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Spectral Imaging of Manuscripts: Recovery of the Past and Preservation for the Future

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It is no news to this audience that the past two decades or so have witnessed a dramatic improvement in the technologies of imaging, which have produced new tools for imaging and fostered new, and often unforeseen, applications of the these tools. Less obvious until recently, when newsworthy events have caught people's attention, is the threat to our irreplaceable cultural heritage. The most dramatic forms of menace are actions of terrorist or religious groups, but other more subtle dangers are due to the effects of climate change and misguided efforts for short-term financial gain of individuals or organizations. If our past is to have a future, the need to preserve unique historical effects must be met in a short timeframe, perhaps as brief as 25 years, lest irreplaceable heritage be lost forever.

The convergence of these two conditions have stimulated efforts to use the imaging technologies to chronicle and disseminate records of cultural heritage, but also to recover information that had been erased, damaged, or otherwise lost. The cultural heritage of primary concern in this discussion takes the form of handwritten documents, but it is a short step to include printed books and works of art. Fortunately, the technical tools – illumination, lenses, sensors, image processing, and storage media – needed to accomplish the goals of recovering and saving textual material are becoming more widely available and less expensive. To this end, it is necessary to disseminate the both technology and the necessary skillsets to the locations of most urgent need. The detailed images of these unique historical documents will capture and preserve information for future historians to glean additional findings. The importance of image archives that provide worldwide access to these images is crucial to the preservation of this very important facet of the world's cultural heritage.

The talk will briefly consider the history of the imaging efforts aimed a revealing and preserving writings from handwritten manuscripts, but most of the discussion will focus on the impact of recent advances in the technologies of illumination, lenses, sensors, and image processing algorithms on our efforts to apply the principles of spectral imaging to the task of recovering text from manuscripts that has faded, been otherwise damaged, or deliberately erased and overwritten (to make a palimpsest). Most of our efforts have been limited to the range of sensitivity of silicon detectors from the near ultraviolet through the visible range and into the near infrared spectrum (though we did participate in early efforts at imaging via X-ray fluorescence). The talk will describe the newly developed capabilities that use the wide range of wavelengths available from light-emitting diodes, the capability of new "spectral lenses" that maintain sharp focus over this wider range of wavelengths, and innovative spectral processing algorithms. These have significantly improved the quality of imagery and have made it possible to recover additional text.

The authors have been fortunate to be a part of this effort since the early days of digital imaging. Their participation in imaging projects began with a collaboration with the late Dr. Robert Johnston in the mid-1990s to recover text from images of the Temple Scroll, the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The useful results demonstrated on that manuscript led to their participation in additional imaging projects both large and small, including the their service on the imaging team for the Archimedes Palimpsest project, the Syriac-Galen palimpsest, and the palimpsests in the "New Finds" from St. Catherine's monastery. More recently, the authors have worked on the "Scythica Vindobonensia" palimpsest by Dexippus in Vienna, the Vercelli book and Mappamundi, the 1507 printed world map by Martin Waldseemüller, the c. 1491 painted world map by Henricus Martellus Germanus, manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and the African field diaries of David Livingstone.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2016

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  • The IS&T (digital) Archiving Conference offers a unique opportunity for imaging scientists and those working in the cultural heritage community (curators, archivists, librarians, photographers etc) from around the world to come together to discuss the most pressing issues related to the digital preservation and stewardship of hardcopy, and other cultural heritage documents and objects. Authors come from museums, archives, libraries, government institutions, industry and academia. Cutting edge topics related to multispectral and 3D imaging, as well as best practices for workflow, sharing, standards, and asset/collection management and dissemination are explored in papers presented at this annual, international event.

    Please note: For purposes of its Digital Library content, IS&T defines Open Access as papers that will be downloadable in their entirety for free in pertuity. Copyright restrictions on papers vary; see individual paper for details.

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