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Here’s how scientists read a charred 16th-century scroll without unraveling it

What do you do when you’re an historian trying to recover information from a severely damaged 16th century scroll that’s darn near unreadable? You turn to cutting-edge technology, of course. At least, that is what several international researchers have been lending their expert assistance to — and they’ve been able to help reveal the hidden text inside the severely burned rolled-up document as a result.

“For historical documents that are delicate — often due to fire or water damage — it is problematic to open or unroll them, as this would cause further damage,” Paul Rosin, a professor in the U.K.’s Cardiff University’s School of Computer Science and Informatics, told Digital Trends. “Not only is this a problem, but if the document disintegrates then the results may not be readable.”

The team involved in the project started by carrying out a non-destructive 3D X-ray scan of the document at the U.K.’s Queen Mary University. This technique creates thousands of thin cross sections of the document, on which the ink was visible as bright blobs. The 3D data was then passed to computer scientists at Cardiff University and a collaborator at China’s Beihang University, who used computer vision algorithms to create a flat representation of the scroll. This allowed the team to extract the writing on its surface.

“Our work was a good proof of concept to show that it is possible to extract information even from very challenging data,” Rosin continued.

He noted that, in this case, the documents were not of essential historical importance: Being legal documents referring to a few land transactions, records about disturbances of the peace, payment of fines, names of jurors, and other local information. However, there is no reason why the same technique could not be used for other, more crucial documents in the future.

“For something as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls probably even extracting a few phrases would be considered worthwhile,” he said.

Research like this isn’t the first time that the worlds of historical research and high-tech have crossed paths to avoid damaging potentially significant finds. Previously, researchers exploring the Great Pyramid of Giza used a not-dissimilar technique called “muon tomography” to map a newly discovered hidden chamber in the enormous structure. In another instance, Lidar — a laser-based tool most commonly used in self-driving cars — was utilized to create a detailed map of a long-lost city hidden beneath the jungle in Cambodia.

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