Researchers at Cardiff University have virtually unraveled a 500-year-old scroll that was so battered and bruised, it was thought to be unreadable. They used a relatively new technique the university's computer scientists have been honing over the past few years and which they hope will shine a new light on other similarly unreadable documents.
This particular item is a 27-centimeter-wide (10.6-inch) scroll that dates all the way back to 16th-century England and was found in Diss Heywood Manor in Norwich. Frustratingly, it was left in poor condition – damaged, charred, and with pages fused together.
Now, a team of computer scientists led by Paul Rosin from Cardiff University’s School of Computer Science and Informatics has adopted technology traditionally used in medicine to reveal exactly what is contained within the text of the parchment.
First, the researchers used a technique called X-ray tomography to generate thousands of extremely fine cross sections of the scroll. On each of these scans, ink was exposed as bright blobs. Then, they used highly complex computer algorithms to connect the various cross sections and their ink markings and create a 2D representation of the scroll.
This is a process the team has been perfecting and polishing ever since they unveiled the "hidden" text of a different scroll five years ago. Today, it is possible to use the technique on larger and more complex documents of different shapes and sizes.
"The scroll from Diss Heywood was an extremely challenging sample to work with, not least because it contained four sheets of parchment and many touching layers, which can result in text being assigned to the wrong sheets," Rosin said in a statement.
"In addition to this, the scroll was heavily discolored and creased and was covered in soot-like deposits over the entire exterior. Nevertheless, we’ve shown that even with the most challenging of samples, we can successfully draw information from it."
So, what did they uncover? A love letter to a secret mistress, coded correspondence between diplomats, or incriminating evidence? Not quite. The actual contents of the scroll were fairly mundane. It was a record of the Curia Generalis (or General Court) where the peace-keeping activity for the local area took place.
Notes on land transactions and the payment of fines as well as the names of certain individuals including jurors were revealed.
The document itself will, of course, add to the body of primary sources depicting life in rural Tudor England but the most exciting thing about this research is the technology it utilized.
"We know that there is a large body of historical documents in museums and archives that are too fragile to be opened or unrolled, so we would certainly welcome the opportunity to try out our new techniques," Rosin added.
"Similarly, the method we’ve developed is heavily automated, opening up the possibility of exploring a larger range of documents and even other types of media, such as old and damaged camera films."