 19 students, the project was halted once the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place and remote education was implemented.

However, just when it seemed that the project was going nowhere, three students received funding to continue their work. And experts are now saying that this work is crucial.

“The students have supplied incredibly important information about at least two of our manuscript leaves here in the collection and in a sense have discovered two texts that we didn’t know were in the collection,” said Steven Galbraith, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection.

“Now we have to figure out what those texts are and that’s the power of spectral imaging in cultural institutions. To fully understand our own collections, we need to know the depth of our collections, and imaging science helps reveal all of that to us.”

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