BYU Adapts Space-age Technology to Study Ancient Documents

  From the ruins of the lost city of Herculaneum to the rain forests of Mexico, Brigham Young University researchers are using space-age imaging technology to shed light on the ancient past by recovering information that has been lost for hundreds of years. 

The university's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART) has been applying multi-spectral imaging (MSI) to ancient documents and artifacts, from 2,000-year-old carbonized scrolls, to damaged religious manuscripts, to Mayan murals. 

Originally developed by NASA to study the surfaces of other planets, multi-spectral imaging involves viewing an object in different portions of the light spectrum. When the technology is applied to ancient texts, it makes it possible to differentiate between the reflective properties of the ink and the background of the document, even when those differences are not visible to the eye. 

"With multi-spectral imaging, there are infrared components and ultraviolet components that your eye cannot see, but which the sensor can detect. So we use different narrow-band filters in the infrared region where the eye can't see and the background becomes light while the ink stays black," says Doug Chabries, dean of BYU's College of Engineering who helped adapt MSI technology to the study of ancient documents. 

In 1999, BYU was invited to use its MSI system to image an ancient library, a collection of 2,000 Greek and Latin scrolls that was carbonized by the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Buried in a wealthy villa in the city of Herculaneum, the charred scrolls were so badly damaged that some of them have not been unrolled or read, even though they were discovered 250 years ago. 

"It is probably the worst-case scenario manuscript condition you can imagine, very difficult to read, very difficult to handle," says Steve Booras, manager of technical operations for ISPART. 

"Many of the manuscripts are so badly damaged, so black, that you cannot see any ink at all," he says. 

The BYU team was able to retrieve new text from many fragments in the collection. Booras says they were very encouraged when they revealed lines of text on fragments that had been previously categorized as "blank." 

"We figure that if there is text on the surface, we can see it with this system," he says. "We reveal text that's perfectly readable as if it was recently written." 

Working with the curators at the National Library in Naples, Italy, Booras (with his wife and research assistant Susan Booras) imaged more than 10,000 scroll fragments during a one-year research appointment. In 2002, the Boorases and Roger Macfarlane, chair of BYU's department of classics and principal investigator on the project, will return to Naples to complete the digital library project. The new images will be a welcome resource for scholars. 

"The advent of multi-spectral imaging has been an enormous benefit for work on these papyri. We (now have access to) images of these papyri (that are) of very, very high quality--better than the eye can see," says professor Richard Janko of University College-London. 

Scholars are also very supportive of the digital library project because the scroll fragments are vulnerable to deterioration. 

"Deterioration has always been a big issue. No one has really come up with a particularly good way of conserving Herculaneum papyri because anything you do to them alters them," says David Blank of the University of California-Los Angeles. "The modern approach to conservation is actually to try to make as good an image of an object as possible and these images are so far the best we've been able to get." 

In addition to the Herculaneum papyri project, BYU researchers have conducted MSI studies on burned documents from a 500 B.C.-era church in Petra, Jordan. They have also used MSI to study Mayan murals in Bonampak, Mexico, as part of a documentation project directed by BYU professor of archaeology Steve Houston. 

"(The images) have enriched our views of the paintings by a factor of at least five," says Houston. "They were deliriously exciting the first time we saw them." 

The university has received dozens of inquiries from around the world about its imaging system design, noted for being portable and for producing quality images very quickly. 

"Prior to this time, most researchers have used conventional film, or infrared photography that required processing and a lot of trial-and-error testing. With multi spectral imaging and narrow-band filters, we can find the area of best response and produce an image almost instantaneously," Chabries says. 

The BYU institute hopes to make the technology more widely available in libraries and remote locations worldwide so that endangered and damaged documents can be preserved in digital form. 

"Ancient texts are in jeopardy," says Daniel Oswald, ISPART executive director. "Our center is using technology to preserve these texts so that the history and culture of these people won't be lost." 

Quick Facts: 

BYU's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART) has been using NASA-developed technology to peer through layers of deterioration and fire damage and read previously illegible ancient documents and artifacts. 

In 1999, BYU used its system to examine a collection of 2,000 Greek and Latin scrolls that was carbonized by the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 

BYU has also conducted studies on burned documents from a 500 B.C.-era church in Petra, Jordan, and Mayan cave murals in Bonampak, Mexico. 

"Ancient texts are in jeopardy," says Daniel Oswald, ISPART executive director. "Our center is using technology to preserve these texts so that the history and culture of these people won't be lost." 

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